Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne spoke to NDTV's Group Editor Barkha Dutt in Uttarakhand about the helicopter crash on Tuesday afternoon in which 20 people died, and his troops' heroic determination to continue their rescue mission.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
NDTV: Sir what is the update you can give us? Have all the bodies at this moment been recovered?
Air Chief: This accident took place last afternoon around 2 o' clock close to Gaurikund while this chopper was returning from Badrinath and there were actually three helicopters. One was in the lead by about 10 minutes ahead and there was one which was following about 10 minutes behind, so it's not that he was operating alone in that area. He was actually together with three aircraft and when this happened we sent a team sometime in the evening to slither down; certain Garud forces, commandos, seven of them, and they have reported to us that there are no survivors in this group. There were 20 people on board, five from the Air Force, which is part of the crew, 9 from the NDRF, and six from the ITBP, a total of 20.
NDTV: Sir there is such a thing as taking too many risks? Is there any sense that you will now review the number of risks heroically that your forces have been taking to save lives? Is there a sense that the envelope of safety was pushed?
Air Chief: Well all that I would say is that in the mountains, specially during the monsoon weather, weather is always an issue, but at this point of time we are not quite sure whether it was weather or whether it was a technical problem. Fortunately we have recovered the Cockpit Voice Recorder, the Flight Data Recorder and I think in a few days time we will get to know absolutely as to what exactly happened, so I think it will be a little premature for me to comment on that part. Whether it's something like in the monsoons you have to deal with, it's not going to go away. Fortunately we're going to get some windows, as we have today and maybe in the next couple of days as weather continues to improve. But when you're talking about pushing the envelope, when you're doing rescue missions, when you have to pick up survivors, please remember the operational risk factor is always considered very closely, as compared to the mission that you have to accomplish, and it's reviewed almost on a daily mission basis. It is not on a standalone basis. So our crew is absolutely highly qualified, they're very capable of doing this. In fact a number of times they have returned because they haven't been to get through because of weather, so we leave the decision to them. They are highly trained and motivated and we'll make sure that the job is done.
NDTV: How is the morale of the force?
Air Chief: The morale of the force is extremely high. They're proud to be here, they're proud to be doing this job and I'm extremely happy with the way they are performing, absolutely, marvellous performance, not just by our people but also of the ITBP the Army, the NDRF.
NDTV: Sir but it must be a heartbreaking time?
Air Chief: Well any time you lose people it isn't a good feeling, but then it's for their sake and the fact that we have lost these lives we have to finish the mission and finish it right.
NDTV: What have you told the officers?
Air Chief: Well exactly what I'm telling you now, that they're doing a great job. They just need to hang in there. This period will last for another 8-10 days and their performance and work that they've been doing is actually being recognised the country over. It's not just the Air Force, but the civilians who've been rescued the common man. You must have heard the PM's statement yesterday night and he has acknowledged that as well and across the country, this great tremendous support for the Armed Forces and for the services, what exactly we're doing in the sector.
NDTV: Sir the weather keeps getting bad from here on. Are you giving yourself a certain time frame within which you're going to evacuate the people or you're going to continue till you get out the last people?
Air Chief: Well as I said the weather in the mountains changes very rapidly. We are hopeful that from tomorrow, day after onwards we will start to see a much better improvement in the weather and as the weather continues to improve the tempo will also pick up.
NDTV: Is there still a hope for survivors in some of the areas like Kedarnath?
Air Chief: Well every time we vacate Kedarnath a few days later we find a lot of people collecting there again. But as of this point in time we are told that there are no more left to be evacuated except for few of our NDRF people and the ITBP people who were there initially, and that's exactly what this mission was all about yesterday, when he was bringing these people back there. But yes, we have some work to be done in the Harsil valley area, some work to be done at the Badrinath sector. As a matter of fact, today we have two helicopters who have left this morning for Badrinath from Gauchar itself and they should be returning very shortly with our survivors.
NDTV: Sir the fear of epidemic is looming large. Most of the bodies are decomposing. Do you feel you are being pressured a little bit so that the articles for last cremation could be taken to Kedarnath?
Air Chief: Not at all, we are working closely with the civil administration. In fact all the requirements, tasking comes from the civil administration so there is no pressure at all.
NDTV: But the priority remains the living I presume?
Air Chief: Absolutely. There is no change to that. Once we get four days of a good weather period we will be able to wrap up the operation as far as pulling the survivors out is concerned. The rehabilitation of Uttarakhand will take certainly far more time, you know, when we have to bring in heavy material by bigger helicopters. So that's a long drawn process. But as far as the survival part is concerned and evacuation of our people is concerned that I think if we get four days we should have it done so we're over the hill now.
NDTV: How many left?
Air Chief: Well at Badrinath, our estimate is close to about 3000 to 4000 people. At Harsil there are about 1000 people still to be evacuated and this morning we have done some sorties there in both sectors.
NDTV: What about the local population?
Air Chief: Anybody and everybody who has to be taken out and that decision is not done by the Air Force, that is done by the local administration and the NDRF people who are there on the spot, who take a call as to who is in which condition. As you know we pull the children and the women folk and the sick and the injured people out first and the men are the last priority. Those who could walk and take care of themselves, but after we finish this part everybody will be able to come out. In the mountains you have to see the night operations with this kind of weather would not be a very safe operation. It's not that it isn't possible, certainly it's possible, but then you also have to have systems gear up on the ground in terms of helipads, support infrastructure to provide help to the survivors to get into these choppers and pull them out. At this large scale, in the monsoon period with the weather there, night operations I would not recommend at this point of time.