G. Eswari of Bapuji Nagar in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh has been waiting four months for her husband who disappeared in the AN-32 Indian Air Force plane which took off from Chennai on July 22 but failed to reach Port Blair, its destination.
Eswari is hoping her 30-year-old husband, Srinivas, will come back one day and take their two year old daughter Vedanchi for a walk in the evenings just like he used to.
Easwari is not the only one nursing hope: along with the 21 personnel from the armed services in the plane, there were eight civilian employees of the Naval Armament Depot (NAD), Visakhapatnam, who were on their way to rectify a defect in the CRN-91 weapon system mounted on INS Battimalv, a Bangaram-class patrol vessel, which was docked at Port Blair.
On the edge
Life has changed for the families of the eight NAD employees who have disappeared — Purna Chandra Senapathi, Charan Maharana, Chinna Rao, G. Srinivasa Rao, Bhupendra Singh, B. Samba Murthy, R.V. Prasad Baby and P. Nagendra Rao.
All eight were married. With young children to bring up, their families struggle to cope with lack economic support and are yet to come to terms with reality.
“Vedanchi still asks for her father by showing his picture,” Eswari, told this reporter. Eswari married G. Srinivas Rao three years ago and still clutches at straws in the form of any news at all on the missing plane.
‘Glued to news channel’
“I am glued to the news channel and read at least two newspapers every day, hoping that some news on the plane will come,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. In an advanced stage of a second pregnancy, she now lives with her parents.
The meagre income that her 62-year-old father earns from a small shop that sells chickens has to support her, Vedanchi, and Easwari’s unmarried sister.
“I am worried about my medical expenses that may run into thousands, as my condition is critical. This extra pressure is a burden to my ageing father, as I have another sister whose is yet to be married,” laments Eswari.
Rama’s story is somewhat similar. As is Hema’s. Or for that matter Paidukonda’s.
Rama, married to B. Sambamurthy, has two young children in primary school. “The NAD has stopped paying us salaries and I have no other financial support. What do I do now? How will I educate my children?” she asks in desperation.
The daily existence of these families, amidst the uncertainty about their menfolk, is harsh and the uncertainty is crippling.
Paidukonda, wife of Chinna Rao, has three grown up children who do not have jobs. “My husband was the only bread winner and now I don’t have a monthly salary or for that matter a pension,” she says.
The NAD stopped paying the salaries to the family members. They have been asked to sign a NOC (no objection certificate) certifying that their husbands are presumed dead.
“How can we do that? We need either a ‘proof of life’ or a concrete ‘proof of death’. Within two months they have stopped the search operation and now they are asking us to sign the NOC,” said Hema, the wife of Vara Prasad Babu.
For the family members, the disappearance of the plane is a mystery like the Malaysian airliner MH 370 that disappeared on March 8, 2014, while en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.
Poornima, wife of Nagendra Rao refuses to believe the plane could simply vanish. “There was no debris found and no indication of its location. How can an aeroplane, that too an Air Force plane, just vanish into thin air?” She is still to come to terms with the ‘Presumed dead’ theory with her two children aged six and three years.
Now she is dependent only on her father-in-law, who ekes out a living by selling pakodas and samosas from a pushcart by the roadside. “For us, buying the daily provision has become difficult. My husband is the only child of my in-laws and his salary compensated the economic difficulties. But now we are in dire straits and we are buying things on credit from the local grocery stores, hoping that he will return one day and things will settle down,” she says.
Some families have been holding back on the signature on the NOC, but economic compulsion has forced others to sign on the dotted line. After holding the NOC for last two months, four have signed them about two days ago. They are hopeful that the benefits will be cleared and jobs will be provided. But they have not got anything in writing. Nor has a firm commitment been given. “They (the authorities) are in hurry to get the NOC signed. But the remaining four of us have decided not to sign and wait till the government comes out with a logical conclusion of the mystery and assure us jobs,” says Hema.
The family members also say that the search operations for the missing AN-32 was confined to the area where the plane had gone off the radar. “Since beginning we have been stressing upon an extended search, but our pleas fell on deaf ears”, said Mr. Kiran, Prasad Babu’s brother-in-law.
The kin are also upset by the way they were treated. “We were not allowed to see the higher ups both in the navy and in NAD, and when we asked them to extend the search operations, they responded, ‘Show us the location and we will search’. For the foreseeable future, their lives look set to continue in limbo.