Bastar/Raipur, Aug. 11: The Indian Air Force, Chhattisgarh police and central paramilitary forces are bickering over responsibilities claimed and shed in the fog of fighting counter-Maoist operations.
The air force is now at the centre of the row because police officers on the ground have alleged in official reports that pilots’ refusal to fly when most needed resulted in the death of injured troopers, inquiries byThe Telegraph over the past week have revealed.
One central paramilitary officer said up to 15 CRPF troopers may have bled to death because the IAF refused to fly to Dhaurai in Narainpur district on June 29 when Maoists ambushed a company. Twenty-seven CRPF and state police troopers were killed in the encounter. The report has been forwarded to the Union home ministry.
The casualties in the Dhaurai encounter were finally evacuated in a civilian helicopter chartered by Chhattisgarh police.
The latest round in the bickering started in the thick of action last week. In blinding rain on Wednesday, a state police officer who had lost touch with base in the middle of a firefight climbed a hillock near Kirandul, about 30km from Dantewada, and over a weak signal radioed his superiors for reinforcements.
More than two companies of security forces comprising Chhattisgarh police’s Special Task Force and special police officers called the Koya commandos were on a mission to hit a Maoist hideout near the National Mineral Development Corporation’s facilities.
“We asked for the CRPF Cobras (the special action teams of the Central Reserve Police Force) but they refused and said they will come only if Indian Air Force helicopters were ready to take them,” a senior Chhattisgarh police officer said.
The officer admitted that the state administration was panicky because 25 policemen who had returned to base had reported that another 75 troopers of their party, tasked to carry out a multi-directional assault on a hill, were missing. The forces were led by the deputy inspector-general, Dantewada, S.R.P. Kalluri. The two columns had lost radio contact in the rain.
A senior CRPF officer said: “We had readied two teams of Cobras at Polampalli (in Dantewada district) and in Jagdalpur (in Bastar) but the Indian Air Force refused to fly.”
The air force has four helicopters assigned for the counter-Naxalite operations in Bastar — two Mi-17s, each capable of carrying more than 20 fully-equipped troops, and two Dhruv advanced light helicopters. But in a peculiar arrangement, the helicopters have been placed at the disposal of the central forces for 80 hours of flying time for all four choppers in a month.
This means each helicopter can fly only 20 hours in a month — or that each is permitted to fly sorties that last less than an hour a day.
Contrary to reports from air headquarters in New Delhi, too, the IAF helicopters on counter-Maoist deployment are neither armed nor armoured. Officially, each of the helicopters has been assigned two Garud (IAF special forces) personnel. But often they cannot be taken on board to make space for either casualties, VIPs or security personnel of the central paramilitary forces.
The security establishment also concluded that if the helicopters are armoured (armour-plated at the bottom) to withstand small-arms fire, they cannot carry enough personnel. Armour-plating increases the weight of the machine and makes it less manoeuvrable.
The IAF doubts that the state and central forces in Chhattisgarh have sanitised helipads to ensure that they are beyond the range of small- arms firing by the Maoists.
These reasons are unacceptable to the police who complain that the “air warriors” lead a life of relative luxury.
“Do you know, that unlike my men who live in the jungles battling not only Maoists but also a shortage of supplies and malaria, the IAF personnel get to live in air-conditioned quarters?” an incredulous CRPF officer complained.
An IAF officer in New Delhi cited two reasons for limiting the flying hours. First, the IAF views its counter-Maoist deployment as a secondary task, its primary one being on the borders and in states where the military is involved in counter-insurgency (in Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast) and where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is in force.
For high-altitude border duties — such as in Siachen (and currently to give relief in Leh) — the helicopters have to be kept at maximum serviceability. The officer said the copters have to be “rotated”, meaning that the same machine cannot be kept flying for multiple sorties.
The IAF’s helicopter fleet is less than fully operational. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General last week found that the force was able to meet only 74 per cent of its operational requirement.
The fleet is ageing and about 78 per cent of the helicopters were being flown beyond their prescribed life. Between 2002 and 2007, the force has not inducted a single helicopter.
The upshot was that “serviceability” (availability for sorties) was low and fluctuated between 45 per cent and 75 per cent.
The IAF is currently recalling its helicopters on UN missions in Africa to bridge the gap.
In Chhattisgarh and in the counter-Maoist operations that gap is translating into bodybags.