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Yeshwanth Shenoy - the man fighting to make your airport safe

Yeshwanth Shenoy's life changed after a chance involvement in the May 22, 2010, Air India Express plane crash at the Mangaluru airport that claimed 158 lives.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Aug 03, 2017, 10.34 AM IST
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Shenoy had deep-dived into the issue of airport safety in India and decided those were the cases he wanted to fight. (Image courtesy: Bharat Chandra)
Like all crusaders fighting for difficult causes, Yeshwanth Shenoy is a marked man. “I get threats from builders and house owners,” says the 39-year-old lawyer who has single-handedly brought India’s aviation regulator to pass an unprecedented demolition order on hundreds of illegal buildings around Mumbai airport.

“I get calls from people offering me money that would last me comfortably through my life,” he adds ruefully, seated in a cluttered office in southern Mumbai. He doesn’t want the address to be printed, saying it would alert people who are looking for him. The office isn’t his. A friend “generously lets me use it.”

A sheaf of papers close at hand is weighed down by a plastic toy aeroplane. He uses the plane to illustrate at court hearings. He also makes thermocol models of airports for those illustrations, one for each hearing. The toy aircraft is a constant. Shenoy is also broke. He says he has enough money to last him till December. After that, he plans to crowdfund fees and expenses incurred in his cases. “After all, I am doing it for the people.”

Last month, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) sent notices to 70 buildings surrounding the airport to reduce height by 1-6 metres to avoid hindering the flight path of Mumbai airport. These are just the first set of summons. A total of 437 such buildings have been identified. The DGCA’s mandate follows a Bombay High Court order in August last year saying all such buildings should be demolished or broken to their permissible heights.

The order was a result of a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Shenoy in June 2014 and doggedly pursued by him thereafter. Shenoy, a resident of Ernakulam, Kerala, for the most part of his life, had nothing to do with airports and planes, except in the capacity of a traveller. A class topper at the University of Turin, Shenoy specialised in international trade and biodiversity and had a plush career ahead as a corporate lawyer. After an internship with the United Nations, Shenoy had lucrative stints at Larsen & Toubro, British Telecom and New York-based CA Technologies during 2006-10.

His “life changed” after a chance involvement in the May 22, 2010, Air India Express plane crash at the Mangaluru airport, one of the deadliest in India’s air travel history, claiming 158 lives. “Soon after the crash, a barrage of US lawyers—‘ambulance chasers’—descended upon Mangaluru. In such cases, if an aircraft product defect is proven, compensation runs into millions of dollars and the lawyer can get a 40% cut. The affected people didn’t know who to turn to. My friends asked if I could help. That is how I got involved,” he said.

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Shenoy fought for compensation for a passenger who lost his life, but investigated much deeper than his brief called for. Mangalaru is one of India’s eight critical airports, with a table top or plateau runway, overshooting which can land a plane in a deep gorge. The Air India Express crash was the result of such an overshot. High level investigations put it down to negligence of the commanding pilot. But Shenoy’s research additionally revealed that an instrument landing structure had been erected in the flight path. Further investigations revealed that Airports Authority of India (AAI) had labelled it a hazard in 2006.

“It was the pilot’s error in landing. But was he responsible for the deaths? No!” Shenoy filed a case of criminal negligence against the AAI, DGCA and Air India. The case is still pending in Karnataka High Court. Two years later, Shenoy made a trip to Belgrade, Serbia to meet the family of the commanding pilot, Zlatco Glusica. They had been struggling to get compensation from the airline. Shenoy offered them his counsel, got a power of attorney from a Serbian local court, filed a case against Air India in labour court and got the Glusica family compensated Rs 8 crore.

Shenoy had deep-dived into the issue of airport safety in India and decided those were the cases he wanted to fight. He quit his job at CA Technologies. Back in Mumbai, he chanced upon an article on how a senior AAI official, S Mangala, had been transferred to an obsolete post after she refused to sign a no-objection certificate for an illegal building, planned just 600 metres from the end of the runway.

A fearless officer, Mangala had on several occasions whistleblown wrongdoings at airports. “My understanding of the sector told me this was a clear case of corruption on part of the AAI. I met Mangala. She didn’t share documents but said I was right in my understanding,” said Shenoy. Shenoy filed the PIL in June 2014 against AAI, the ministry of civil aviation, DGCA and Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL), the GVK-led entity which operates the Mumbai airport. Initially, he had little documentary evidence to proceed with. In his filing, he had spoken about 200 illegal structures surrounding the airport, an assessment that was vehemently turned down by the respondents.

In October 2015, Shenoy made a breakthrough when a Right To Information filing revealed that a few years ago, MIAL had itself sent such notices on illegal structures to building owners and residents. Shenoy produced 160 such notices in court. In response, MIAL filed an affidavit of a survey done in 2010-11, which showed 137 such illegal structures.

In March this year, MIAL submitted the findings of a fresh survey which pegged the number of illegal buildings at 437. Shenoy, however, says the actual number of such structures is 20-fold what has been reported. “Buildings that have been shown in the survey are on what we call the approach to the runways of Mumbai airport. If we take the inner horizontal surface, a 4 km radius around the airport, the number would run into thousands.” He estimates the total number of such structures at around 8,000. Shenoy’s case has unveiled several layers of corruption and lax functioning at many levels in the aviation ministry and airport operations.

“AAI/ airport operator is supposed to do a survey every three years. That wasn’t done for years at Mumbai airport before 2010-11. The DGCA is supposed to do an audit licensing of every airport. That hasn’t been done. MIAL sent notices to building owners in 2010-11. When they remained unheeded, why didn’t it alert the DGCA? S Mangala wrote several whistleblowing letters to the ministry of civil aviation. Why were they ignored?” ET has reviwed court documents, including Shenoy’s appeal, the court judgment and the affidavits filed by MIAL. Emails with additional questions sent to MIAL, DGCA and AAI remained unanswered. Mangala calls Shenoy’s fight one that is extremely crucial at this time.

“I really commend what he is doing. But we are up against really big names and entities,” she says. Realtors such as Keystone Developers with high-rises planned in the vicinity have appealed to the high court for intervention of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a global regulatory body. ET has seen copies of the applications. Shenoy’s movement has naturally earned him severe detractors, especially, residents and owners of targeted buildings. Their concerns and reasoning are valid.

“Some of these buildings are 50 years old. We have the NOC of the BMC. Why wasn’t it told to us that we need a nod from the AAI as well? Some of the demolitions ordered are as deep as two floors. If they are demolished, the buildings won’t stand,” says Hemant Phansalkar, the secretary of one of the residential societies in the affected areas.

“Shenoy may have filed the PIL for a good cause. But he never thought how many innocent would suffer because of him. He never made efforts to see whether all the listed buildings have violated rules. Now he is ethically and morally responsible for the losses of innocent people. He thought about the safety of aircraft passengers but not of the losses and safety of genuine residents who never violated rules,” he adds.

The owners have decided to appeal en masse to the DGCA against the mandate. If that doesn’t work, they plan to file a case against the regulator. Shenoy has no plans to stop. He says no airport in India is completely safe and plans to file similar PILs against Delhi and Kolkata airports. He has a simple answer to the scorn leveled at him by affected parties. “Buildings and apartments can be replaced. Human lives can’t be.”
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