Dharmendra Jore: Time skeletons flew out of their closets

Jul 02, 2018, 07:08 IST | Dharmendra Jore

Ghatkopar's plane crash raises questions over safety measures, even as aviation authorities are accused of colluding with netas, builders for flouting height norms

Dharmendra Jore: Time skeletons flew out of their closets
Officials and workers clear the mangled remains of a crashed plane at Ghatkopar in Mumbai on Saturday, June 30, 2018. Pic/PTI

Dharmendra Jore"What else, but our fate," said the relative of a pilot who perished when a King Air C90 crashed in Mumbai's densely-populated Ghatkopar locality last Thursday. If the death of pilots, crew and a pedestrian was their fate, many residents too were profuse in thanking their own kismet; "It was our fate that the aircraft did not crashland on our building," said a friend, whose building stands right in the approach route hundreds of big planes take daily.

The scare from the skies has always been there in the area that is so full of life, thanks to a certain business community that believes in living life king size. But after a fateful Thursday, it's no longer a mere scare for them. The fear of reoccurrence may not allow them to heal as easily.

Independent aviation experts and pilots don't find the fear misplaced. "Thanking or blaming one's fate is temporary succour. What lies ahead for these residents could be even tragic and devastating if things are not handled properly," said a senior commander, who has been operating flights for past 20 years.

Did it hit a high-rise?
Some industry experts say that most of them - except for those accused of colluding with political leaders and builders for flouting height norms for structures that are built in the funnel area - strongly suspect that the King Air C90 hit a tall structure before crash-landing.

Ghatkopar is part of aviation's Red Zone where building height is restricted. It is also where, among other localities, height clearances given for buildings in the flight path were disputed in a PIL in the Bombay High Court. The HC had cleared implementation of new height restriction rules (2015) in which colour-coded maps were introduced for the Mumbai and Navi Mumbai airports.

Incidentally, a day after the Ghatkopar crash, the HC warned the Airports Authority of India (AAI) that the powers to sanction buildings' heights could be taken away if the court was asked to clear the heights instead of AAI. The matter related to a no-objection certificate that was granted to MMRDA's Metro structure to exceed a prescribed height for Juhu airport's funnel area by 11 cm. Since the AAI wanted MMRDA to seek HC's approval, the court rejected it and instead asked AAI, DGCA and the Civil Aviation Ministry to file their say.

What the court said that day should be taken as an eye-opener by the agencies and political leaders running them. Justices SC Dharmadhikari and BH Dangre said, "Anything that endangers the life of the public can't be considered like this. From the Juhu airport, every few seconds, private planes, helicopters take off and land. Several workers of ONGC go from there. Already the infrastructure is weak. We will not be party to any relaxation of norms. Let the authorities take it."

Flawed NOC process?
To construct a structure close to the airport, an NOC for height clearance from the AAI is a must. AAI permits if buildings are within height norms. If the height is more the developer needs to seek permission from an appellate committee in New Delhi.

The question here is why did AAI allow a violation (for the metro), and did it allow such violations in the past as well? Here, two government agencies are involved. One is authorised to issue an NoC, while the other is building a metro without taking into consideration basic aspects like flight path and height restrictions.

Not only outsiders, but a senior AAI officer had moved the high court early this year seeking a SIT probe into air safety norms violations in Mumbai as well as alleged corruption in permissions granted for tall buildings near the sensitive zone. She said between 2012 and 2017, over 300 new 'obstacles' had come up around the main airport. She also wants the new Navi Mumbai airport work stopped till a study of the obstacles is carried out and they are demolished for safety.

Juhu airport in peril
Juhu airport has been getting a raw deal. While all the attention and money go to the other two city airports – one in Santacruz-Kalina and the under construction one in Navi Mumbai – Juhu airport cries for a must basic detail like its own security force and a tough boundary wall.

Its ATC has a limitation that poses communication problems for the airplanes. Thursday's ill-fated plane too had taken off from Juhu and it would be interesting to know who it was in touch with before going down. The airport has also been facing serious runway issues.

The choppers operating from Juhu tell a dangerous story, that the braveheart pilots rewrite every sortie while negotiating the high-rises. Experts say the choppers should fly low when approaching a heliport, but in case of Juhu the pilots cannot afford to fly so low. They chart their path using individual skills, leaving rest to, what else but their fate.

It seems as if one of the oldest airports of the country is facing a closure, a well-designed one. For it sits on one of the world's most expensive land parcels.

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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