Some time, in our humdrum daily life, we chance upon opportunities of doing some things of utmost importance without really being prepared for it. Some times the opportunity fructifies and you are able to achieve something memorable and valuable. At some other times, you either do not recognize the opportunity and let it slip by or are unable to take up the challenge for various reasons. On some other times, you get a chance and try your best, but your best turns out to be not good enough. The opportunity dies. These occasions leave a scar on your soul that do not heal with time. My tale today is of such a chance that I could not grab and see through.
Air Chief Marshal PC Lal had just become the Chief of the Air Staff. One of his priorities on becoming the Chief was to conduct a thorough review of the organizational structure of the air force. He was a thinking man and a very methodical person. On assumption of his post he initiated a large number of studies on the structure of the air force. One such study was on the trade structure of airmen.
The IAF had inherited the trade structure from the Royal Air Force. From 1932, when the IAF was formed, till 1969, the technological and administrative environment of the Air Force had changed significantly. However, the trade structure of airmen had not been revised to reflect the change. The CAS now wanted to look into this subject. He wrote a letter to all the AOsC inC of all the Commands of the Air Force urging them to apply their minds and opine on the subject for his benefit.
Air Marshal Minoo M Engineer was the AOCinC of the Western Air Command. On receipt of the letter from the CAS, he sent a letter to all the stations under his command asking the Senior Maintenance Officers to apply their minds on the subject of trade structure and meet him in a conference for a general discussion. (In hind sight, it is interesting to note that he did not seek a similar feed back for the non technical trades from his administrative staff at the station level). The time given to the technical staff on the station for formulating their ideas ideas and opinion was rather short. In any case, all the Senior Maintenance Officers of the Western Air Command gathered at the HQ of WAC on the appointed date for their conference with the AOCinC.
The Staff Officer to the AOCinC went into the AOCinC’s office to inform him that the technical officers conference on trade structure was ready for his opening address. He found the AOCinC engaged with a visitor. The visitor was Group Captain HR Chitnis. Groupie Chitnis was then commanding the Air Force Station at Hindon. He had come to the Command HQ for some routine work and was in the process of paying his respects to the AOCinC. Out of curtesy, Groupie Chitnis immediately got up from his seat and took his leave. The AOCinC however restrained him. He explained the background of the impending conference to his visitor and asked him to come and attend the conference; he would like to toss some ideas with him after the conference was over, he said.
The conference was a disappointment to the AOCinC. Not one of the attendees had really put in any serious thought on the subject before coming to the conference. As the discussion began, it was clear that no constructive or even critical thought on the subject would emerge. The AOCinC ended the conference within minutes and asked each participant to return to their bases, write a comprehensive paper on the subject and reassemble at the Command Headquarters after two weeks.
Groupie Chitnis walked back to the Air Marshal’s office with him. They sat in the office for some time discussing the subject fresh on their minds. Ultimately, as Groupie Chitnis was ready to take his leave to return to his base, the AOC in C asked him to also write a paper on the subject from a base commander’s point of view, covering not only the technical but also all the administrative and other trades. Chitnis was well and truly caught behind!
Groupie Chitnis used to follow a routine wherein he met his unit commanders jointly in his office for a few minutes after the morning met briefing every day. On the morning after his encounter with the AOCinC, he told us about the happenings of the previous day. By us, I mean CV(Nosey) Parker commanding 20 Squadron on Hunters, Melville (Woody) Woodfall commanding 29 Squadron on MiG 21 and I, commanding 47 Squadron also on MiG21. At the end of his narration he asked us to think about the subject and help him write the paper demanded by the AOCinC.
When I was a Flight Lieutenant with the Battle Axe in 1962 under Baba Katre, he had got me into the habit of writing at least one full length service paper on any subject that caught my fancy every year. Just write down what you feel, he urged me. If that piece of writing passes your own scrutiny after four or six months, submit it to your boss for his views. Perhaps one out of ten such papers would make a difference to the Air Force. It was a sound advice that I had taken to heart and I had practiced it diligently over the years. When Groupie Chitnis popped his request in 1970, I had a number of semi-finished papers gathering dust in my little black box. One of these papers waiting to be completed was on trade structure/career management/technical training. I had started writing the paper on trade structure, but I had discovered that the trade structure is so closely tied with career management and in-service training that one could not be dealt with independent of the others. The concept had become complex. I had kept the half finished paper away for another day. The Base commander’s request rekindled my interest on the subject I had wrestled with for long and had left unfinished. I volunteered to write the paper on his behalf. I asked him if he had any ideas on the subject. He told me that he had not given it any serious thought so far. I then asked him if he would accept my ideas on the subject even if it was some what outlandish or strange. The station commander was amused by my expression and asked me to go ahead.
I told my flight commanders that I wouldn’t be available to the unit for the next few days and I went home. Leena was happy to see me home unexpectedly early and was surprised to see me head for the study room directly. I pulled out my portable type writer, cleared my table of other papers, pulled out the half finished paper on Trade Structure from my black box and settled down. I was sure that Leena would understand the situation and supply nourishment at my work spot at regular intervals without any interference from any one. All four of my children were to be kept strictly away from my study.
Re-reading the half finished service paper after a gap of over five years convinced me that a lot of water had flown down the Yamuna in the intervening years. The paper would have to be completely re-written. What I had attempted to write five years earlier was high on rhetoric and emotion and low on substantive planning. I was now somewhat more mature and certainly better educated thanks to my year at the Staff College. I took four full days to re-do the paper. By then it was the week end. I let the paper lie for a day, re-read and debated it with myself and then handed it to the Station Commander. I had to admit to myself that the paper had become rather radical. A lot of unpleasant facts had been examined. The new trade / training / career management profile suggested was totally different from the existing systems. A large segment of the paper also dealt with how to handle the transition if the suggested reforms were accepted and the proposed restructuring was to be implemented.
Groupie Chitnis took two full days to read the paper through. I thing he must have read it over a number of times. When he called me in for a review of the paper, I found him totally convinced of my arguments and my suggested remedy. We discussed the paper for a long time. He then sent it off to the command headquarters for a preview by the AOC in C. He told the AOC in C that the paper had been authored by me and that he fully agreed with my presentation of the subject. He strongly advised the acceptance of the courses of action suggested by the paper.
Three days later, Groupie Chitnis received a call from the Command Headquarters. It was about the paper submitted. It appeared that the AOC in C in his wisdom had formed a high powered committee comprising the the three PSOs, and two other officers from the HQ to read the paper through and advise him. The committee was presided ov by the SASO as the senior most present. The committee had found that they had too many questions on the assumptions on which the paper was based. They were also confused about the workability of the proposed solutions. Could Group Captain Chitnis and Wing Commander Sen please present them selves at the HQ for clarifications on the paper to the committee? Thus began a marathon new adventure for us. We went down to Subroto Park on the following morning to face what could only be described as an inquisition. What did we mean by stating that the structure of the air force needed a complete overhaul? How dare we say that the air force was structurally inefficient? Had not the trade structure stand the test of time from 1932 to 1969? Were we trying to imply that the commanders and senior staff running the air force were fools? Did I realize that I had barely 16 years of service and I was talking to a committee of five people who had a combined experience of nearly a hundred years?
The situation took us by surprise. Groupie Chitnis however stood firm. He had been given a task to perform personally by the AOC in C and he had submitted his personal considered opinion on the subject. The paper was a response to a query; it was certainly not a supercilious submission. The committee then sat down and went through the paper sentence by sentence. It took us almost six days to go through the paper before we were released from the Command HQ.
Next week, the paper was returned to the Station by the Command HQ. We were informed that the specialist committee examining the paper had found it unacceptable. No detailed critique of what exactly was unacceptable was mentioned in the letter. We were referred to the discussion on the subject held at the Command HQ. We were asked to revise the paper as directed and resubmit within one week. Groupie Chitnis and I sat discussing the letter from the Command HQ for a long time. I requested the Station Commander that I may be excused from this task as it was not possible for me to re-write the paper in the way the Command HQ wanted us to. Groupie Chitnis ignored my request and handed the paper back to me advising me to do what ever correction I could. I changer three or four words, mainly adjectives that were strong, with milder words and resubmitted it. The paper was sent back to the Command HQ where the same committee was made to go through it again. Once again we were sent for and and grilled. It seemed to me that I had committed a sin by stating in an official paper that the organization of our air force needed repairs. Did I know what I was talking about? Did I have any Idea how complex the organization was and how dangerous it would be to tinker with it? How dare I say that the weaknesses were obvious. Did I think our senior were fools not to have observed and rectified the weaknesses if they were so obvious? I had obviously failed to convince the scrutinizing committee about my point of view. Or, were my superiors afraid of addressing the task because there were too many unknowns, and the task appeared too risky to attempt?
When this second edition of grilling reached the third day, I was a bit fed up. On the third morning, before the proceedings of the day were to begin I handed over a translation of a Bangala poem written by Late Sukumar Roy (Father of Satyajit Ray) to the five gents.
O Baburam, my dear snake charmer,
Where are you off to?
Just listen to me for a moment
I need a snake or two
Snakes that would not bite any one
Nor will they run about or hiss
The ones that would trouble no one
And can survive on just milk and rice
Just get me two such snakes
Mind You, they must be alive,
I can then bravely wield a stick
and kill them while I dance and jive
This sudden input startled the gents as they read it in puzzlement. The SASO was not amused. He read it once and looked at me with quizzical eyes. On receiving no response from me, he read the poem again. His agitation was then visible. He got out of his chair and left the meeting without a word. We waited for some time for him to return but he did not. The other members of the committee then also left, leaving me and Groupie Chitnis in embarrassed loneliness.
After some time we were told that the meeting was adjourned till further notice. We came back to Hindon. The reviewing committee saw the AOC in C in his office and told him that there was no reconciliation of ideas between them and the authors of the paper. The committee therefore had no recommendations. The paper was left with the AOC in C for action as he deemed fit.
Air Marshal Engineer sent our paper to the air HQ as the response of the Western Air Command to the task reposed by the CAS. At the Air HQ, a committee was ordered to be formed under Air Cmde SS Singh (Tech Signals) to implement a reorganization of trade structure and training as proposed by the paper sent up by the WAC. Air Cmde SS Singh, who was the Command Signals Officer of the WAC and was a part of the reviewing committee appealed against his appointment for this job. He had rejected the report and was on record as being opposed to the idea propagated. The chairmanship of the trade structure reorganization committee was then passed to Group Captain Chitnis who was promoted to the rank of Air Cmde for this job. The committee (known as the Chtnis Committee) came into being towards the end of 1970. I was keen to join my station commander in his new venture and he was also keen to have me on board. The P Staff at Air HQ however had other ideas. I had been earmarked for a tenure as a Directing Staff at the Staff College at Wellington. They were unwilling to make any alteration to that plan. I stayed put at Hindon till the end of November and then went off to Wellington.
Air Commodore Chitnis found the going tough. He had to create a consensus of all the departments at the headquarters to proceed with the reorganization and he faced stiff internal dissent. A few months rolled by while the political environment of the country became cloudy. There was a general election in Pakistan that produced a strange sectarian verdict and Pakistan slipped into a civil war. A huge influx of refugees started from Pakistan to India. The english language media in India became very critical of the government. The Prime minister opted for a mid term election and returned with enhanced majority. The country then drifted into a war with Pakistan.
In the month of March 1971, the government ordered the formation of the third pay commission. The Services were keen to participate in the working of the pay commission but the MoD was not keen to approve additional manpower for such participation. Air HQ, in its wisdom, tasked the Chitnis Committee to also function as the air force element in the pay commission. All attention of Chitnis Committee was thus diverted from the task of trade structure reforms to that of the work for the Pay Commission. This situation continued till 1973. By then, Air Chief Marshal PC Lal had retired. Air Cmde Chitnis was also ready to be promoted to the rank of an AVM and proceed with his career tasks. The job of Trade Structure Reform was yet to be completed. Govt sanction for the extension of the tenure of the Chitnis Committee could not be obtained. The special task force for the job therefore had to be disbanded. The Trade Structure task was there-after passed on to the Directorate of Personnel (Airmen). The task was completed simply by changing the names of the trades. A Fitter II A became an Airframe Fitter and so on. An opportunity of reforming the air force’s trade structure for better efficiency was thus lost.
For me, it was a situation of mixed emotions. Having been launched on the subject of structural reforms for the Air Force, it became a sort of a passion for me. At the same time, an appointment as a DS in the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) was a prestigious one. It was intellectually invigorating and professionally challenging. I loved the job I was put into. I therefore found myself drifting into deeper studies about organizational structures, studying the various organizational experiments and models in the armed forces around the world while I performed my day to day tasks as a DS at the DSSC.
The student officers and their Directing Staff at DSSC go out for an annual round robin tour of the various industries and military establishments every year. The tour generally touches Delhi for a day or two during the tour. For the tour of 1971 I was on the tour. At Delhi, I made it a point to go and visit Air Cmde Chitnis in his office and update myself with the progress of his task. I was disappointed. I realized that the internal resistance to change from the AOM’s Branch and also from the Directorat of Personnel (Airmen) was intense. It was becoming difficult to make them see the vision and and get them on board. It made me sad.
Then there was the war of 1971.
In 1972, I once again visited Delhi with the Industrial and Demonstration Tour of the DSSC. Once again, I found the staff of the Chitnis Committee busy with the tasks related to the Pay Commission. I could not even get hold of any one to bring me unto date on the progress of the trade structure reorganization task.
In 1973 I was transferred from the DSSC to the Air HQ as a Assistant Director of Systems Evaluation. It was a short-lived stay. In October 1973 I was sent off on a deputation to the Iraqi Air Force. I had become the Team Leader of a team of Indian Air Force Instructors loaned to the Iraqi Air Force Academy at Tikrit. I returned from Iraq in January 1976 and took over the command of the flying instructors school at Tambaram in February. After a short tenure at the FIS I became the Director of Flight Safety at the Air Headquarters till 1979 and then I was posted to the ministry of defence till 1981. Thus, for over a decade, I had no opportunity to actively engage myself in the task of structural reorganization of the Air Force, a subject that had become my passion.
In 1981 I assumed command of Air Force Station Jamnagar. By then, a number of unknowns had started bothering me about the structure of the Air Force. Our actual performance on the ground and air seemed to me to be less than what it should be. I started to formulate ways and means to find out what was ailing us and test my theories actually in the field. I began a series of experiments on my base. This upset my seniors in the Command HQ. Perhaps I was deviating too far from the trodden path. I however found satisfaction in the results emanating from my various experiments. Slowly a strange situation came about. While I found enormous satisfaction from my command and felt that tenure to be one of my best productive tenures in my life, my bosses were decidedly unhappy with the way I was running the station. By 1983, I had been overlooked for my promotion, even though I was posted to fill an AVM vacancy as the Chief Instructor at the DSSC, hoping that I would be promoted in my next board. That did not happen either.
As the CI at DSSC, I decided to complete the formalities for my MSc from the University of Madras, for which I was eligible. I chose the subject of Trade Structure and In Service Training in the Air Force as the subject of my dissertation. I poured out the accumulated thoughts incubated over a decade and a half into this project. When the project was ready, a strange thought arose in my mind. What would be the use of my research and intellectual endeavor if it is limited merely to gather a Master’s Degree for me? I could not convince myself that an MSc would be an adequate recompense for the decades of effort that I had put in. At that moment, I was scheduled to visit Delhi on a temporary duty for a week. On my way I spent an evening at Bangalore. My plan was to take my paper to Air Marshal Katre for his perusal and seek advise on my future actions from him. He was then the Chairman of HAL. It so happened that the announcement for his appointment as the next CAS came about on the same day. I met him in his office and spent a few wonderful moments remembering our days when I had served under him as his adjutant in the Battle Axe. Baba Katre kept the copy of my paper with him. He would read it in his leisure he said. If I needed any directions, he would speak to me after he had read the paper.
I then proceeded to Delhi by the evening flight. Next day, a phone call from Baba Katre caught up with me through the office of the ACAS Personnel. My paper, he said, had kept him awake for the whole night. He immediately proceeded to discuss many aspects of the paper which indicated that not only had he read through the hundred and sixty odd pages of the paper overnight, he had actually digested it quite thoroughly. I was thrilled and elated. Baba said that it wold take time to formulate action on the paper. Would I give him three months after assuming the Chair of the CAS to set the ball rolling? In the meanwhile, would I withhold publishing the paper so that it would remain within the Air HQ. Needless to say I agreed to his suggestions. I withdrew my application from the University of Madras for my MSc. My elation on this positive response from Baba Katre was so great that even the news of my failing to clear the promotion board for the second time, which I got to know while I was in Delhi, did not depress me.
In 1985 I moved from DSSC to command Kalaikunda. In the next board I was cleared by the air force but the MoD sent the file back. Obviously my popularity with the IAS was not high. At the same time, Baba Katre passed away. I retired from the Air Force on my becoming 52 years old in 1986.
My fascination with this structural reform for the Air Force did not die with my retirement. I wrote an executive summary of my paper and saw Air Chief Marshal LaFontain in his office. I was not able to convince him. I tried again when Air Chief Marshal Mehra became the chief, and I failed again. I made a third attempt with Air Chief Marshal N C Suri. He felt that no restructuring was necessary. I had known these three chiefs personally over a long period of time. After my third attempt I had to conclude that my best efforts were not good enough. I made one last attempt of writing a letter to the RRM. I never received an acknowledgement of that letter having reached the MoD.
I conceded defeat regretfully.