New Delhi, July 1: The Indian Air Force has been asked to expand Operation Triveni — the air support for counter-Maoist operations — to eight states from five but it has told the government that its helicopters are running unacceptable risks because of poor support from the Union home ministry and the state governments.
The home ministry is in fact hoping that it will have greater co-operation from the defence ministry in the counter-Maoist operations with a new army chief, General Bikram Singh, taking over last month.
But the IAF, the only military outfit directly involved officially in the counter-Maoist operations, is now finding it difficult to sustain Operation Triveni in the absence of infrastructure.
The former army chief, General V.K. Singh, who retired on May 31, had resolutely opposed home ministry proposals to involve the army in counter-Maoist operations.
Earlier this month, V.K. Singh had told The Telegraph that in November 2011, the Union home ministry had come up with a “flat-headed proposal” to re-deploy some of the 63 battalions of the Rashtriya Rifles from Jammu and Kashmir to Maoist-hit districts in Chhattisgarh “to secure the camps of 75 battalions of the central police forces while the police would go out into the jungles to hunt for Naxals”.
V.K. Singh said he had turned down the proposal because it was unworkable and added that the home ministry was treating the army not as “an instrument of last resort as defence minister A.K. Antony has been saying” but as a constabulary.
Now the air force has told the government that its helicopters have been shot at about 10 times in the recent past. On four occasions, suspected Maoists have hit the helicopters with small arms but the sturdiness of the Mi-17s and the precautions taken by the aircrew — such as steep dives to land and steep take-offs — have been chiefly responsible for the no-casualty report on the air operation.
In 2008, an IAF crewman in a helicopter was killed in ground fire by Maoists near Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, as his chopper was taking-off.
In pointing out that the helicopters have taken flak four times, the IAF is also warning the government that the Maoists are getting better at targeting and that they have developed the firepower. The copters deployed in the counter-Maoist operations are armoured.
Operation Triveni, the codename given to the “air maintenance” of troops in Maoist-hit districts, began in 2010 with two Mi 17 helicopters. The number was first increased to four and now stands at six, and the operation has been expanded to cover Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Areas from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha have been added recently.
The home ministry has also asked the IAF for more helicopters because BSF copters were not flight-worthy enough in critical situations. The Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand governments have also been chartering private helicopters for the counter-Maoist operations.
The home ministry’s insistence has increased largely because its plan to wet-lease 13 Mi-17 helicopters was practically nixed after the former army chief indicted businessman Ravi Rishi’s company in a deal for Tatra trucks. The Mi-17 multi-utility helicopters cost an estimated Rs 45 crore each.
Ravi Rishi also owns Global Vectra Helicorp, the largest private supplier of helicopters in the country, through which the home ministry was planning to lease the helicopters. The directorate-general of civil aviation was asked to suspend Global Vectra’s licence in the wake of the Tatra row.
In presentations to the government, the IAF has said it would continue with its task of moving central police forces and equipment and evacuating casualties but wants the state governments to set up hangars and secure helipads for its copters.
The IAF has said the tasking for its helicopters must be routed through an inspector-general of the CRPF based in Raipur.
“We get too many requests for helicopter support that are not routed through the tasking officer. We have been ordered to take our brief from him but the police just call at random and ask for helicopters without appreciating how we operate,” an IAF officer said.
The officer said that in south Chhattisgarh’s Jagdalpur, for example, from where the IAF helicopters have flown frequently in support of central forces, the hangars were not yet built. Even in Chintalnar, an area near Mukram where the Maoists killed 75 central policemen on April 6, 2010, the IAF is unsure if the helipad is sanitised.
The air force had also asked the state and central forces to “pre-position” fuel stocks. But this has not been done. The IAF has said that the local administration in the Maoist-hit areas should “pre-position” fuel.
Also, said the officer: “They want us to switch off the engines without sanitising helipads in risky areas. The standard operating procedure requires that the IAF helicopters descend on helipads in risky areas in a steep dive, keep the engines and rotors running, and take off in two minutes.”