The coming year may bring in some desperately needed relief to men combating the Maoists in central Indian states in the form of better intelligence gathering and coordination. After more than three years since it was first mooted, the base of operations for the Israel-made Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will be shifted from Begumpet airport in Hyderabad to Bhilai in western Chhattisgarh. This arrangement, according to sources involved, will be in place by the end of February 2015.
Yesterday, the Left Wing Extremism (LWE) division of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) held a meeting in New Delhi where the issue under discussion was the ‘delay’ of establishment of the base in Bhilai. At the end of the meeting, according to a stakeholder who was present, “It was unanimously decided that by February we should be able to begin flying from Bhilai. It will mean better availability of the UAV, better exploitation of the asset and most importantly, more flying time on hand.”
The UAV in question is operated by the spy agency National Technological Research Organization (NTRO) and is actually flown by Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel who are on deputation to the agency. Ever since December 2011 when the first UAV flight was conducted by the NTRO for the Central Reserve Police Force in South Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, the demand has been to shift the aircraft out of Hyderabad to a location closer to the area of operation. A letter written by the then Director General of the CRPF, K Vijay Kumar to then Home Secretary RK Singh while commending the role discharged and valuable inputs it provided stated, “The UAV almost took three hours to reach from Hyderabad and could effectively be utilised only for 3-3 1/2 hours for the area of operation.”
Ever since then MHA, CRPF as well as NTRO have been locked in discussions about just where the UAVs should be based out of. Finally in 2012, an airstrip in Bhilai was identified and work began towards upgrading and establishing all facilities there.
According to a source in Chhattisgarh aware of the actual up gradation at the Bhilai site, operations can be initiated at the airstrip by February. “As I see it, work is on in full swing and February should not be too difficult a target to achieve,” he said.
The forces have had a rather uncomfortable relationship with the NTRO. Recently in the Sukma ambush where the CRPF lost 14 men, the force complained to the MHA that the NTRO unilaterally pulled out the UAV right when the encounter began.
The NTRO’s explanation was that it had run out of fuel and had no option left. Time and again, the CRPF and MHA have been pressing the NTRO to move out of Hyderabad. However the infrastructure in Bhilai is only now coming up. Such has been the MHA’s frustration that it has ordered CRPF to procure UAVs and train its own personnel to avoid reliance on NTRO/IAF personnel. Said a source, “Issue was acquiring the land and creating the infrastructure. Multiple departments of the centre and state governments were involved and thus a lot of red tape too.”
Why Bhilai as a base
While operations from Hyderabad ensured that the UAV hardly had ‘Time on Task’ by the time it reached areas of south Bastar and Gadchiroli, far less over Jharkhand, placing the same in Bhilai makes it possible to do so. The location is central to regions of Bastar, Gadchiroli, western Odisha as well as Jharkhand and Bihar.
Why a UAV can be a game changer
UAV relays live images of the situation back to the control room with the help of a high-resolution camera on its belly and satellite networking, which is then shared with the troops in real time. For the security forces, UAVs changed the game. Notwithstanding the foliage, penetrating which remains a challenge, the forces know the exact area of the Maoists’presence, and also asses the topography and execute an operation – an edge they never had.