NEW DELHI: On the morning of March 11, when the nation was glued to television sets watching the poll results in five states, nearly 120 men of the Central Reserve Police Force’s 219th battalion were ambushed by over 80 Naxals in the Sukma jungles of Chhattisgarh. Twelve of them fell to IED blasts, enemy bullets, country-made mortars and “Rambo-style” explosive-headed-arrows.
A bigger tragedy was there were no helicopters to ferry the injured to hospital, leading to more casualties in the biggest ever Naxal attack on security forces in two years. The only mode of evacuation in thick forest areas is by helicopter. They are also force-multipliers providing logistical support to troops.
Official apathy was responsible for the chopper gap. An internal CRPF note to the Ministry of Home Affairs last week pointed out that eight of the 10 copters allocated for CRPF’s anti-Naxal operations were grounded, leaving just two available for operations.
The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has no helicopters of its own. It uses 10 helicopters—four Mi-17 V-5 from the Indian Air Force, three Advanced Light Dhruvs from the BSF, two private and one from the Chhattisgarh police—for anti-Naxal operations in state.
According to a report by the IG (Ops), CRPF, two of the Mi17s parked at Raipur and Jagdalpur bases could not take off, since they had already flown their stipulated 95 hours.
The ALH Dhruvs in Raipur were under maintenance for the last three months. The contract for two private helicopters had expired in February.
A senior CRPF official claimed that the MHA had been briefed about the non-availability of choppers, accompanied by a request to renew the contract of the private choppers.
“Only one Mi-17 helicopter from Raipur was pressed into service and later, another from the Nagpur station after the ambush. Immediate availability of helicopters certainly could have saved precious lives of our personnel,” said a CRPF official.
Incidentally, the non-availability of copters in such critical situations raises questions, when a record number of choppers were hired by political parties for electioneering in the recently-concluded five state polls.