NEW DAWN FOR INDOPAK COOPERATION IN CIVIL AVIATION
Finally, there are favourable signs of change in the Pakistani mindset that could herald a new era of cooperation between the civil aviation industry of India and Pakistan
EVER SINCE THE PARTITION of the Indian subcontinent in August 1947, the relationship between India and Pakistan has been extremely turbulent both in the political and military domains. There have been four major military conflicts between India and Pakistan since partition and despite some determined steps taken by India, the problem of terrorism in Kashmir continues to fester. However, one segment of the economy of both India and Pakistan that has been badly affected on account of the strained relations, is the civil aviation sector. Given the perpetual military tension prevailing on the border and frequent closure of airspace, the Indian civil aviation industry has not been able to fully utilise the airspace over Pakistan to fly to the Middle East and Central Asian Republics via the shortest route to save fuel which a major component of operating cost of aircraft.
Apart from the problems experienced by the aircraft of the Indian civil aviation industry, even the special Air India aircraft that was to carry Prime Minister
Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia in the last week of October this year to participate in an international business conference there on October 29, suffered the same fate. Request by the Indian Government was turned down by the Government of Pakistan and the Air India aircraft was denied permission to fly through its airspace. India lodged a formal complaint in this regard to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) against Pakistan for its refusal to let the aircraft carrying Prime Minister Narendra Modi to fly through its airspace to Saudi Arabia. The ICAO did acknowledge India’s concern pertaining to Pakistan restricting its airspace and sent a request to Islamabad seeking further information on this episode. The ICAO pointed out that aircraft carrying national leaders are not subject to any restrictions in the use of airspace if the intention is to merely transit through the airspace of another country.
But the biggest disaster so far in the regime of civil aviation on account of the perpetual hostility between India and Pakistan has been the downing of a Beechcraft business aviation aircraft on September 19, 1965 at the height of the Indo-Pakistan war of that year. It was on this fateful day that a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jet fighter shot down the Beechcraft that was carrying Balwantrai Mehta, Chief Minister of Gujarat, his wife, three members of his staff and one journalist. The aircraft was piloted by Jahangir Engineer who had retired from the Indian Air Force. On that day, the Beechcraft carrying Chief Minister Balwantrai Mehta was flying in the vicinity of the Indo-Pak border in Kutch after stopping at Mithapur, 400 km from Ahmedabad. Minutes after taking off from Mithapur, the Beechcraft was intercepted by a combat aircraft of the PAF that was being flown by a 25 year old pilot Qais Hussain.
With approval from his superiors, the PAF pilot fired at the Beechcraft that was waggling wings to indicate that it was a harmless civil aircraft. The Beechcraft exploded in the air and turned into a ball of fire before crashing into the ground. The Chief Minister along with his team and the two pilots on board perished in the ghastly episode. The Beechcraft was flying well within Indian territory and posed no conceivable threat to the hostile neighbour.
But there have also been some encouraging developments in the recent past. On September 23, 2019, a SpiceJet aircraft flying from Delhi to Kabul, was intercepted by PAF fighter jets. Fortunately, the airliner was not harmed and was escorted till it was out of Pakistani airspace. Apparently, there was some confusion over the call-sign assigned by the DGCA to the SpiceJet aircraft that led to interception by the PAF. Fortunately the PAF pilots exercised restraint and did not shoot down the Indian airliner that had 120 passengers on board.
In the second week of November this year, a Pakistani air traffic controller guided an Indian civil flight that had taken off from Jaipur for Muscat. The airliner got into an emergency situation on account of extremely bad weather. The Pakistani air traffic controller responded to the emergency call by the pilot and directed the Indian aircraft through dense air traffic while flying through Pakistani airspace. These two incidents reflect a change in the Pakistani mindset to one that is not hostile and in fact can be humane. Finally, there are favourable signs of change in the Pakistani mindset that could herald a new era of cooperation between the civil aviation industry of India and Pakistan.