Saturday, June 03, 2017

Twelve years on, ex-ace continues fight for justice

The Hindu: New Delhi: Saturday, June 03, 2017.
Twelve years ago, Wing Commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila did not know that a routine training sortie in a MiG-21 will be his last run as a fighter pilot for the Air Force.
On January 4, 2005, minutes after take-off, his MiG burst into flames. All attempts by him to save the aircraft failed. He bailed out seconds before the aircraft crashed over the Nal Airbase in Rajasthan.
The Delhi High Court noted how Mr. Kaila stayed in the burning craft to steer it away from any human habitation, saving several lives in the process.
Today, Mr. Kaila is engaged in a different fight of sorts, that with his employer, the Union of India and the aircraft’s manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
Through information painstakingly procured through the Right to Information Act, Mr. Kaila claimed before the High Court that the accident was caused by “poor workmanship on the part of HAL, resulting in a fatigue crack, fatal to the aircraft.” He argued that the the lack of airworthiness of the aircraft, induced by purely human factors, resulted in violation of his right to life under Article 21, more specifically, his right to work in a safe environment.
Medical condition
His injuries from the accident progressed into a medical condition called cervicalgia, forcing him to discontinue his career as a fighter pilot. “From being an ace fighter pilot, to commanding the NCC training corps is a far cry,” the High Court noted.
He told the court that he wanted compensation and an apology from the Union government and HAL.
A Division Bench of Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Deepa Sharma agreed with Mr. Kaila that he was placed in a situation of unreasonable risk.
Right to life
In a judgment on May 2, the High Court observed that though a soldier’s life is that of risk, this danger cannot be the result of negligence. “A soldier or officer’s honour and dignity is as much a part of his right to life; it is to be respected just as much, if not more, for the reason that it is offered unhesitatingly and fully in defending the borders of the nation,” the High Court had observed.
The court also took exception to the fact that Mr. Kaila had to struggle for years and through RTI to know what caused the accident. “Unlike ‘hired guns’ they stand guard so that the rest exercise our liberties. Denying them the right to a safe workplace with standard equipment constitutes violation of their right to life and dignity,” the judgment said.
Orders compensation
The High Court ordered the Union to compensate Mr. Kaila ₹5 lakh for the “trauma he underwent and for non-disclosure of relevant information relating to an unsafe workplace”. It further held HAL liable to pay him ₹50 lakh.
The court moreover asked the government to consider the feasibility of starting an insurance policy for Air Force pilots against the special risks they undertake in the discharge of their duties. “The premia paid and the insurance policy taken out should be such as to indemnify the particular kinds of injuries that pilots are likely to suffer, in such incidents both physical and mental,” the High Court observed.
However, Mr. Kaila’s case suffered a reversal on May 23 when a Vacation Bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Navin Sinha stayed the High Court decision until further orders.
On Friday, in no mood to give up a fight, Mr. Kaila approached the Supreme Court with a plea to lift the interim stay order.
This time, a different Vacation Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices M.M. Shantanagoudar and Deepak Gupta agreed to post the plea with the main case on July 17 before the appropriate Bench.