AoA: Wake Up, HAL

In case you haven't noticed -- or haven't been keeping track of the Ecuadorian press (even if it's through Google's woefully ungrammatical translation tool) -- Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has been made skillfully into a public opinion whipping boy representing everything that is supposedly wrong with Ecuador's controversial year-old policy changes that effectively made defence spending less transparent. With HAL maintaining a ridiculous silence, the ALH Dhruv helicopter crash of October 27 has inevitably become representative of issues that are intrinsically Ecuadorian and only may have anything to do with the purchase of Indian helicopters. The press in Ecuador isn't stupid. But like many parts of the press here in India, it doesn't have a highly nuanced approach to information either. And boy, if there's the tiniest inkling that there's resistance to either supply information, or more importantly, a complete apathy towards correcting falsehood, then even stuff that's iffy/motivated when it goes into print, becomes accepted as accurate/fair.

Sadly, that's precisely what has happened over the last two weeks in Ecuador. Disturbingly for HAL, a few points made early on in the Ecuadorian press, have come to be largely espoused in public view. Blogs, newspapers, opinion columns are all unanimously -- yes, without exception -- of the view that the government erred grievously by choosing a helicopter that was almost 30 per cent cheaper than its competitors from the US, Russia and Israel. The largely held view, now, is that the government shouldn't have been looking to save money in safety-critical equipment like military helicopters, implying that buying one of the more expensive contenders would have ensured a greater degree of technical product safety. The logic is sound, even though Ecuadorian journalists have meticulously chosen to ignore multiple inputs from the country's air force chief and other senior-ranking officials that the accident was most likely caused by an unfortunate combination of circumstance (height of the helicopter AGL) and pilot error. So what you have now is an overwhelming sense that the Ecuadorian government either paid less for a helicopter that did not meet critical requirements, and ended up demonstrating that -- a patent falsehood -- by diving into the ground on October 27. Like I said, things are frequently perceived to be black and white in such matters. A combination of journalistic laziness, fed indefatigably by vested interests and a deep inclination for non-nuanced stories causes this. And if you add to that a deafeningly silent "target" (in this case, HAL), you've got publicity hell on a platter.

As a result of HAL's inexplicable refusal to engage the press and at least demonstrate an intention to be open with information, problems that are indubitably Ecuador's own, are now manifested conveniently in an otherwise world-class helicopter. That's why the newspaper cartoon depicting Shiva with a Dhruv head is such a perfect representation of what people think. Worse still, for an incident that was almost definitely not linked to a technical failure, there is an over-arching linkage by the press that wholly unconnected perceived contractual slippages -- for example, the non-supply of certain oxygen equipment, though this was justified pre-signing by HAL and accepted by the Ecuadorian government -- somehow sent FAE-604 into that uncontrolled port-roll into the tarmac. You see what I mean. It's ridiculous, but then if the guys you're slinging irrational mud at just refuse to take your calls, or say their boss back home has issued a stringent gag order on all things Dhruv, alarm bells would go off in even the fairest journalist's mind. And it's not like the Ecuadorian government is helping. In the larger scheme of things, it looks like the Dhruv as a scapegoat serves them just fine, just as long as all the ire is on the helicopter, and not on the people who chose it.

And while the bloodbath continues in Ecuador, HAL's three-member expert team has returned to India. They don't have the CVR/FDR with them. So what happens now, nobody knows.

But the thing that really makes me want to pick up an axe and take a flight to Bangalore, is HAL's genuine belief that such matters are not suitable for public discussion. What else could explain continuing with shutting down a robust communications department right in the middle of the company's first truly international disaster. I spoke to a member of HAL's management -- he's an idiot, and I can't name him -- who was furious about the stuff I've been posting here on LiveFist regarding the Dhruv crash. His words: "Why are you interfering? These matters will be resolved. There is no problem."

Yeah. No problem at all, Sir. None whatsoever.

Labels: , , , ,