Flight Plan

Aviation — the moving force when India votes

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on March 19, 2019 Published on March 19, 2019

Small planes and choppers help conduct elections in India, transporting men and materials to the remotest places. Ashwini Phadnis tracks the poll craft

We all marvel at how the Election Commission conducts the mammoth exercise of holding elections to the Lok Sabha every five years. But rarely does one think of who makes the elections to the largest democracy possible.

The Indian aviation sector is an important behind-the-scenes player in this gigantic task as it plays an important role in ensuring that electors from Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Rajasthan to the far corners of the North-East, get to hear and see their netas, that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) and VVPATs (voter verifiable paper audit trail) are transported where they are needed and security personnel and EC officials reach the polling booths for holding elections.

The sector’s most visible and high-profile role is transporting leaders across the country. Here, the favoured mode of transport are the small aircraft and helicopters as these provide the leaders flexibility and speed in criss-crossing the country.

When demand peaks

Lok Sabha and Assembly elections are a good time to rake in the moolah, for companies that provide these aircraft. Uday Gelli, President, Rotary Wing Society of India (Western Region), says, “During elections, there is an almost two to three-fold increase in the daily flying that these machines do, at about 75-80 hours as against 25-30 hours a month at other times.”

He adds that demand for the machines generally starts pouring in about 45 days before the first phase of voting for the Lok Sabha elections and about 30 days before Assembly elections. According to Gelli, demand for the 2019 elections is slightly more than it was in 2014.

Says Rohit Kapur, President, Business Aircraft Operators Association, “Demand for the Lok Sabha elections this year is almost the same as during 2014. The 40 to 50 or so aircraft and helicopters that are in the country will be fully deployed.”

Incidentally, aircraft and helicopter operators normally do not lease out their machines directly to political parties. “There are intermediaries who take the machines from the companies and go to political parties offering them the machines for election flying,” says an industry player.

However, as with everything else political, no one is willing to share details of the money involved or the profits that these operators make.

Other players too in picture

There are others too who play a role in ensuring a smooth election process. On top of this list are the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) (the agency mandated to ensure safe and secure air travel) and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

BCAS has issued guidelines to strengthen security measures at airports, aiming to curb movement of unauthorised arms, contraband goods and cash/bullion for the upcoming elections.

Special measures have also been introduced to check flights from uncontrolled/remote/unserved airstrips/aerodromes /helipads /private airstrips/waterdromes. BCAS officers will be conducting surprise inspections to check compliance with these instructions.

In 2014, the DGCA issued detailed guidelines for ensuring the safety of VIPs, SPG-protected persons and other persons of eminence in public life. The guidelines are based on a detailed analysis of earlier accidents and incidents associated with small aircraft and helicopters.

These instructions range from basic ones — like asking the flight crew to google helipad coordinates, suitability and other flying aspects like obstacles (like tall trees, high-tension wires), landing, take-off directions — to asking the crew to brief passengers on safety aspects like fastening their seat belts, and on evacuation procedures, before the flight takes off.

These instructions also specify that route planning should be done in a manner so as to avoid terrorist-infested and hostile areas and areas that impede search and rescue operations. They add that the company representative (from which the helicopter/small aircraft is hired) has to monitor every leg/sortie and take action if an aircraft does not land within 45 minutes of its scheduled arrival.

These guidelines also stipulate that the operator/flight crew ensures that no unauthorised cash, arms, ammunitions, narcotics or illegal items are carried on board the aircraft/helicopter.

Incidentally, the DGCA recently held a meeting with the operators of small aircraft and helicopters, telling them to ensure that the stipulated rules for elections procedures are followed. They were also warned that if any violation was detected, then they ran the risk of having their licence cancelled.

“There are safety instructions which are issued on the eve of elections by the DGCA. There is a complete set of rules. Given that VIP/VVIPs also undertake campaigning, there are special instructions that are issued,” says N Zaidi, who holds the unique position of heading the DGCA and then also becoming the Chief Election Commissioner. While almost 95 per cent of the movement of paramilitary forces for election duty is done by Indian Railways, the airlines also chip in to ensure that these forces are transported to inaccessible areas. Aircraft are also used for moving officials and security forces at short notice.

“Mostly, Air India aircraft are used for this. But there is nothing that prevents the Commission from requisitioning any aircraft,” Zaidi adds.

Air India has been carrying election material for the government and the Election Commission for decades. “We assist by providing priority carriage to election materials as well as any special handling and monitoring required to ensure the safety and integrity of the material,” says a spokesperson of the airline.

Though figures for the upcoming elections are difficult to come by, one can gauge the scale from some elections to State assemblies and the involvement of the aviation sector in these.

The Election Commission deployed over 32,000 personnel from Central police forces in Tamil Nadu, while 12,000 were deployed in Kerala for elections to their State assemblies in 2016. Nearly 80,000 CPF were also deployed in West Bengal.

Published on March 19, 2019
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