Amol Yadav’s story perfectly reveals the combination of bureaucratic obstruction and political whimsy that characterises India’s administration. Six years ago, Yadav, a trained pilot, built a six-seater airplane on his building’s rooftop in a Bombay suburb. What followed was an ordeal by red tape as the Directorate General of Civil Aviation refused to grant him a registration certificate despite dozens of visits to its office, Right to Information applications and letters of protest. He then tried the political route, appealing to Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and touting his plane as a symbol of what the Make In India initiative could achieve.
The new approach worked magically. In 2016, the craft was exhibited in a government-sponsored trade show. Last November, he received the Directorate General of Civil Aviation registration, and named his plane VT-NMD, or Victor Tango Narendra Modi Devendra, after his two guardian angels. And on Monday, the state government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Yadav’s company, Thrust Aviation, to set up a factory to build 20-seater aircraft. The value of the agreement is said to be Rs 35,000 crores, and Thrust Aviation has been granted 157 acres of land in north-west Maharashtra for the project. Even if the reported Rs 35,000 crores figure, which seems absurdly high, is exaggerated, there is no doubt Maharashtra is backing the project enthusiastically.
It is a feel good story about a man’s triumph against faceless bureaucrats, but also one likely to end in disaster. For, the strange fact is that Yadav’s aircraft has never taken flight. We can watch videos of it taxiing down runways, but without Directorate General of Civil Aviation permission, all it can do is go up and down the tarmac. That is not Yadav’s fault, for he should certainly have been allowed years ago to prove his plane was airworthy. On the other hand, it beggars belief that a state’s administration would hand over large tracts of land and promise massive sums of money for a project based on an unproven prototype, and one very different from what the factory is meant to manufacture.
Yadav’s plane, even if it can actually fly safely, is not a great technical achievement. It is a lesson in passion, commitment and staying power, but aircraft like his are common in nations where hobbyists have more regulatory backing. The United States, which tops the list of such countries, has hundreds of planes built by amateurs that take to the air each day. There is a thriving culture of homebuilt craft, the best of which can display their chops in airshows like the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual jamboree in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. However, nobody, on the basis of a cool six-seater displayed in Oshkosh this year, will receive a multi-billion dollar contract to construct 20-seater airplanes. Especially not if their display plane has never left the ground.
To say the approach of the central ministers and the BJP’s state heads with respect to technology has been erratic is an understatement. We got a glimpse of it in Narendra Modi’s seaplane stunt in December, which had acolytes claiming cutting-edge status for decades-old technology. More seriously, in September, Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari sent carmakers into a tizzy by telling them all vehicles made in India would have to run on electricity by 2030. The belligerent Gadkari had then said, “I am going to do this, whether you like it or not. And I am not going to ask you. I will bulldoze it.”
In response, I pointed out, in my column in Scroll.in, that India was far from ready for such a leap:
“When our politicians make grand pronouncements, like the Minister of Road Transport Nitin Gadkari claiming that India’s car production would shift entirely to electric vehicles by 2030, they set themselves up for miserable failure. Indians bought just over 2,000 electric four-wheelers in 2016. The comparable figure for China was half a million, or 40% of global sales. That nation’s stock of electric vehicles includes 200 million two-wheelers and 300,000 buses. Yet, the Chinese don’t talk of going fully electric. They prefer ambitious but realistic goals to pipe dreams.”
Last week, Gadkari made an astonishing U-turn, asserting there was no need for India to formulate any electric vehicle policy.
Our crumbling rail infrastructure is regularly placed in the spotlight by fatal accidents, but the attention of the government is captured by fancy sideshows like the bullet train project. Last week, the Maharashtra government signed a memorandum of understanding with British billionaire Richard Branson to construct a hyperloop transit system. I would not mind the expense on these experimental projects if they went side by side with comprehensive and sensible upgrades to existing infrastructure, but at the moment it is hard to shake the feeling that one is being privileged at the expense of the other.
If I was a betting man, I’d hazard that people travelling from Bombay to Pune will have only the standard transport options available to them for the next decade and more. No successful hyperloop will be built on that route, not least because the bulk of the time taken in commuting happens within the two cities rather than between them. I’d also wager that no indigenously designed 20-seater planes will ever roll out of Thrust Aviation’s factory. The government’s stake in Yadav’s decades-old technology is money down the drain, as is its investment in Branson’s futuristic hyperloop.