May 22, 2010

Mangalore crash: wills and shoulds and shalls

What follows is long. But you should read it. It was written by the men named at the bottom. I got it by email earlier this evening, and have posted it here with only a few cosmetic changes.

Note especially the numerous emphasized instances of "will be" and "shall be" and "have to" and "shall comply". Much of it reminds me of court judgements concerning dams on the river Narmada, but I'll save those reminders for another post.

My thoughts are with the families of those killed in this horrific crash. It should never have happened.


An Air India Express Boeing 737-800 aircraft arriving from Dubai with 167 on board 2010 tragically crashed at Mangalore International Airport at 6.30 am today (22 May 2010). It is reported that the plane overshot the runway while landing and fell over a cliff resulting in this disastrous crash. Very few are known to have survived this horrific crash. This was no accident, but the direct result of deliberate failure of officials at the highest level in the Director General of Civil Aviation, Airports Authority of India, Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Government of Karnataka for allowing this 2nd runway to be built in criminal negligence of applicable norms and standards.

Such a strong charge is being made as the likelihood of this kind of a crash (the worst case scenario) was predicted. A series of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) were fought by the undersigned to stop the construction of this 2nd runway in Mangalore airport on grounds that the design simply did not conform to the most basic national and international standards of airport design. The PILs also highlighted that the airport does not conform with the most minimum safeguards for emergency situations particularly during landings and take-offs, and could not have emergency approach roads within a kilometre on all sides of the airport as required.

It is truly sad that because of the failure of key decision makers at the highest levels so many innocent lives have been lost. It is quite possible that many lives were lost as emergency rescue teams could not access the crash site due to the difficult terrain (a valley) for over a hour after the incident, even though it was proximal to the site. Vimana Nildana Vistharana Virodhi Samithi (Local Communities Alliance Against Airport Expansion), Bajpe and Environment Support Group had repeatedly highlighted the high risk expansion of the Mangalore airport during the late 1990s.

The expansion was proposed to enable flight movements of wide bodied aircrafts, such as Airbus A320. Authorities were repeatedly informed that the proposal did not at all conform with the standards prescribed for runway design as laid down by the Director General of Civil Aviation, National Building Code of India and Ministry of Civil Aviation. Further, considering that the airport was proposed for international flights, a case was also made that the 2nd runway could not conform with International Civil Aviation Authority standards due to terrain limitations. No one in authority cared to listen to our fervent pleas. This even when we demonstrated through a variety of representations that that the site chosen for expansion at Bajpe was surrounded by deep valleys on three sides of the runway and did not provide for emergency landing areas as required. This neglect of our legitimate concerns forced us to move the High Court of Karnataka in a PIL in 1997 (Arthur Pereira and ors. vs. Union of India and ors., WP No. 37681/1997).

A key concern raised was that the 2nd runway in Mangalore could not meet the standards required in dealing with an emergency, particularly during landings and takeoffs a time when air crashes are most likely tto happen. The Airports Authority of India filed an affidavit in Court dismissing all our concerns and stated this, amongst other things:

It is submitted that as regards the apprehensions of the petitioner that the Length and width of the runway is insufficient for a plane making an emergency landing, the same is without any basis. It is respectfully submitted that all the requirements as per the ICAO recommendation will be met and that there has been no infringement of any of the recommendation and limitation therein.

(Emphasis added by DD. Copy of this affidavit dated 14 October 1998 is accessible here).

On the basis of this affidavit, Hon'ble Chief Justice Mr. Y. Bhaskar Rao and the Hon'ble Mr. Justice A. M. Farooq (as their Lordships then were) dismissed this PIL ordering as follows:

It is stated that the fear of the petitioners that the runway is insufficient for any emergency landing of a plane is without any basis since before the project is to proceed, the authorities will be meeting the recommendations of the ICAO. It is also stated that there is no basis for the allegations made by the petitioners to the effect that the various safety measures have not been followed. That on the other hand they will be getting all the relevant materials described by the petitioners which will be followed in letter and spirit without which the airport would not have been conceived in the first place. Thus it can be seen that the expansion of Bajpe airport project is at the initial stage and the second respondent has in their objections mentioned above unequivocally stated that all the safety measures etc., stated by the petitioners in their writ petition will be followed during the progress of the project and nothing can be said before the lands are handed over to the second respondent. Considering these facts, we are of the view that the petitioners have rushed to this court before commencement of the project itself and the writ petition is premature. It is not, therefore, necessary to consider the various grounds taken by the petitioners in the writ petition to allege that the respondents have been proceeding with the project in a casual manner. There is nothing to doubt about the statement made by the second respondent in their objection statement and we are sure that the respondents will be taking all necessary measures under the different enactments etc.., before proceeding with the project in question. The writ petition stands dismissed.
(Emphasis added by DD. A copy of this order is accessible here).

Even though alternative sites existed, the authorities proceeded obstinately to expand the airport yielding to pressures from business, real estate and hotel lobbies who benefited immensely from an airport at Bajpe. Politicians keen to make the expansion a part of their legacy overlooked all concerns raised. Even at the existing Bajpe alternative sites existed to expand the airport, that conformed with most safety norms, but this site was not pursued as it would affect large landholders and influential people. Consequently, nothing whatsoever was done to respond to the concerns we raised about the risks involved in the second runway. The Airport Authority did not even have a proper feasibility study, and claimed that such a critical information detail would only be prepared after the land was acquired for the airport. Surely this amounted to putting the cart before the horse, for the study, even if eventually prepared, would have been tailor made to justify the decision to so expand the airport.

Distressed by such a turn of events and the absolute lack of compliance with applicable norms and standards, we appealed to the ICAO to intervene in the matter. The ICAO did not respond and so we returned to the High Court with a fresh PIL in 2002. In this exhaustively researched PIL many significant concerns were raised and a case was made that the 2nd runway could not conform with ICAO norms for the following reasons:

Minimum Area for Stop-way: At page 155 of the said (ICAO) report, para 2-1 prescribes standards for providing the minimum area for a stop way and/or a clear way in the event an aircraft undershoots or over-runs the runway. For instance, if an aircraft has initiated take off, and a technical flaw requires emergency stop, the standard prescribes the minimum area that should be kept free to enable such a stop. In the instant case, the runway distance itself is about 2400 metres, and even if the area left is most cautiously utilised, what is left is only about 300 metres on each end of the runway. By the prescribed standard, this is far below the required distance needed for an emergency stop way. Therefore, the chances of an aircraft that has achieved the decision speed forcing an emergency stop are critically minimised, and the inevitable consequence could be that the plane would come crashing down the hillsides from a height of 80-100 metres on either side of the proposed runway.
(Emphasis added by DD. A copy of the PIL is accessible here).

The High Court of Karnataka dismissed this PIL initiative by their order dated 27 May 2002 (WP 20905/2002) stating the following:

No doubt, in an appropriate case, this Court can issue directions, if there is gross violation of fundamental rights or if the issue touches the conscience of this Court, but not for personal gain or political gain. The construction of 2nd Runway and Terminal Tower in Mangalore Airport will otherwise be in the interest of public. Learned Counsel has not been able to show how the construction of 2nd Runway and Terminal Tower in Mangalore Airport will be against the public interest. On consideration and in the facts of the given case no direction as prayed for can be issued in this PIL. The authorities concerned have to complete all formalities as per law before commencement of the project. Accordingly, this Writ petition is dismissed. However, it is made clear that dismissal of this petition will not preclude the concerned Authorities to take all necessary precaution and to complete the formalities as per law before proceeding with the project in question.
(Emphasis added by DD.)

In a desperate effort to stop the Mangalore airport from so expanding and needlessly exposing innocent people to unnecessary risk, we went on appeal against the High Court order to the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India. Dismissing the appeal, the Supreme Court ruled 07 February 2003 in Environment Support Group and ors. vs. Union of India and ors. [SLP(C) 1172 OF 2003] as follows:

We see no reason to interfere with the impugned order. Accordingly, the special leave petition is dismissed. We, however, clarify that in constructing the Airport, the Government shall comply with all applicable laws and also with environmental norms.
(Emphasis added by DD. A copy of this order can be accessed here).

One hopes with the benefit of hindsight that the Director General of Civil Aviation or Airports Authority of India had complied with this order of the Supreme Court and ensured Mangalore airport was developed in full conformance with applicable laws, standards and norms. In case the current site was not feasible, they could have easily explored alternate sites, as such sites did exist within Bajpe itself, or even in Padubidri, between Mangalore and Udupi. Instead, the authorities preferred to view the Supreme Court order as a victory, as did the Karnataka Government and Mangalore Chamber of Commerce and Industry which had systematically campaigned for the expansion. Without any further hesitation the 2nd runway construction began in 2004 and was commissioned in May 2006.

No techno-economic assessment, feasibility study, or even an comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment was ever done for the 2nd Runway. Simply put, the runway was built in comprehensive violation of applicable laws, standards and direction of the Hon'ble Supreme Court.

On 8th March 2004, we wrote to Dr. Naseem Zaidi, Chairman (Addl. Charge) & Joint Secretary, Airport Authority of India, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India, reminding him of the need to comply with the Supreme Court direction. In particular we highlighted that "such action would jeopardize passenger safety, put local communities to risk, needlessly dislocate people by acquiring land on a location that in no way could comply with the said provisions and thereby contributed to gross wastage of public money and resources."

We did not get any response.

Six years later today we are mourning the unfortunate death of so many people who should have been alive. We are clear that this is no accident, but a direct result of the series of deliberate failures of officials and key decision makers at the highest levels of all authorities connected with the decision to allow the 2nd runway to be constructed and commissioned.

Of course all sorts of explanations will be on offer, but none of that can bring lost lives back or cure the tragedy that has wrongly befallen so many families. India today is frenetically building airports all over, and for all sorts of flaky reasons. Such is the political, bureaucratic and corporate pressure to build and expand airports that anyone questing the rationale is quickly dubbed as a "busybody", "useless interloper", "promoted by vested interest" and raising "frivolous" concerns.

To ensure such incidents do not recur, we demand that the Union Minister of Civil Aviation orders an impartial Commission of Enquiry into the causative factors of this crash, especially investigating the absolute lack of conformance with basic runway design standards and emergency approach measures.

As a small tribute to those who lost their lives in this tragic air crash, ESG offers to assist crash affected families to initiate a damage suits against the Government. We will also initiate criminal negligence proceedings against all authorities connected with the decision to commission the 2nd runway at Mangalore in violation of the directions of the Hon'ble Supreme Court. We take these corrective actions in the hope they would serve as a deterrence against the lackadaisical approach to critical decisions by key decision makers.

Leo F. Saldanha, Coordinator, Environment Support Group

Arthur Pereira, Trustee. Environment Support Group and Spokesperson, Vimana Nildhana Vistarana Virodhi Samithi, Bajpe, Mangalore


Anonymous said...

Dilip, We think that in the light of the facts presented in your post, a fresh legal case involving some of the victim's families and the original litigants of the various PIL's, charging the airport authorities with criminal negligence and false representation to the High Court and Supreme Court in their affidavits, should be filed without further delay. Some exemplary damages of the order of 50 -100 crores should be sought from the Airport Authorities of India. If employees from Air India also feel the same way, they can also be parties to this suit.
You should hire a very high profile lawyer to handle this matter. Regards, Jishnu and Vishwambhar

Sharad S said...

There is no evidence to show what caused the accident. Flying is a complicated business, there are a lot of things that could have gone wrong. There could have been equipment malfunction on the aircraft. There could have been an issue of ground landing equipment. There could have been pilot/ATC errors.

It is premature and irresponsible at this time to use assign blame for this tragedy. It may well be that all those mentioned in the letter are responsible, but until a technical inquiry pinpoints the cause, we should withhold judgment.

Dilip D'Souza said...

J&V, I'll speak to the people concerned about what they are planning regarding new legal proceedings.

Sharad S, there are indeed a lot of things tht could have gone wrong. That does not mean we cannot look at the history of how this airport was built.

Sharad S said...

@Dilip, I agree, we should look at how the airport was built, but at this point, it may or may not be related to the crash.

To argue that it is a 'deliberate failure of officials ...' without a full technical inquiry that actually points to this reason is improper.

Prashanth said...

While I first read about this here, it seems the guys have managed to hog space everywhere - from Reuters to local newspapers to any and every major media (do not see TV, so not sure if they were in any of the channels too).

The point everyone seems to miss is that while indeed this may be a short runway (which it seems not), the fact that is missed is that it was challenged and upheld at the highest level of Judiciary.

Its easy to blame the bureaucracy but as some one said, if the pilot manages to land pretty afar from where he has to land, no amount of length can guarantee a safe landing.

The fact that there have been thousands of landings without any issue points out to the fact that its not the runway to be blamed. If it was so, we should have had multiple incidents if not accidents of these type in the same runway before which we haven't had.

For me, this looks more like propaganda with some motive rather than plain breast beating that we said it so.

AMIT said...

Now investigation will go on and on and no result will come for years.This is the common thing in our India.

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wise donkey said...

unless someone is punished seriously, this will keep happening.
even if the runway didn't cause the crash this time, should we wait for another crash to be caused by the runway before looking into it seriously?

just because people have apprehensions against a certain form of development doesn't mean they are anti-development..generally its the other way round, corruption and vested interests, are the culprits who get what they want in the name of development.