Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rafale deal ready for take off, awaits final thumbs up

The key subject matter of concern appears to be the slow pace of acquisition of whatever equipment and assets are required. Hope of the forces is that their requirements should be fulfilled and the process should also be expedited. The effort of the government would be to work in that direction--

Defence Minister Arun Jaitley on 24 June

On the face of it, any defence minister would be expected to make such a statement, especially if he is meeting the media after addressing the military top brass. To that extent, Arun Jaitley's media interaction in the wake of Naval Commanders' conference was unexceptionable except that he has had extensive briefings and interaction with all the three services during the one month that the new BJP-led NDA government has been in power and if the brass at the Army, Navy and Air Force HQs is to be believed, both Jaitley and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are all set to give a booster dose to the military that it hasn't seen for at least five years.

The new sense of urgency in the Ministry of Defence is discernible, the brass says, by the very fact that bureaucrats are themselves calling up the service HQs and asking for meetings, quicker clarifications and pushing files faster than witnessed in recent times!

The biggest beneficiary of the new decisiveness could be the Indian Air Force, struggling to maintain its traditional conventional edge against Pakistan. Jaitley was told at an extensive briefing at the Air HQ how the IAF is in danger of losing that edge if the contract to buy 126 Rafale medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA), is not clinched immediately. The IAF, which ideally requires 44 squadrons but can do with 39, is down to 32 squadrons, 12 of them of the near-obsolete MiG-21s.

Apparently concerned, the minister had just one question to ask: how much money would be required once the contract is signed. The IAF's answer: Rs 100,000 crore spread over 10 years immediately evoked a positive reaction from Jaitley. 

This is not a surprise. Money was never a problem, decision-making or lack of it under former defence minister AK Antony was. 

Enthused IAF brass now says IF the government (read political leadership) gives the clearance, this massive and in many ways first-of-its-kind contract is ready to be clinched in the next six months. 

Those in the know told me three of the subsets of the complicated deal are over and done with. The committees that were in charge of Offsets, Maintenance, ToT (transfer of technology) have concluded their work. It has taken them over two years to prepare documents that run into thousands of pages. It includes details of work share between Dassault Aviation and HAL, liabilities, and costs to maintain and run the 126 jets that the IAF would like to use over the next four decades IF India decides to buy the Rafales from the French aviation major. 

Over 41 articles in the defence procurement procedure (DPP) have been taken on board in arriving at the final documentation. HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) has been designated the lead domestic production agency. Eighteen of the 126 jets will be produced in France and rest 108 at Indian production facility.

The only committee that needs to finalise its report is the one responsible for costs and contract. The process of finalising the value of the contract has been long drawn and involves what is called life-cycle costs. Once the political clerance comes, this part of the contract can be ready for signing in less than two months, those in the know say.

There are of course lobbies that are against the MMRCA are hard at work. Some are pro-US, others are pro-Europeans and yet others are pro-HAL but none is pro-IAF.

There is a group that is pushing for inducting the HAL-made Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas instead of buying what it calls an expensive Rafale. But as the IAF brass has repeatedly told me, the final operational clearance (FOC) of the Tejas is yet to come despite the home-grown fighter being in the making for over 30 years now. As per revised timelines, the first full Tejas squadron in the IOC (initial operational clearance) configuration will be in place only by 2016-2017 at the earliest. The second Tejas squadron, in the FOC configuration, will come thereafter. The four Tejas Mark-II squadrons, with more powerful American GE F-414 engines, will start becoming a reality from 2021-2022 onwards.

 "We have been hand holding the LCA for long and will continue to support it but it is NOT a replacement for a medium, multirole fighter aircraft. Its reach is barely 200 km when we need at least a '1000-km reach' aircraft if we have pose any challenge in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) where India expects a major threat to its air combat power in case of a conflict with China," a top Air Force officer pointed out.

Meanwhile, as the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius arrives in New Delhi on Sunday on a two-day visit to India, the Rafale deal will surely be on the top of his agenda.  The question is: will Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence/finance minister Arun Jaitley make it their own priority too? 

Up on the 5th floor of the Air HQ the brass is hoping in hell they will.

But as they say it is not over until it is over. So for the sake of India, fingers crossed!

The 10 Pancham songs I love for no particular reason

It has been more than two decades since RD Burman died prematurely. 

Yesterday, on Friday 27 June, he would have been 75. 

Fifty-five is no age to die for anyone, leave alone a creative genious like Pancham, like RD was known. I did not know RD. 

As a fan, one of course didn't need to know him personally. His songs were enough to connect. 

He had made a name for himself much before I entered college but on Vividh Bharati and Radio Cylone's Binaca Geetmala hosted by the irreprsible Amin Sayani, one heard his melodies regularly.

There was one indirect connection though. 

In the early 1970s, my father was posted to INS Shivaji, the picturseque naval station near Lonavla. The Rajesh Khanna hit Kati Patang had been released in 1971 and the song 'Yeh shaam mastani' like all other numbers in the movie, was a big hit. The song had been picturised near Lonavla and whenever we went to town from the cantonment, excited mothers and teenagers in the military bus would invariably point to the spot where the shooting of the film had taken place! The song and the name of the music director remained at the back of the mind since Amin Sayani, in his sonorous voice would, grandly announce the details of every song on radio.

As one entered final years of school, sports, cycling and studies--in that order--took up all the time. There was no place for movies or music. 

That was to come in the early years of college in Pune. I don't remember the exact month or date but it was certainly in 1980 when a group of us college boys happened to stumble into a morning show on a weekend, hoping to enertain ourselves after a hectic exam week. The movie: Teesri Manzil.

One had watched Shammi Kapoor's movies earlier. Tumsa Nahin Dekha, Junglee, Kashmir ki Kali, to name just three. But Teesri Manzil was different. The movie plot was unique, the casting impeccable (Premnath in his early villian role before he epitomised evil in Johny Mera Naam, half a decade later). But the strongest point was the movie's music and the masterly situational build up to each song by that genious of a director Goldie Anand.

I fell in love with RD's music instantly. Those days there was no internet to search or watch RD's songs but there were footpath markets that sold old film magazines and booklets that compiled songs with lyrics. So I started scouring the bookshops and kabadiwalas for anything written on RD Burman. Raju Bhartan used to write brilliant, detailed pieces on music and music directors in the Illustrated Weekly of India and Times of India; Shrish Kanekar, a marathi writer of repute was another source although, if I remember correctly he was mostly critical of Pancham. So as the information trckled in and got stored into one's memory box, RD became ny favourite composer.

One of the best aspects of being in a college hostel in Pune in the early 1980s was the variety of movies one could watch. 

The morning shows (9 am to noon) invariably ran the muisicals, love-and-romance-peppered-with-separation-in-Kashmir-valley type movies, starring Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar and Joy Mukherjee; at noon in threatres like West End and Rahul, one could watch English movies, war, curry westerns and romantic by turn. and the 3-6-9 pm slots were reserved for current lot of movies which invariably meant Amitabh Bachchan or Dharmendra shows or multi-starrers which were in vogue in those years. So in a month our viewing would range from Phir wahi Dil laya hoon to Roman Holiday to Muqqadar ka Sikandar and from Aarzoo to Rear Window to Ram Balram! In those carefree days, one watched at least 300 movies of all types, a pleasure one never had an occasion to enjoy during the course of the past three decades and more!

An occasional rerun of Amar Prem, Aradhana, Mere Jeevan Saathi, Kati Patang, Yadon ki Baarat, to name films randomly, was the icing on the cake. 

Through all this RD's music lingered on although he wasn't as impactful in the 1980s as he was was during the Rajesh Khanna era. Its been over three decades since Pancham composed those ditties but I never tire of listening to these 10 songs. 

1. Rim jhim gire saawan from Manzil (the Lata Mangeshkar version, not the more popular Kishore number)

2. Diye jalte hain, phool khilte hain from Namak Haram

3. Diwana mujha sa nahin--Teesri Manzil

4. Tum bin jaaon kahan (the Rafi version, not Kishore's)--Pyaar ka mausam

5. Aaja piya tohe pyar doon--Baharon ke Sapne

6. Waddiyaan mera daaman--Abhilasha

7. Meri Jaan Meri Jaan Kehna Mano--Do Chor

8. Tum mile pyaar se--Aparadh

9. Deewana leke aaya hain--Mere Jeevan Saathi

10. Sharm aati hain magar--Padosan

Each one of us will have a different list but this is mine. Why, I can have 10 other equally melodius compositions to replace and then 10 more... so why quibble?

P.S. As a reader pointed out, the Aparadh composition is not RD's, it is Kalyanji-Anandji's. What the heck, it is still hummable and in the same class as Pancham's! Enjoy!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

10 things that have almost disappeared from our lives

On Saturday, 21st June the stifling heat battering Delhi this summer forced us to stay home instead of going out for a customary lunch or dinner to celebrate our 26th marriage anniversary. 

Thankfully, the electricity board was benevolent with no power cuts to speak of through the day. A leisurely morning reading the newspapers and mails more thoroughly than usual;  a sumptuous breakfast and then the entire day lay ahead with no particular task on hand. 

For a quarter century, except in 1999 when I was in Kargil reporting the India-Pakistan conflict, the unwritten rule for this day has been to avoid professional work. So no writing, no phone calls and no talking shop.

The next best alternative was to riffle through old notebooks, papers and photo albums. As we sat reminiscing about early years of our marriage and the usual ups and downs I am sure all couples endure in life, it dawned on us how many things have almost gone out of our lives.

Here are 10 things that have more or less disappeared from our lives. At least this is what me and wife Neha could agree upon. There could be more, of course.

1. Landlines or fixed line phones

In an average family of 4, there are at least five if not more mobile phones these days. I remember using an MP's quota to obtain my first landline phone in 1988. Today, mobile connections have outnumbered landline connections in the country, if I am not mistaken.

2. VCR (Video Cassette Recorders) and VCP (Video Cassette Players).

Along with VHS cassettes of marriage and birthday functions. Now, one has an option of watching any video recording on a laptop, a tablet or a smart phone.

3. Typewriters. 

They were everywhere. The bulky Godrej and Remington brands in offices, portable Brother and Olivetti ones with individuals who could afford them.

4. The carbon paper

Most essential in sarkari offices and some times even at home to make copies in triplicate for every little application you made, be it for building a house, obtaining an air ticket from the chief minister's quota (yes, we had to do that when there used to be ONE Indian Airlines daily flight to Delhi from Guwahati) or simply to obtain a driving license.

5. The camera with a film

With digital technology taking over our lives, the Rolleiflex cameras with 12 or 24 exposures in black and white no longer limit our choices to click photographs. Now everyone--armed with smart phones and miniaturised digital cameras--no longer have to worry about running out of film!

6. The 'hold-all', that canvass-leather contraption we carried in our journeys.

To stuff a light mattress, a pillow and a bedsheets besides everything else that didn't fit into the steel trunk every time we travelled long distance on a trains that barely had one air conditioned bogey! It was our bed roll-cum-carry-all bag which has no modern equivalent or may be has metamorphosed into the rucksack!

7. The post cards and inland letters sold by Department of Posts

On which you wrote handwritten notes to your parents/wife/girlfriend/friend, folded them neatly and send them down the small slot on a funny looking red post box which had an inscription: Clearance at 10 am and 4 pm!

8. Money orders, telegrams and the man who brought them to you, the Postman

The most awaited person at the beginning of the month, if you were residing in a hostel. He would bring in those precious 200 rupees sent by your hardworking parents. The inevitable 5 rupees you had to part with as a tip. The telegram was not routine. It was reserved for receiving a job offer, announcement of death and many a times birth or for the most common purpose: Providing information. Most commonly used term being: 'Arrived safely.' Now the postman still brings registered post letters and occasionally the passport but most of the time we depend upon the courier, even if it is costly and unreliable.


Not to be confused with the disease. The ubiquitous PCO or Public Call Offices that used to dot every pavement and alleys and allowed you to make long distance calls. Inevitably a small, narrow cabin that could fit in just a telephone on a table, the person manning the booth and the caller. A third person had to squeeze in, if needed. In small towns and villages, you might see them even now but in urban centres they have invariably transformed themselves into photo-copying and lamination shops.

10. The telephone index diary:

With smart phones able to store an humongous amount of data, very few feel the need to note down telephone numbers in a specially designed diary. There was a time when one knew by heart at least 50-odd essential numbers. Today, I count myself lucky if I can still remember my wife's mobile number! Health warning: data on smart phone can disappear in a jiffy. In a notebook/diary it stays forever unless stolen or misplaced so like many of my generation do, do keep a hard copy back up! You will never regret it.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Desi Bofors nearing a major milestone

If all goes well over the next few days, the Indian Army's prayers for a towed artillery gun looks set to be answered soon.

The Dhanush at the DefExpo in Delhi earlier this year
The summer trials of 'Dhanush' a 155-mm, 45 calibre gun built by the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), a defence Public Sector Unit, are slated to begin at the Pokhran firing ranges from Friday, highly placed sources told me. The winter trials, a prerequisite along with summer tests, was carried out in the high altitude areas of Sikkim in the winter of 2013.

If the gun, based on the design and manufacturing technology provided by Swedish gun maker Bofors AG in the late 1980s, passes the test in the week long trials in the heat of Rajasthan desert, the OFB is likely to get the final clearance for manufacturing the desi but improved version of the original Bofors gun (the earlier version was of 39 caliber and hence had a shorter barrel) and fill a critical gap in India's artillery arsenal. Manufacturing could start as early as end-2014.

For more than 15 years, the Army's artillery modernisation plan has suffered one way or the other, the tendering process getting embroiled in allegations of manipulation and corruption at various stages. At least two foreign manufacturers have been blacklisted in the process. The Army, which needs over 1500 towed artillery guns at an estimated cost of over 10,000 crore rupees, is desperate to get new guns since no new guns have been inducted after the Bofors joined the Indian Army in the late 1980s.

The Army has given an initial indent of 116 guns to the OFB, with an option to increase the order to 416 pieces of artillery. The OFB gun, with its electronic sighting and laying system (Ballistic Control System or BCS) for aiming the gun at the target, will be a major improvement over the Bofors' manual system. More importantly, the Dhanush is likely to be priced at Rs 14 crore apiece, less than half of a similar gun manufactured abroad. While the original Bofors gun has a maximum effective range of 27 km, 'Dhanush' can fire a salvo up to 38 km in the plains, those who are involved with the gun's manufacturing said.

If the trials go off smoothly and the Army then gives the final clearance, the OFB has plans to double its manufacturing capacity from the current 18 guns a year. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Half a day on INS Vikramaditya

Inside ALH Dhruv on the way to Vikramaditya
 On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first trip outside Delhi and spent four hours on India's biggest ship, the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya. I was lucky to be part of the press entourage that was onboard. Here's a small glimpse of what we saw and experienced. Also a link to a film made by the crew of INS Vikramaditya is here:

Goa from the sky

Another view

A lone ship in the distance

Vikramaditya's serial Number

Arriving on the ship

The flight deck

The ALH on the flight deck

Flight deck crew getting ready to receive an aircraft

Two helicopters on the Vikramaditya

Western Fleet Chief RAdm Anil Chawla with Skipper Capt Suraj Berry

Magnificent MiG-29 K

Another view

CNN-IBN's Anubha Bhosale interviewing a pilot

Capt Suraj Berry

Capt DK Sharma, PRO Navy and Lt Cdr Pawanjeet, the weather man

The old with the new: INS Viraat passing by Vikramaditya

The all-important ski jump

PM Modi climbing into Mig-29 K cockpit

The weather turning bad

Headline Today's Rahul Kanwal was among the reporters onboard

The PM watching the air power display

The steam past begins

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lashkar planned to take hostages in Herat: new details emerge with photographs

 A Lashkar-e-Toiba hit squad was assigned to take hostages and lay siege on the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, to coincide with the grand oath ceremony of the Narendra Modi government in Delhi on May 26, security sources in the Indian establishment have now concluded after studying the pattern of attack and taking stock of the recovery from the operatives killed.

The recovery
Dry fruits
The arsenal
Bullet holes
This confirms outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai's assertion that the Pakistan-based LeT had was behind the Herat attack.

The LeT hit-squad, highly-trained, heavily armed and intensely motivated, had attacked the Indian consulate in the western city of Herat, three days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to be sworn in.

The group seemed to have come prepared for a long haul. Security sources said each of the four attackers carried AK 47 rifles and six magazines each. Two of them also carried under barrel grenade launchers or UGBLs and rocket propelled grenades or RPGs.

The attackers had two dual-sim-card enabled mobile phones, which had telephone numbers of the BBC, the Ariana TV station and the Indian embassy in Kabul.
Each also carried fruits, nearly half a kg of dry fruits and water bottles.

Indian security officials who have visited Herat and reviewed the deployment of two dozen Indo Tibetan Border Police or ITBP personnel who guard the office-cum-residential compound, said the first attacker tried to scale the wall using an extendable 4 feet portable ladder, but an alert sentry killed him within a minute.

The exchange of fire began at about 4 am. ITBP jawans forced the attackers to take shelter in a building nearby and were soon joined by personnel of the Afghan National Army and the police.

The attackers were neutralised after almost eight hours of intense gunbattle. Investigators suspect one of them got away in the chaos; only three bodies were recovered.

Intelligence officials point out that the three attackers killed did not wear suicide vests, a Taliban trait. This, they say, further confirms them as highly-trained LeT operatives.

Intelligence reports have warned the Indian government of more possible attacks on Indian missions and assets since Pakistan's ISI is uneasy with the large-scale Indian presence in Afghanistan post the US' withdrawal at the end of the year.

A day after he was sworn in, Prime Minister Modi had held bilateral talks with Mr Karzai and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, both invited to attend his oath ceremony. He had reportedly raised the Herat attack in his discussions with Mr Sharif.

The consulate in the middle of a residential area