Gujarat elections 2017: Why PM Narendra Modi's seaplane ride sends mixed signals to his legions of followers

Safety is a word that holds little meaning for Indians in general and politicians in particular. India already holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s road-death capital with little to show for efforts to instill safety as a habit among road users. We lost 17 promising lives every single hour on our killer roads last year. A recent survey showed that just one in four drivers bother to strap on a seat belt and that speeding is a leading cause for death on our roads. This contempt for safety norms visible on our roads then gets extended to the skies.

Tuesday’s heroic dash that our very own Prime Minister Narendra Modi made in the skies, flying on a single engine seaplane over the Sabarmati which then landed with no ground-based navigational aids, was meant to dazzle.

Dazzle it did, and citizens’ eyes were blinded to such an extent by this Modi mega show that they clean forgot about the safety of it all. Apparently the PM waived off any safety concerns as did his vast security paraphernalia, which allowed him to fly this seaplane despite probably knowing the imminent danger it posed. VIPs, including chief ministers and obviously heads of state, are not supposed to ever board a single engine plane since basic aviation wisdom dictates that they fly at least a twin-engine aircraft. In the event one engine fails, at least the aircraft can be landed safely. Arunachal Chief Minister Dorji Khandu perished in a single engine copper crash in 2011.

What PM Modi did on Tuesday is not just a safety no-no for himself, but also puts a big question mark over the message to his followers. The BJP and government machinery never tire of reminding us about the PM’s humongous fan following on social media – at last count, he had 37.9 million twitter followers. By throwing all safety norms to the wind in a last dash at the Gujarat campaign, is the prime minister not encouraging similar, thoughtless behavior among his countless followers? Instead of rooting for safety, he has shown utter contempt for this virtue already lacking in the Indian psyche.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to the crowd as he boards the seaplane. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to the crowd as he boards the seaplane. PTI

This piece quotes unnamed sources to say that the security concerns were raised with the PM but he overrode them. It goes on to quote sources in the “security establishment” to say that the SPG, which oversees PM's security, “came around” after considering it was a controlled flight and the seaplane was flying at a low altitude, with a pilot who had more than 30 years of flying experience. Poor substitute for safety, one would say.

Anyway, even our safety regulator DGCA has no iron clad safety norms for VVIP flights. There is a safety circular issued way back in 1981 which talks of twin-engine aircraft with “good operational capability, reliability and easy maintainability characteristics” and says these should be used for VVIP flights. But, typical in the Indian way of doing things, these are mere recommendations with no laid down penalties in case of a default. Which government official would want to be on the wrong side of a powerful politician? There is a subsequent directive too – the Air Safety Circular of 2014 - which mercifully talks of penalties but only to the aircraft operator in case of violations.

Why did the Prime Minister overlook safety? Politics, stupid. To make (an incorrect) claim that this would be the first seaplane ride in India after he was denied permission for a rally by road, to challenge the Opposition and to ensure that the campaign ends on a high note in the all- important Gujarat polls. The politics went beyond the seaplane’s safety considerations though. This article quotes a Congress leader saying a number of BJP candidates in Gujarat polls face disqualification since Modi’s seaplane ride is not exempted under the ‘Representation of the People Act’ from the travel expenditure of these candidates. Barbs were also traded about the Congress ‘C-Plan’ on alleged corruption charges against this party and on how the Opposition was against development in Gujarat.

This article quotes a Congress leader saying a number of BJP candidates in Gujarat polls face disqualification since Modi’s seaplane ride is not exempted under the ‘Representation of the People Act’ from the travel expenditure of these candidates. Barbs were also traded about the Congress ‘C-Plan’ on alleged corruption charges against this party and on how the Opposition was against development in Gujarat.

 

So should seaplanes not be allowed at all? Seaplanes by themselves are not unsafe, though as this piece says, India’s safety regulator is still framing norms for the operations of such aircraft. There is a provision for allowing seaplane services under the government’s ambitious regional connectivity scheme UDAN, which would enable remote locations to come on to the aviation map. The safety norms will come up in respect of such regional operations. Budget airline SpiceJet already has plans to purchase more than 100 amphibian (which can land on both, water and land versus seaplanes which only land on sea) planes, estimated to cost $400 million, as it seeks to boost regional operations. And the government is keen to use seaplanes to boost tourism etc. All this is fine, as long as safety considerations don’t come second.

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2017 14:11:40 IST

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