Friday 16 August 2013

Zero accountability is India’s norm (PO)

M.D. Nalapat
Friday, August 16, 2013 - Months ago, a suspected total of more than 30,000 innocents lost their lives in the hilly state of Uttarakhand because of weather turning deadly. While nature cannot be controlled by mere humanity, the fact is that several improper decisions contributed to the high toll, including the construction of houses along the ridge line of mountains and a complete disregard of safety norms while permitting pilgrims to visit the holy places in the state. Which official, political or bureaucratic, has paid any price for this appalling tragedy? Zero.

A while after the Uttarakhand tragedy, schoolchildren in Bihar fell ill while taking their midday meals, apparently because the food items had been stored in a can that once stocked phosphoric fertilizer. While the school principal has been jailed, he is likely to escape very soon because of “lack of evidence” that he had any direct knowledge or involvement in the crime. Once the children began to fall sick in class, hours went by before proper medical care was provided to them. As a result, there are several deaths. Who had paid the price for being responsible for such delays? No one. Once again, the Zero Accountability culture in India has ensured that the guilty escape, to continue with their depredations.

Given the hierarchical nature of administration in India, decisions which ought to be taken at much lower levels often need sanction from high up the chain of command. However, when “accidents” take place (the favourite description for man-made disasters), it is almost always those who are junior who get the blame. This happens even in the Indian military, which as an institution is still far superior to its civilian counterparts in efficiency and training. In 1999,the higher command of the Indian army was on a junket to foreign shores or playing golf when the Kargil heights got occupied. Heads needed to roll at Army HQ for the lapse, especially in Intelligence. However, all that took place was that a Brigadier (who in fact had watned higher-ups about the intrusion and had attempted futilely to get them to sanction counter-measures) was made the scapegoat and proceeded against. Since 1999,the habit of top brass of pinning the blame for their own lapses on lower levels has grown, so much so that a tendency has developed for orders to be given orally, so that there is no record of their being made. Those lower down who obey such orders run the risk of being pulled up by the very seniors who gave the commands, should the results of the orders given turn out to be wrong.

On August 14 in the early hours of the morning, television screens across India got filled with reports of a huge blaze in the naval dockyard at Mumbai. A Kilo-class submarine had caught fire for unexplained reasons, and eighteen sailors paid the ultimate price, valiant men each of them. The INS Sindhurakshak was the second naval vessel to be destroyed in post-independence India, the first being a small frigate that was brought down by a Pakistani submarine in 1971. How did a submarine that had just days previously undergone an expensive refit at a Russian naval yard explode? In line with the culture of Zero Accountabilty, the Chief of Naval Staff almost immediately gave a clean chit to naval personnel, saying that sabotage was “unlikely” and describing the event as an “accident”.

The Defense Minister, who is versatile enough to be a follower of the competing ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, saw it as a tragedy, which of course it was. However, where A K Antony went wrong was that the destruction of the Sindhurakshak was much more than a tragdy. It was a crime. Either those who certified that the vessel was seaworthy when they inspected it at the Russian yard were wrong, or else some event took place that rendered null the numerous safety procedures on board such a craft. The navy, in common with other services, refuses to countenance the possibilility that some of its own people may have turned rogue and indulged in sabotage. In 1997 and again in 2003,this columnist spoke to air force personnel about the frequent crashes of fighter aircraft, and they said that there were grounds for asserting that some of the maintenance work done on the aircraft was ‘suspicious’. However, no sustained investigation has been carried out of this factor in crashes of fighter aircraft.

It is ridiculous to assert that it was a “hydrogen leak” in the batteries which caused the explosion because the submarine’s batteries were charged three days before August 14,so that if there had to be a problem, it would have been clear by then. The more likely explanation is that an explosive charge was placed inside the submarine with a timer device. Given the culture of trust within the armed forces, security precautions for comrades in uniform are much less rigid than for outsiders, and a rogue officer could well have done the sabotage for monetary gain or for some other cause. Certainly an explosive charge could have been placed outside, such as a kimpet mine, but if so, why were such charges not placed on the other two submarines near the stricken ship? In armies across the world, including in the US and Pakistan, there have been unveilings of rogue elements. In India, such a possibility is discounted from the start, as was done just a day ago by the Indian Navy chief. Just a handful of bad apples can poison the basket, and a search needs to be made to see if such elements are present, before more harm gets done.

There have been too many “accidents” in the three services, and it is time that accountability followed. The culture in India of Zero. Accountability has to change.

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