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Chopper to kill two birds

Calcutta, Dec. 22: Bureaucrats in Bengal can no longer blame bad roads for staying away from remote administrative trenches. They can soon hitch a helicopter ride and carry out “surprise checks”.

The Bengal government has signed a contract with Pawan Hans to buy 40 flying hours a month for Rs 50 lakh for bureaucrats to visit different parts of the state to supervise projects.

The state government is actually hoping to kill two birds with one big metallic bird: persuade senior officials to step out of their ivory towers without having to step onto cratered roads and do its bit to provide business to chopper services that usually need corporate clients to be viable.

State government officials said Bengal would be the first state in the country to hire chopper services for bureaucrats on a regular basis, although all states tap the option during emergencies. The Bengal decision will help fast-track projects and provide better services during emergencies, they added.

An official said the government had to buy the helicopter service from Pawan Hans as the state was in talks with the company to launch chopper services for tourists from Calcutta to Digha, Santiniketan and Asansol.

“Procuring a minimum of 40 flying hours could help Pawan Hans offset any losses it could suffer in running the services to the tourist destinations,” he said. If corporate clients are interested, such traffic is likely to be confined to Haldia, given the state of industry in the rest of Bengal.

Principal and departmental secretaries and the director-general of police will be among the officials eligible to use the chopper service, according to a letter sent by the chief secretary to all departments. The chief secretary will consider and approve requests to use the chopper.

In the letter, chief secretary Sanjay Mitra informed all departments that they could use the “window of opportunity” to increase the number of official tours to the districts and improve the quality of inspection of projects.

“Additional chief secretaries, principal secretaries, secretaries of the departments, director-general of police and principal chief conservator of forests may send requests to me, giving dates, time and brief purpose of their visits,” Mitra’s letter says.

Senior officials said the transport department had been given the responsibility to arrange the chopper tours of the bureaucrats. Helipads will not be required as the choppers can land on ordinary patches of level ground. Usually, large school grounds are cleared for helicopters to land during visits by politicians.

A section of officials said the government had “perhaps realised” that many bureaucrats were reluctant to visit the districts because of bad roads.

“Several road projects, including repairs and widening of national and state highways, have been stalled because of the government’s hands-off land policy. The reluctance of bureaucrats to use the pathetic roads could be one of the reasons for the government to start the chopper service. Besides saving time, it would also help top officials avoid the agony of travelling on cratered roads,” an official said.

For instance, it takes five hours to reach Nadia’s Krishnagar from Calcutta through the potholed NH34. A chopper will reduce the travel time to 40 minutes and help avoid snarls such as the 23-hour jam on the highway last Monday. It will take 50 minutes to reach Suri in Birbhum in a helicopter, a journey that takes six hours via NH2 and NH60 that are cratered in stretches.

A section of officials criticised the move to hire regular chopper services at a time the government was struggling to cope with debt, largely run up by the previous Left regime. But others felt that an annual outgo of Rs 6 crore would hardly make a difference to the debt burden.