The Rajasthan government's proposal to buy an aircraft, which has a longer range than the embraer aircraft used by president, vice president and prime minister has led to expected criticism from the opposition, especially by the Congress, which directly confronted chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia who had a preference for scandal-mired Augusta Westland choppers.
But the state civil aviation department's proposal to aircraft manufacturers to quote for a plane with a range of 3,000 km has raised many eyebrows in the Narendra Modi government.
According to critics, the plane can fly without refueling to London and the distances to be covered within the sprawling state are much shorter. The state government has clarified that the requisition for interested manufacturers has given a standard parameter, and when the technical and financial bids are received, the range would depend on requirement and affordability. Further, the officials say distances are vast in Rajasthan, which is the largest state in the country, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Karnataka. Andhra Pradesh has shrunk after the division of the state in 2014.
Many chief ministers prefer to be airborne for their travels within the state or when they visit New Delhi, that too by planes owned by the state government or chartered from private firms. Most states have created active civil aviation departments to maintain the fleet of aircraft and helicopters used for VVIP activities. However, they still depend on Indian Air Force during times of disaster or riots, when large number of troops have to be flown to the affected districts. Even for dropping relief supplies during floods and other natural disasters, the Indian Air Force is called, with the state aircraft only used for ferrying VIPs such as governor, chief minister and other ministers.
Kerala, however, is an honorable exception, where although the state capital is the farthest from New Delhi, the governor and chief minister prefer to use scheduled airlines to travel to the national capital, while using road, rail and commercial airlines for travel within the state. In neighboring Tamil Nadu, the practice is not to own an aircraft, but hire one, whenever chief ministers have to travel to Delhi. However, O. Paneerselvam had preferred to use regular airlines for his few visits to Delhi.
Mamata Banerjee is another chief minister who prefers to use commercial airlines, but another simple chief minister - Nitish Kumar - has now decided to hire an aircraft, which covers the distance from Patna to Delhi in little over one hour.
While Rajasthan, which owns two aircraft, is looking for another one with a range of over 5,000 km, neighboring tiny state of Haryana has requested chief minister Scindia if she can permanently lease one of their older aircraft for the use of chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar. Haryana civil aviation minister says the state will save a lot of money if it hires the aircraft, rather than buying it.
Uttar Pradesh, meanwhile, has three aircraft and helicopters. It bought a new aircraft and helicopter, by disposing one each, as they had completed their flying life. Though the money for buying the aircraft comes from the state budget, the permission of the director general of civil aviation is required to buy and operate the aircraft.
Chief ministers have argued that their efficiency has improved vastly as they are able to fly to distant places in their states, and also for consultations with the central government.
They keep arguing that aircraft and helicopters should not be treated as a luxury, even though for right to information activists, the money spent by chief ministers and governors on hiring aircraft is a favorite to query the state governments.
Interestingly, in the central government, individual ministries, except home and civil aviation, are not allowed to maintain their fleet of aircraft. While the Indian Air Force, which has a large fleet of VVIP aircraft and helicopters, takes care of the flying needs of president, vice president, prime minister and defence minister regularly within India and nearby countries. For long distance travels, Air India planes are chartered on a flight by flight basis.
During UPA rule, prime minister Manmohan Singh gave special permission first to Pranab Mukherjee, when he was shifted from defence to finance to use defence aircraft, and later allowed external affairs ministers to use the air force planes for travelling outside India.
In the Narendra Modi government, special permission has been given for external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to use Indian Air Force planes regularly, while occasionally they have been given to home minister Rajnath Singh and finance minister Arun Jaitley, who was briefly defence minister also. The home ministry, through the Border Security Force maintains a small fleet of aircraft, which is used by Rajnath Singh and his ministers of state.
The civil aviation ministry too has a small fleet, which is used often by civil aviation minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju. The planes and helicopters maintained by the Aviation Research Bureau, the spy agency reporting to the prime minister, are used mainly by national security adviser, cabinet secretary, the chairman of atomic energy commission and other senior officials dealing with internal and external security matters.
There is a proposal that the central government too should have a common civilian aircraft wing, which can be regularly used by all the ministers regularly instead of depending on not-so-frequent commercial services to smaller cities and towns. But there is a counter argument that the government should have a fleet of transport aircraft for ferrying operatives of national disaster management force during natural and man-made calamities or the commandos of the National Security Guard and central paramilitary forces during terrorist crises. Prime minister Narendra Modi has to take a call on these two different demands.
Meanwhile, it is to be seen whether Rajasthan government would go slow on its proposal to acquire a long-range aircraft, especially as elections are due in the state next year.