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'It was a privilege to bring our country men home'

February 08, 2016 13:07 IST

Nimrat Kaur and Akshay Kumar in Airlift'It was incredibly heart-wrenching to see people waiting to be evacuated -- children, parents and grandparents.'

'Many families did not get to leave together. An order of priority was drawn up, and the first ones to be evacuated were pregnant women, single and/or older women and dialysis patients.'

'Most were happy to be on the plane but also very distressed to have left behind family and friends.'

In his book The Descent Of Air India, Jitender Bhargava makes the following observation:
 
'In the mid-1980s, the only bright spot -- even as Air India found itself buffeted by a host of pressures on several fronts -- was its in-flight experience. Passengers rarely, if ever, found fault with the food, champagne or wines that were offered on board or the service of the cabin crew. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the overall in-flight experience made up for the other shortcomings of the airline.'
 
The above statement certainly establishes one fact -- passengers were of utmost priority for India's international airline, Air India. No wonder, the civilian airliner finds a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for successfully pulling off the largest human air evacuation in history.
 
For years, this achievement was kept a secret from the aam janta. Now, thanks to Akshay Kumar's latest release Airlift, every Indian is aware of Air India's courageous feat. 
 
Directed by Raja Krishna Menon, Airlift is based on the Kuwait evacuation which happened in 1990 as a consequence of the Persian Gulf War. Lakhs of Indians were displaced and were looking for help from the Indian government. That's when Air India stepped in and rescued around 111,711 Indians. 
 
Akki's film has received praise from all quarters.

Jignasa Hotha, who worked as a flight attendant with Air India for 16 years, had just completed two years of service in 1990.

She recalls, "My parents were worried about my safety. They thought Kuwait would be dangerous, but I didn't want to miss this opportunity. I refused to report sick and decided to be part of the flight crew that brought our people home from Kuwait. "
 
Bhargava, the head of corporate communications at Air India in 1990, says, "Our flights carried essentials and food from India because of the uncertainty regarding the availability of food, water and other essentials at the Amman airport. The government paid Air India for the evacuation as many Indians there did not have financial resources to pay for the ticket."
 
The evacuation took almost 12 days to be initiated because the Indian government and the Indian community, like Kuwait, believed there would be no Iraqi invasion. The airlift happened from Amman, Jordan, because Baghdad (Iraq) was closed and Iran was out of bounds. People travelled from Kuwait to Jordan via Iraq. It was a tense situation. 
 
Bhargava says, "Even though Air India had evacuated Indians from various places in the past, this evacuation was significant due to many factors. It was the largest and longest evacuation and the highest in terms of flights operated. It showed that the nation could take care of its Diaspora in times of need. Our staff rose to the occasion, though the pilots and cabin crew were initially concerned about safety. They were reassured when Director of Operations Captain D S Mathur operated the first flight as a confidence building measure."
 
The flights were often delayed because one had no idea when the passengers would reach the airport. Plus, most of the Indian expatriates didn't have the necessary papers; as per law, their Kuwaiti employers held their travel documents. 
 
This caused a problem for the Air India crew; the long delays meant they put in more than their stipulated hours. In his interview with the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, January-March 2011, K P Fabian, the then head of the Gulf division of the ministry of foreign affairs, mentioned that the problem was a genuine one. 
 
He also spoke to Firdaus Khergamwala of The Hindu about the excellent work done by the Air India crew who were energised by the positive press coverage and went the extra mile to make the evacuation a success. 
 
Hotha says, "I did not know this back story. We were not aware of the politics of the situation either." 
 
Adds Amrita Bhatia, another flight attendant, "For us, it was a privilege to bring our country men home. Years later, someone commented that this evacuation should have been the duty of the air force, not civilian carriers. The thought never crossed our minds then. We were doing our duty, and did not think we were being heroic. We did not want to be thanked for it."
 
Hotha recalls, "It was incredibly heart-wrenching to see people waiting to be evacuated -- children, parents and grandparents. Many families did not get to leave together. An order of priority was drawn up, and the first ones to be evacuated were pregnant women, single and/or older women and dialysis patients. Most were happy to be on the plane but also very distressed to have left behind family and friends." 
 
Bhatia adds, "The real heroes were those people who had left everything behind and made the difficult journey to Jordan. They had no idea what awaited them in India and were clueless if they could ever return to Kuwait again."

The evacuation lasted from August 13 to October 11, 1990; 488 flights were operated over 59 days to bring 111,711 passengers home.

Hotha says, "In those days, Air India maintained its rigorous training programme that had been designed under J R D Tata. Our service was reflective of traditional Indian hospitality and this was seen in the evacuation as well. We all were extra compassionate towards the helpless people -- they had already lost so much and their faces told so many stories." 
 
The Amman evacuation merited an entry in the Guinness World Records.

Unfortunately, there was no standard operating procedure that detailed the process so that it could be used as a reference for future operations. The apathy saddens many proud Indians, including Air India's staff.  
 
Political interference in recruiting, the growing belligerence of the airline's crew, the apathy of its top management and the blatant misuse of the power and funds of the politicians who treated the airline as their personal fiefdom has destroyed Air India.

But the pride and nostalgia for the Maharaja lingers, as the Amman evacuation made all those involved feel very proud.

Preeti Singh in New York