Last year, for the first time in the history of modern India’s defence forces, wives of 28 serving defence officers came together to petition to the Union Defence Minister seeking phasing out of the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. The choppers were in news for frequent accidents and loss of lives. The wives said the flying machines were causing many accidents which were due to the outdated machinery, and that the lives of the men in uniforms should not be put on stake due to this.
“It was considered a taboo to speak about the issue. If you are the wife of a serving Army officer, you are expected to stay mum. So many senior defence personnel and their wives stopped talking to me when I initiated this. But I was clear in my mind. I was not standing against the system. My husband is one of the most dedicated men in uniform who has devoted his life to the service of the nation. Should men like him be wasted due to faulty and outdated equipment? As wives, we used to have sleepless nights when our husbands went out on a sortie on one of those choppers. The stress killed us. Then why not let your own government know about the hazards?” asked advocate Meenal Wagh-Bhosale.
Last October, Meenal, along with her friends, initiated the Indian Army Wives’ Agitation Group. All the 28 members were married to AAC (Army Aviation Corps) pilots or technicians assigned to Chetak and Cheetah fleet. They said that the rate of accident of these two choppers was very high, and demanded replacement of the fleet. Most of the members of the group refused to come out in the open. Meenal remained the only vocal voice.
This February, the feisty 35-year-old mother of two went alone to meet Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to talk about the concerns. “Sir, please take back your words in Parliament that the accidents happened due to human error. They happened due to technical snags,” she told him politely at the end of their discussion.
Getting his appointment was a dream come true for a woman who had spent sleepless nights after each Cheetah and Chetak accident. She had known the stress and the anxiety of every new bride and every young mother who awaited the arrival of her husband from a “routine sortie”, with a bated breath.
“Our men boarded the choppers with the thought that this might be their last ride. We felt a sense of helplessness every time we wished them a ‘safe trip’. We knew things were not right. We knew our worlds could come down shattering any minute,” she said, remembering the days of her husband’s posting in western Maharashtra’s Nashik base.
Meenal can talk for hours about the fine men whose lives were lost in the crashes, about the family crises the crashes led to, and about the memories of times spent together with them and their family members. Every time, this recounting exercise brings tears to her eyes.
“Around three years ago, a young officer lost his life in such an accident. Just the previous night, we had all spent time together. He was a brilliant man with an excellent academic record. His daughter was barely three months old. After the mishap, such bad days befell his young widow that words can’t describe her plight. That is when something inside me really shook. I spent nights crying in my bed, asking myself whether nothing could be done about it,” she said.
Another accident later, she had decided she would mobilise the other wives to raise their voices against the outdated equipment. “In the past 14 years, the Army had written thrice to the Ministry of Defence, seeking urgent replacement of these ageing helicopters. The aircraft have been in service for over 40 years. They have outlived their lives by 12 to 15 years. The Original Equipment Manufacturer stopped its production way back in the 90’s and there is a critical shortage of spares for the same specially designed engine components. Most of the engines have been overhauled more than five times in addition to going for major repairs once or twice and there is a crunch to replace components even during overhaul so they are not fly-safe,” she said.
But mobilising like-minded wives of the officers proved to be a very difficult task. “It was viewed as if I was talking against the institution. That was not appreciated at all. Very few people saw the concern and the issue. Nobody wanted to get associated with me. I got well-meaning advice to keep away from the cause,” she said. “I am as much a patriot. I am just saying, let us take care of our men who are willing to do anything for their country,” she said.
Her resolve was strengthened by the support of her husband who told her she should fight alone if need be and not give up.
Despite the opposition, she and a handful others decided to launch a petition on the-then newly launched change.org.
Even for the platform of change.org, the topic was so new that it cross-checked with Meenal. “I got a call from them asking me if this was against the government, and whether it would land them in trouble. After I explained to them what it was, they stood by me,” she said.
The petition which said, “Dear Prime Minister and Defence Minister, announce the replacement of outdated and unsafe Cheetah and Chetak helicopters that endanger the lives of Indian soldiers”, gained 23,000 endorsements. It became a huge hit and went on to become one of the victorious campaigns run by change.org.
The group did not stop at that. Meenal kept writing emails to the Ministry of Defence and kept on seeking the minister’s appointment for giving him a detailed presentation. The judicial option seemed too unviable so she gave up thinking about it. Finally, after months of pursuing, the Ministry of Defence told her she will be allowed to meet the Defence Minister on 11 March this year.
Getting his appointment was a landmark in the long battle waged by the wives of the Army personnel. Meenal is very happy that his response was positive.
A month after Meenal met him, Parrikar said on the floor of the House that his ministry was making continuous efforts to keep the helicopters safe for flying. “Only airworthy aircraft are flown. Wives of Army Officers have represented to the government for replacement of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters to avoid casualties. Phasing out of aircrafts, including helicopters and their replacement, depends upon the national security/strategic objectives and operational requirements of the defence forces and is reviewed by the government from time to time. This is a continuous process,” he said on 28 April.
As for Meenal, the process has just begun. She says she will continue to rally behind the issues ailing the defence services personnel.