More Than Cosmetic Measures, Please!

November 1996: two passenger planes (Kazakhstani Airlines and Saudia) collided in midair over the village of Charkhi-Dadri, India. Claiming 349 lives, it was one of the worst aviation disasters in recorded history.

Cause of the collision was 'not knowing aircrafts' altitudes'
Cause of the collision was “not knowing aircrafts’ altitudes”. Brief and to-the-point.

Air-crash investigators determined that the accident had been caused by confusion and miscommunication about altitudes. The Indira Gandhi International Airport did not have secondary surveillance radar, which gives altitude (height) readings. It only had an outdated primary radar, which gave readings of distance. So when the Kazakh plane mistakenly descended to 14,000 feet instead of 15,000 – air-traffic controllers (ATC) had no way of knowing their altitude. They kept asking till the mistake was identified. And within seconds of asking them to climb, the Kazakh aircraft met with the Saudi jet. The rest is history.

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What is less publicized is New Delhi’s subsequent actions. As per the investigators’ recommendations, changes to air-traffic procedures and infrastructure in New Delhi’s air-space were made immediately: they installed a secondary radar, separated in-bound and out-bound aircraft through the creation of ‘air corridors’ and installed mandatory collision avoidance equipment.

The black-nose is where the Doppler-Pulse Radar sits. It tells ATC the altitude of a plane.
The black-nose is where the Doppler-Pulse Radar sits. It tells ATC the altitude of a plane.

In short, root causes were identified and concrete steps taken to prevent similar accidents. New Delhi did not rely on  maligning the aviation industry, harping on human error or finding a national villain in the Kazakh pilot. Rather, investments and reforms were made – aimed at preventing systemic failure of the kind. Accidents can never be 100% eliminated – but targeted strategies may be adopted to eliminate specific reasons for accidents.

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There are lessons in the story above.

In the wake of the Savar Tragedy, building owner Sohel Rana has become the prime target, the face of the villainy. We all want him dead. Secondary villains are RMG-industry and foreign buyers. They can pay in cash. These are but curative measures. We need preventive too: we should be trying to ensure that the ‘risks of collapse are eliminated’ – not that ‘buildings never collapse’. There is a fundamental difference there.

Spectacular collapse of the Rana Plaza in Savar that took over 400 lives (photo: CNN)
Spectacular collapse of the Rana Plaza in Savar that took over 400 lives (photo: CNN)

We must not fail to recognize that Savar was more of a construction/engineering failure than an RMG or buyer-related failure. It was a building that collapsed. Why did RAJUK allow such a building to be constructed in the first place? Why shouldn’t they be penalized when they fail the nation like this? If we don’t ask these fundamental questions – more faulty buildings will rise and fall. Top officials in the hierarchy must start taking responsibility for failures down the line.

What govt. agency/architect supervised this building? Was there negligence or bribery involved? How could this have happened otherwise? As long as these questions aren’t asked, they will keep on facilitating risky construction – whether rented by garments-factories or schools.

What is the municipality’s responsibility in this? What is BGMEA’s? We must question the checks and balances in place to prevent similar tragedies in the future. What other political forces played a role in creating this extremely risky situation in the first place? Here, I must stop and appreciate the BAL government’s swift decision to capture Sohel Rana – because it shows political will in prosecuting any one regardless of political affiliations. This will positively influence the system, even if only through deterrence through precedence.

There are deep, systemic issues involved in the making of the Savar Tragedy. While Rana, as a part of that nexus, must be tried in the Court of Law – we must also look at prevention: how can we stop this from happening again? And mere cosmetic measures will not suffice.

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