Friday, February 5, 2016
The real story behind ‘Airlift’
The movie, Airlift, on the 1990 evacuation of over 1,50,000 Indians working in Kuwait and Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq, depicted slackness of the Ministry of External Affairs in responding to the crisis.
KP Fabian, then joint secretary (in charge of the Gulf region) who coordinated evacuation puts the episode in perspective: The 1990 evacuation of around 1,76,000 Indian nationals from Kuwait/Iraq through Jordan is a case study on the government’s ability to respond to an emergency.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, India had two principal concerns. First, to persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait without a war and, second, to ensure safety and welfare of the Indian community in Kuwait (about 166,000) and in Iraq (about 10,000).
The late KTB Menon, the richest Indian in Kuwait, phoned me from London on , and said that he would pay for the evacuation expenses of the entire community. I thanked him and made it clear that should evacuation prove to be necessary, the Government would pay for it but I might avail of his generosity in case of an emergency.
To seek a diplomatic resolution of the crisis, external affairs minister IK Gujral went to the US, where he met his US counterpart, Jim Baker, UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, and others. We were in touch with leading NAM countries too. We soon came to the conclusion that the US was determined to resort to war and therefore the community should be evacuated.
Gujral, accompanied by additional secretary IP Khosla and me, went to Baghdad and met president Saddam Hussein who offered to facilitate the evacuation. A section of the media blamed Gujral for allowing Hussein to embrace him. But Gujral did the right thing, by not refusing Saddam Hussein’s perfectly normal gesture. India refused to condemn Iraq, as the idea was to persuade them to withdraw. Most commentators refused to see the logic. There was strong US influence on the Indian media at that time.
After we were back in Delhi, a Cabinet sub-committee chaired by Gujral and with civil aviation, finance and home ministers as members was constituted. It was agreed with the Cabinet Secretariat that the Gulf division of the ministry will be the secretariat of the sub-committee.
This arrangement worked with clockwork precision. The Air-India Manager from Amman would phone me up and indicate the number of evacuees for the next day, say, 1,200. With a call to civil aviation secretary AV Ganesan, I could ensure that the right number of planes would be sent without fail.
Before sending the planes, there was no discussion with AI about payment. Obviously, there was no need as there was no other airline to choose. When Air-India sent bills after the exercise, there were queries: Why were no quotations obtained? Fortunately, a simple note explaining the circumstances was enough.
All told, it was a study in team work, within the government and between government and civil society. As Iraq and Kuwait were under sanctions there was need to send food. Our permanent representative Gharekhan got UN approval to send a shipload of food to Iraq.
Upon a telephonic request, the Kerala government provided a few thousand tonnes of grain in less than 48 hours to a waiting ship that sailed straight to the Gulf.
WISH YOU THE BEST