A Map of Arunachal Pradesh showing its districts and district headquarters. Source: Government of Arunachal Pradesh

Almost fifty years ago, when the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army breached the McMahon line near Namka Chu on the morning of October 20, 1960 and poured into Arunachal Pradesh in a lightning artillery and infantry assault, they had done so breaking out from a  massive buildup  just 3 hours away on a 7-ton roadhead within their territory in Tibet.

In contrast, the Indian garrison defending Namka Chu, tip of a feeble military buildup, was 21 days away from a similar 7-ton roadhead at Misamari in the plains of Assam. Even the 1-ton roadhead at Tawang was 6 days away.

The predicament of the ill fated Indian Army Brigade entrusted to defend ‘every inch’ of Indian territory is best summed up by what the Commander Brig. John Dalvi wrote in his scathing memoir of the 62 debacle,

“Even these roads were useless for the carry forward from Towang due to lack of porters, pack transport, tracks and bridges. We relied on air-transport, but the scattered drops were of no use to the forward garrisons, apart from the dropping zones being 1 to 3 days carry from the frontline troops.”

India’s military buildup in Arunachal Pradesh now is impressive and the strategic stand-off capabilities have hugely transformed the very nature of defense, but certain things about Arunachal Pradesh should still worry us.

For instance, the Shannan Prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region adjoining Tawang, with an area less than half of Arunachal Pradesh, has about 3,700 Kms of excellent roads connecting all vital locations.

In contrast, even nearly fifty years after the debacle in 62, only a meager 392 Kms out of a total of 65,569 Kms of National Highways in India, lies within Arunachal Pradesh. There aren’t even a network of state highways which connects all its 16 districts or the district headquarters to the state capital at Itanagar internally.

When Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh Dorjee Khandu had to return to his state capital at Itanagar from his home in Tawang on the morning of April 30, he had little option than to take a helicopter ride to reach his destination. The alternative would have been a near 20-22 hrs road journey over bad roads via Assam. The helicopter could get him to Itanagar in a short flight of less than 2 hours. Unfortunately, it was to be his last.

Shortly after the Chief Minister took off from Tawang with 4 others in his entourage, his helicopter lost contact with the ATC. Even though a massive search & rescue was launched almost immediately after the helicopter went missing, badly hampered by inclement weather and terrain, it took five days to locate the crash site and retrieve the bodies.

There are lessons from the tragedy, old ones, which we need to be reminded of because we tend to forget so easily till the next disaster strikes.

Arunachal Pradesh needs an extensive network of new roads besides improving and upgrading existing ones. URGENTLY !!

The network of roads being built and maintained by the Border Roads Organisation through the projects Vartak and Udayak in the forward areas notwithstanding, the road density in Arunachal Pradesh is still worrisome.

The inexplicable neglect of decades seems to have been sought to be rectified as Government of India issued a Gazette Notification on May 16, 2008 for 3 National Highways to be constructed in Arunachal Pradesh by upgrading stretches of existing roads to 2 lane National Highway specifications and adding entirely new lengths to these in many places. This is what has come to be referred to as the Trans-Arunachal Highway, which, when completed, would be a 1811 Kms network of 2 lane National Highway standard trunk route connecting 11 of the 16 district headquarters and with extensions to the remaining ones. It is to be completed within the 12 Plan Period, in other words, by 2017. While the upgradation work on the existing roads have commenced, survey, land acquisition, environmental clearances etc for many of the new stretches to be constructed are yet to be completed.

What one must take note of however is that, while any loopholes in air-safety can be investigated and fixed with relative ease, one cannot create an extensive road network in a span of even months even if there was a dire need. Each day’s delay in building such infrastructure may cost the country dearly one day, in a much grievous manner than the loss of a Chief Minister in an air crash or the seemingly inordinate delay in locating and retrieving his body because the area where the helicopter was lost remains with few roads to facilitate faster over-ground searches.

In the foreseeable future however, Arunachal Pradesh has little option but to remain critically dependent on air-operations, as it has been for decades.

The crash must be meticulously investigated, loopholes in air-safety, if any, must be uncovered and fixed.

The air space over the Eastern Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh and the terrain underneath poses a challenging ‘operating environment’ for both fixed wing aircrafts and helicopters. While high operating altitudes, fast changing weather patterns and treacherous air turbulence make flying very challenging, the rugged mountainous and wooded terrain below offers little opportunity for an aircraft to attempt an emergency landing even if such a necessity arose. In short, margin for error is virtually non-existent and even a small slip could prove to be fatal.

As the crashed helicopter was on charter/lease from Pawan Hans Helicopter Limited, the public sector air-charter company, its entire fleet of 7 remaining helicopters in the North East was immediately grounded, pending inspection by the DGCA, with accusations against the company flying thick and fast that it had been operating helicopters which were shoddily maintained and thus not ‘airworthy’, and that it had seriously flouted air-safety norms by continuing to fly them. These are serious allegations and must be thoroughly investigated. The fact that barely days ago, on April 19, a Mi 172 belonging to Pawan Hans crashed minutes before landing in Tawang killing at least 17 certainly added to this impression.

A preliminary look at available information reveals that in the past decade, 4 helicopters belonging to Pawan Hans helicopters had crashed in the North East, killing 38 people. In another incident involving a Mi 172 in August last year, the door of the chopper flung open in midair plunging a crew member to death. 3 of the 4 helicopter crashes and even the incident of the crew member plunging to death from the Mi 172 had occurred in Arunachal Pradesh.

But information also reveal that Pawan Hans had been a valued operator of Eurocopter helicopters, particularly the Dauphins, of which it  presently operate 29 and its Dauphin fleet has over the years logged more than 375,000 flight hours, with an availability rate of over 80 percent. Even though the helicopter which crashed with the Arunachal CM on board was a different model, AS 350 B3, it was a new one inducted only last August and the probability of its airworthiness being compromised is rather low.

An Eurocopter AS 350 B3 similar to the one which crashed on April 30, 2011, killing the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister and his entourage.

There are however two very crucial questions which need to be asked.

First, wasn’t the Chief Minister putting himself in considerable peril by choosing to fly regularly in a single engine helicopter? Eurocopter AS 350 B3 is a single engine helicopter and in a hazardous operating environment as Arunachal, wouldn’t a twin engine helicopter considerably improve chances of survivability in case of a snag like engine failure? This is something the Arunachal Pradesh Government seriously needs to reflect on because they have no option but to continue using helicopters for routine VVIP movement within the state for years to come.

Second, the investigation must ascertain whether any safety norms were flouted knowingly by ignoring meteorological forecast of bad weather in flight-path or risking takeoff in bad weather, particularly when the helicopter was to fly at altitudes close to its maximum service ceiling of 4600 meters.

Arunachal Pradesh (in fact all states) also needs a ‘ready’ crisis management structure.

While there is no reason to believe that any sluggishness was shown in informing the highest echelons of the country’s government about the Chief Minister’s helicopter losing contact and becoming untraceable or in mounting a search and rescue of adequate scale in response, it is evident that there was no ‘ready’ crisis management structure with clearly defined responsibilities and authority to immediately take control.

No wonder that this resulted in the painful gaffe of the state’s Governor announcing to the electronic media, without first crosschecking the authenticity of the information, that the Chief Minister had made contact over satellite phone that they had made an emergency landing in ‘Daporiju’ in neighbouring Bhutan due to bad weather, but were otherwise safe. It is more atrocious coming from the constitutional head of the state because Daporiju was definitely not in Bhutan but hundreds of Kilometers off from the flight path of the missing helicopter in exactly the opposite direction of Bhutan.

The senior officials were mindful of this gaffe and corrected him subsequently that the Governor perhaps meant ‘Tashigang’ in Bhutan. Even though all of whom I talked to were cautious and said repeatedly that the information is being verified, clearly they were put in a difficult situation by the highest Constitutional authority of the state whom they couldn’t contradict immediately even if they were skeptical. Fortunately, by evening of the first day of crisis, the civil administration of the state had formed into such a committee and handled the situation, including media management, in an orderly way.

As the search stretched on over days, aerial search being frequently interrupted by heavy rains and low visibility, and satellite imagery too being adversely affected by thick cloud cover, a public opinion was shaping up that either the Indian Air Force and the Army which were spearheading the search & rescue were completely incompetent or not enough was being done, as the Chief Minister was from a North Eastern state.

Both these opinions are as atrocious as they are uninformed.

First, for more than 6 decades now, the air operations of the Indian Air Force had been critical in not only maintaining the military buildup in Arunachal Pradesh, but also in keeping civilian populations in remote areas supplied with such bare necessities as essential commodities for food. Considering the sheer number of sorties that were flown almost daily in such an operating environment, IAF’s loss of aircrafts and personnel in accidents and crashes had been remarkably low. IAF (and the Army and other forces on the ground) certainly know what their job was and I am quite sure that they did it to the best of their abilities with the resources available.

The sheer vastness of the search area, its remoteness and difficult terrain, inclement weather sure made it a time consuming ordeal. In the limited window of opportunity the break in the weather provided, search helicopters and even Su 30 MKIs were pressed into service, as were ISRO satellites. That the wreckage couldn’t be found in the area where they searched was simply because it wasn’t there in the first place. Once all the grids would have been meticulously searched and confirmed to have contained no wreckage, the search area was certain to have been widened to other areas in Tawang and West Kameng. It would have taken time because the inclement weather provided very little flying hours. The information of the wreckage was however, brought in by locals who noticed it in Luguthang even before such an eventuality arose.

Map of Tawang district showing the approximate location of crash site.

Another point must be underscored here. Whether it was safe to fly the search & rescue missions in inclement weather was a call entirely to be left to the Indian Air Force. Misinformed public opinion cannot be the basis to overrule professional assessment, even less a reason to put at peril lives of more men in futile gestures.

Second, close to 3000 personnel were on the ground treading over treacherous terrain, even in darkness and incessant rain, their concern being the whereabouts and well being of a Chief Minister and his entourage who went missing as well as ensuring the safety of their own search teams. Many of the personnel would have been from outside North East, presently deployed in Arunachal Pradesh while some would have been of course local. Not even for a moment, I am sure, would the ethnicity of the persons who they were searching for, nor would their own for that matter, be any of their concern. Those who think otherwise and make such accusations suffers from an affliction of mind where such vile and complicated considerations take precedence over human, ethical and professional ones. I would like to believe, from long experience, that most of those who were looking for Dorjee Khandu and his unfortunate companions were free of such vile afflictions.