Mangalore Air Crash and Gyaneshwari Express Tragedy:

Will We Ever Know the Truth?


In the month of May, within a week of each other, two terrible accidents took a heavy toll of human lives – first the air crash at Mangalore airport and then the Gyaneshwari Express accident near Jhargram in West Midnapore district of West Bengal. While mourning the huge loss of human lives in both cases, every citizen would certainly seek to fix responsibility for such accidents and know the truth about them. A month later, as we write these lines, are we closer to knowing and acknowledging the truth and fixing responsibility?
 Let us first consider the Gyaneshwari Express tragedy. Unlike most accidents, this one was from the outset not attributed to usual factors like ‘human error’ or ‘structural deficiency’ but rather to a suspected act of sabotage. While the state government was quick to indicate a Maoist hand in the sabotage, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee began talking of high-level political conspiracy (hinting at a possible complicity of the CPI(M) and/or the West Bengal Government) and called for a CBI probe into the incident. The Union Home Minister, on his part, went public with his observation that the ‘needle of suspicion’ pointed to the Maoists. Eventually a CBI enquiry was ordered and the CBI has now formed a joint investigation team while announcing rewards for three PCAPA/Maoist activists. The PCAPA (People’s Committee against Police Atrocities) – the most prominent banner of the Lalgarh agitation – has meanwhile announced parallel rewards for nine CPI(M) leaders and activists.
Early on, a statement attributed to one Bapi Mahato of the PCAPA reportedly regretted the tragedy while owning responsibility for the damage done to the railway track. According to this statement, the PCAPA had only wanted to derail a goods train and had not expected the Gyaneshwari Express to bear the brunt. If this statement is true, this is a shocking commentary on the anarchist degeneration of a movement that till recently boasted of a high degree of militant mass involvement. Sabotages and indiscriminate targeting and destruction of human lives cannot be accepted as a means of protest against police atrocities. The Maoists issued a statement disowning that the sabotage was part of any official decision, but promising to enquire into the possibility that some of their local cadres might have been involved in it. Subsequently, Mahato was arrested and there were reports that the CPI(Maoist) has disowned Bapi Mahato and blamed the incident on some rebel faction of the PCAPA.
For Chidambaram and the UPA government, the Gyaneshwari Express tragedy came in handy to intensify the ongoing Operation Green Hunt, and there is a growing clamour for Army involvement in Operation Green Hunt. Having registered a decisive victory in the West Bengal municipal polls, and having successfully forced the Centre to announce a CBI probe into the incident, Mamata Banerjee is now keeping intriguingly silent on the Gyaneshwari tragedy.
In the case of the Mangalore crash, several important questions remain unanswered even a month later. In the wake of the tragedy many aviation experts had suggested that it was the short tabletop runway which had forced the aircraft to overshoot and fall into the 300-foot deep ravine at the end of the landing stretch. But instead of investigating the issue of safety of the runway, civil aviation ministry and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have yet to release even a preliminary investigation report. The Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC) set up after the crash is yet to hold a single meeting.
Environmental activists have pointed out that concerns repeatedly raised regarding the lack of safety of the runway site were deliberately suppressed and ignored by authorities, because the alternate runway site suggested would have called for acquisition of land belonging to influential people, whereas in the present site it was poorer dalits whose land was acquired. These activists remind that they filed two PILs in court expressing concern about the lack of safety of the present location of the Mangalore runway – but both were dismissed by the Court which chose to accept the assurances of aviation authorities. Even after the crash, the aviation authorities and State and Central Governments are unwilling to face these uncomfortable facts. Air India employees and union activists who suggested that negligence of the management was responsible for the tragedy were victimised, gagged and dismissed.

The people of the country demand the truth about the Gyaneshwari accident and the Mangalore crash. If sabotage was responsible for the Gyaneshwari tragedy, the saboteurs must be identified and severely punished. At the same time the incident must not be used as fodder by the State to justify the ‘Green Hunt’ expedition. In the case of Mangalore, an independent and thoroughgoing probe is called for into the safety of the airport as well as into the decisions leading to construction of the runway in an unsafe spot. Those responsible must face punishment, and the drive to expand and commercialise air services must not come at the cost of blatant disregard for safety and environmental concerns.