Port Blair airport
Absurd ideas of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
(This article was originally published on July 09,, 2016, on Google Blogger. Former Congress leader Gulam Nabi Azad’s praise of Indira Gandhi as well as Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister in the “aap ki Adalat” programme on India TV on April 08, 2023, prompted me to update and republish it with a new title. I was in the Government of India when they were Prime Ministers and had the opportunity to appraise some of their favourite projects. The only good thing Rajiv did was the introduction of personal computers in government departments. Otherwise, he was a disaster.)
Several pet projects of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were disastrous. I have already posted on my website how Indira Gandhi wasted money on waste management ( https://www.devendranarain.com/indira-gandhi-wa…waste-management/). The worst project conceived when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister and completed when her son was Prime Minister was the acquisition of Westland helicopters from the UK for civilian use (https://www.devendranarain.com/gandhis-deadly-d…land-helicopters/ ). During the early days of my career in the government when I was an income tax officer, I had to deal with a case that was proof of how Indira Gandhi patronised corruption (https://www.devendranarain.com/when-high-level-…-state-patronage/ )
Rajiv Gandhi, described by the congressman as a ‘man of vision’, used to come up with all sorts of bizarre ideas, and his henchmen and weak officers would use those opportunities to please him and win his favour for their personal agenda. Soon after he became Prime Minister, he sent an order to the Planning Commission that Advisors should write papers on different sectors which they will present before the MPs to educate them! The senior officers got busy preparing themselves for giving lectures to the MPs. During an informal chat, when some of them asked me whether I had prepared my lecture, I replied that I had not and would not! They looked at me in disbelief. My explanation was that in official meetings, Hon’ble MPs derived pleasure from ridiculing government officers; they would never like to be lectured by bureaucrats. As expected, we were never told when and where we had to go to give lectures to the Hon’ble MPs!
After his return from a costly holiday in Lakshadweep islands, the “visionary” Prime Minister decided that the islands should be developed as centres of tourist attraction. There was no reply to the first question, “What about the availability of water on those islands?”. The idea died of drought!
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s most favourite sector was civil aviation. When I jokingly remarked in an informal gathering of senior officers that had Rajiv Gandhi been a bus driver, instead of a pilot, his favourite sector would have been road transport, a Secretary remarked that the country would have been better off with an ex-bus driver as Prime Minister!
One such bizarre idea given by him in 1987 was to have only an air link between the mainland of India and Port Blair, the capital of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Most people used and even now use ships for journeys between the two destinations. Those days, there was limited air service to Port Blair.
At that time there was an organisation, headed by a Member of the Planning Commission, to overview the development of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The Member was an eminent scientist who had earlier served as Secretary to the Government of India. As a Member of the Planning Commission, he enjoyed the status of a Minister of State. P. Shiv Shankar was The Deputy Chairman. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was of course the Chairman.
Soon after Rajiv Gandhi conveyed his brainwave to the then Civil Aviation Minister, the Ministry prepared a brief project report to entirely replace the shipping service between the mainland and Port Blair with an air service. The proposal was circulated, among others, to the Planning Commission and the Ministry of Transport, for consideration and approval. The civil aviation Ministry believed that the proposal was so attractive that no one would be able to find any fault with it.
At that time I was heading the Project Appraisal Division of the Planning Commission. The organisation set up for the development of the islands being autonomous, the project was outside my purview.
One afternoon, at a meeting held in the Yojna Bhawan under the chairmanship of the scientist Member, Secretary of the Transport Ministry ort, raised objections on the ground that the common people who constituted the majority of passengers relied on the shipping service; they would be hit hard if the shipping service was replaced by air service because they would not be able to afford high airfare and the proposal would hit the shipping industry very badly. Neither the scientist Member nor the Civil Aviation Secretary would listen to him. To resolve the differences, the Advisor in charge of the Transport Division of the Planning Commission suggested my name for an independent techno-economic appraisal. He came personally to my room to take me to the meeting. After some discussion, the two ministries agreed to an independent appraisal. At my request, the secretaries of the two departments agreed to provide all the data I needed.
Within a few days, I received a copy of the proposal and data in support as well as against the proposal. During the course of appraisal, I discovered a deliberate mistake by the Civil Aviation Ministry to prove that the project was economically viable. The proposal prepared by the Ministry had assumed that a large plane flying between, say Delhi and Calcutta (at that time this is how the West Bengal capital was known) with a full load, could also fly between Calcutta and Port Blair with a full load. It was just impossible. A large plane with a full load required a longer runway to take off and land. I had seen the Port Blair airport and had a fairly good idea of its short length. A longer runway could not be constructed without removing a hillock. On enquiry, the Ministry of Civil Aviation informed that the cost of removal of the hill was estimated at around Rs. 250 million. When I added Rs. 250 million to the capital cost, the project became economically unviable. The project was economically unviable either way: a fully loaded plane that required higher capital and operating cost or flying with reduced load and low turnover. But the cost of removal of the hill was not the only issue. Anyone familiar with the Andaman & Nicobar Islands knows how fragile the ecology of the area is. The environmentalists did not agree to the removal of the hill. And as long as there was a physical limitation on the length, the air service could not replace the shipping service.
The Transport Ministry had of course furnished data regarding the number of passengers using the shipping service every year and the facilities used by them which the air service could not provide. For example, any resident of the islands who came to the mainland would carry a large quantity of provisions on the return journey.
Anxious to know what I was going to say in my appraisal note, the scientist Member of the Planning Commission would make frequent visits to my room. He became apprehensive when he could not get any clue. One day, when I was finalising the report – writing in my long hand instead of dictating – he walked into my room and stood behind my chair to read what I was writing. This was not only embarrassing but also very irritating. How could I write when somebody was breathing down my neck? I stopped writing and got up. I requested him to wait for a couple of hours and promised to personally hand over a typed copy to him before cyclostyled copies were to others.
About 15 minutes after I had handed over a copy to him, he walked into my room again. He was unable to suppress his disappointment and anger. He asked me to immediately accompany him to the Parliament House where the then Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission & Planning Minister, P. Shiv Shankar, was sitting. During the drive, which lasted for less than 10 minutes he bombarded me with all sorts of criticisms. His main worry was that I had torpedoed Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s pet project and the Prime Minister would very angry.
In the Minister’s room, the scientist Member explained how anxious the Prime Minister was to implement the project and wanted the Minister to pull me up for writing an adverse appraisal note. I must admire the Minister. He remained calm. Instead of obliging the Member, he asked me to give my side of the story. When I explained to him the proposal as received from the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the data and methodology I had used for appraisal, and the finding based on the data and methodology fully explained in the appraisal report, he turned to the Member and told him, ‘He has done his work as an advisor. We will consider the proposal in the inter-ministerial meeting I would call shortly.’
On the way back, the great scientist did not utter a word. He was quite tense, perhaps worried about his future in the government. (Perhaps, he was very much disappointed with the Planning Minister and was worried about the loss of power, position, and perks he was enjoying as Minister of State in case he got a marching order. Perhaps, he knew that he had no future outside the government.)
The inter-ministerial meeting held after two or three days under the chairmanship of the Planning Minister was attended, among others, by the Civil Aviation Minister (a Minister of State), the scientist Member of the Planning Commission, Secretaries of the Ministries of Civil Aviation and Transport and Planning Commission and Advisor (Transport) in the Commission. By that time, all of them had read my appraisal note. The most agitated man at the meeting was the Civil Aviation Minister. He was shouting that an appraiser dared to write against the Prime Minister’s pet project.
I was sitting next to the Planning Commission Secretary. When I saw the Minister literally jumping from his seat, shouting and looking menacingly at me, I moved to another chair behind the Secretary. When the Secretary wanted to know the reason, I whispered in his ears that I had done so to avoid any physical attack. Perhaps, this was an exaggeration. The Minister could not have stooped so low. Nevertheless, the Secretary whispered in my ears that I should not worry because he was there to protect me. (CBI Director is not the only one who needs protection.)
Surprisingly, the scientist Member spoke very little. The tension on his face was visible to everybody. The Civil Aviation Secretary was also tense but there was no need for him to speak when his Minister was doing the job. The Transport Secretary was satisfied that his stand had been vindicated and said so. (After the meeting, he came to my room to thank me, which was not needed.)
(Incidentally, that Minister had become notorious for his alleged role in the 1984 riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and was supposed to be very close to the family.)
After listening to both sides, the Planning Minister pulled up the Civil Aviation Minister. He told the junior minister that ‘There is no need for you to get worried. Your role is over. The matter would now be discussed in the Cabinet meeting under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. There I would explain everything to the Prime Minister.”
The project was ultimately dropped, though it was decided that gradually the frequency of air service would be increased.
Before concluding, I must say that it was one of the rare occasions when I saw a Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, a politician, taking a firm stand before the Prime Minister. In contrast, P. Shiv Shankar’s predecessor Dr. Manmohan Singh, the economist, was unable to take any stand (https://www.devendranarain.com/dr-manmohan-sing…on-by-an-insider/ ). I must also admire the then Transport Secretary who had shown the courage to oppose the Prime Minister.
The ‘political scientist’ Member must have taken a sigh of relief when he was not sacked by the Prime Minister for not saving Prime Minister’s pet project.
The most shocking part is that such a project was the brainchild of a person who had been a professional pilot!
April 9, 2023
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