A solar-powered plane landed in Varanasi around 8.30pm after one of its pilots — trying to make history by flying a around the world — launched an angry attack on Indian bureaucracy on Wednesday after a lengthy hold-up in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state.
Bertrand Piccard, one of the two Swiss pilots of Solar Impulse 2, said he and his team had been frustrated by delays over paperwork in Ahmedabad. "If there is no adventure in the future, it is not because of a lack of ideas, but because of excessive administration," Piccard tweeted after the Si2 was had to put off its take-off early on Wednesday because of "customs issues".
The plane landed in Ahmedabad last Tuesday from the Omani capital Muscat after completing an initial sea crossing in its epic bid to become the first plane to fly around the world solely powered by the sun. The single-seater had been due to leave on Sunday for a short flight to Varanasi before heading onto neighbouring Myanmar.
But the plane, flown by co-pilot Andre Borschberg, could only leave on Wednesday morning after delays blamed on bad weather, while Piccard's support team remained stuck at Ahmedabad airport hours after takeoff. "The delay is (because of) of administration, papers, stamps," Piccard told reporters at the Ahmedabad airport.
"In #Ahmedabad, the #solarTEAM is still waiting for @bertrandpiccard #Si2passport! Time is running out!" the Si2's Twitter handle posted even after Borschberg's take-off, with Piccard and others stranded at Ahmedabad.
"Before having the stamp, you are nobody," Piccard tweeted late rafter his papers were processed. All this did not happen without a scare in the middle: "Worried! The #solarTEAM in #Ahmedabad might not arrive in time in #Varanasi to help for the landing! #Si2passport," the support team posted on Twitter. "If @bertrandpiccard can't come to Varanasi #Si2passport = no pit stop possibility = #Si2 grounded = mission critical."
The Si2 team spent all morning trying to resolve the issue. "@bertrandpiccard is negotiating with Indian authorities to solve #custom issues, while @andreborschberg is waiting," the Si2 team tweeted early in the morning.
"I'm not here to accuse anybody. I just say that since the last five days we are trying to get all the stamps and every day (they) say tomorrow," said Piccard. "Since five days we are desperate to get all the stamps and we still have stamps missing."
Piccard's team had to arrive in Varanasi ahead of Solar Impulse 2 to coordinate its landing. The aircraft landed smoothly after the team reached the holy town well in time to prepare for the event.
The team posted pictures on Twitter of themselves at the airport looking anxious and miserable, before finally getting the go-ahead to leave hours later. Another picture showed a smiling Piccard holding up his passport with stamps on it.
Piccard's comments risk embarrassing Modi, who has vowed to cut bureaucratic red tape in promised reforms to revive India's economy after storming to power at general elections last May.
Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat before becoming premier, wants to attract more foreign companies who have long complained of encountering bureaucratic nightmares in India.
Modi supporters have often touted Gujarat's business-friendly policies as a model for success which should be replicated nationally.
Kiran Mazumadar Shaw, chief of Indian biotechnology company Biocon, took a swipe at Modi's government following the pilot's tirade.
"Hope (the government) heard the solar plane's pilot commenting on bureaucratic delays n cumbersome paperwork...Red tape and petty officialdom are stalling progress," she wrote on Twitter.
(With inputs from AFP.)