Op-Ed: Politics Enters ‘No-fly’ Zone

It’s official now. Chilika Lake is not in the ‘no fly zone’ list of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) – at least not yet. On its part, the Chilika Development Authority (CDA), the agency entrusted with the task of looking after the ‘health’ of the Ramsar site, has clarified that there are no restrictions on flying ‘over’ Chilika. So, we can ignore the retaliatory calls made by the Opposition and the Sachetan Nagarik Mancha, Puri for arrest of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and others in his party, who they say also flew over the highly eco sensitive zone at different times. The issue thus boils down to whether or not Jay Panda’s chopper (an R-44) made an ‘attempt to land’ in Chilika on Saturday afternoon. For, it is on the basis of this allegation in the FIR lodged by Bipin Acharya, ACF of CDA, at the Arakhakuda marine police station that Puri police seized the IMFA hangar and helicopter at the Biju Patnaik International Airport (BPIA) late on Monday evening.

While the FIR lodged in Arakhakuda says the attempted landing and hovering over the waters by the chopper took place at 1.30 pm on Saturday, a fact sheet released by BPIA Director Suresh Chandra Hota late last night said the copter took off from the airport at 0846 hours and returned to base from Kendrapara at 1326 hours, a good four minutes before it is alleged to have ‘attempted to land’ in Chilika. Jay Panda predictably latched on to this discrepancy in timing to claim that he could not have been at two different places at the same time. The truth lies buried in the Black Box and we will have to wait till it is decoded and the flight data record (FDR) is retrieved for the real story to emerge.

But what has taken the people by surprise is the alacrity with which CDA, Puri police and the government as a whole acted on ‘media reports’ about the ‘attempt to land’ in Chilika. Curiously, the FIR said it was a ‘chopper’ while the media report on which it was supposedly based had said it was a ‘seaplane’ that had made the attempt. Secondly, the FIR based on which the chopper and the IMFA hangar were sealed by Puri police makes no mention of either Jay Panda or IMFA. Briefing media persons last night, Puri SP Sarthak Sarangi explained it away saying the hangar and the copter were sealed only after preliminary investigation revealed that the chopper belonged to the IMFA group.

Now for the actual damage the attempted landing allegedly caused to the fragile ecology. The FIR says it made the atmosphere ‘noxious, ‘fouled’ the water and damaged the navigation route’ while the ‘huge sound’ made by it scared the ‘local people, tourists and fishermen’. In his initial reaction on the issue on Tuesday morning, Forest and Environment minister Bijayshree Routray, while admitting that the rules had indeed been violated and maintaining that such incidents should not be repeated, had made light of its damage potential saying there was no ‘scope’ for any damage to the biodiversity of Chilika. By evening, however, he had a completely different take, listing all the ecological harm it had caused.

It is the change of stance of the Minister within a space of a few hours that proves more than anything else that the move to seize the helicopter was prompted more by politics than any real concern for the ecology. The latest move has to be seen in the backdrop of the unrest at the Therubali plant of IMFA allegedly ‘sponsored’ by the ruling party which forced the plant to remain shut for several weeks a couple of months ago and the suspension of permission to the IMFA chromite mines in Sukinda area by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) before that on the rather specious ground that the company had not watered the roads on which its minerals were transported. It is obvious that the government has launched an elaborate exercise to ‘fix’ the recalcitrant former MP from Kendrapara for his audacity in taking on the all-powerful ‘Third Floor’ mandarin. And it can be trusted to come up with more such cases in the days ahead to put not just Jay Panda, but also others like Damodar Rout who have dared to challenge the supremo, in their place.

It goes without saying that the ongoing exercise will impose costs on the rebels for their act of defiance. But with adroit handling of such cases, the rebels can turn the tables and impose ‘political costs’ on Naveen Patnaik and his party in the next elections.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)