A storm erupted Thursday after the Trinamool Congress alleged “a conspiracy to eliminate” its leader Mamata Banerjee who was on an IndiGo flight that was made to hover over Kolkata “despite being low on fuel” the previous night. The Chief Minister sparked another row when she questioned the Centre on the presence of Army personnel at toll plazas in “various parts of the state”, including one near state secretariat Nabanna.
The Army said it was conducting an “annual exercise… as per government orders” and there was “nothing alarming”. Around midnight, it withdrew, saying data had been gathered.
Earlier, Banerjee had told The Indian Express that the Army deployment was in “clear violation of the Constitution” and a bid to “create a civil war like situation in the country”. She decided to spend the night at the secretariat: “This is very unfortunate that the Army is present outside Nabanna despite police objection. I am staying here, guarding our democracy.”
There were clarifications from IndiGo and the Army on the two incidents. The airline said the air traffic controller “misunderstood” that the plane carrying Banerjee was low on fuel after the pilot radioed that the aircraft had eight minutes of extra holding fuel over Kolkata.
But the Trinamool Congress remained unconvinced. The party raised the matter in Parliament and shot off a letter to Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju. Regulator DGCA stepped in, ordering an inquiry into the incident of three flights, including the IndiGo flight carrying Banerjee, reporting low fuel at the same time.
The government too rejected the Trinamool Congress allegations, saying around the time the IndiGo flight reported being low on fuel, two other flights — of Air India and SpiceJet — had also called in with the same problem.
Around 8 pm Wednesday, the pilot of IndiGo flight 6E 342 told passengers that the flight would land “15 minutes late” due to air traffic congestion. Forty minutes later when the aircraft landed in Kolkata, it was immediately surrounded by ambulances, fire engines and police.
Banerjee made no comment but state Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim told reporters: “There was serious inconvenience to the CM and other passengers. The pilot sought permission for landing from the ATC as the plane was low on fuel, but the ATC kept the flight on hold. This was a conspiracy to eliminate Mamata Banerjee. She is not afraid of dying. But she was concerned about the lives of other passengers.”
Atul Dixit, Director of Kolkata airport, told The Indian Express: “The flight was short on fuel for holding. While holding time was 13 minutes, the flight had fuel for 8 minutes. But additional fuel for diversion to nearest destination was available in the aircraft. Laid down procedures were followed and it was a safe landing.”
In a statement, IndiGo said its flight 6E 342 from Patna made a normal landing at Kolkata airport. “The flight was kept on hold for landing due to air traffic congestion at Kolkata. The pilot operating 6E-342 had advised the ATC that he has 8 mins of extra holding fuel over Kolkata (destination) before commencing diversion to the planned alternate. However, this information was misunderstood by the Air Traffic Controller who assumed that the aircraft had only 8 mins of total fuel left.”
“The misinterpretation of the information by ATC controller led ATC to instruct fire engines and ambulances to be stationed at Kolkata airport. We would like to clarify — IndiGo Captain at no stage declared a fuel priority or an emergency. Subsequently, the airplane made a normal landing at Kolkata airport at 8.40 pm (delayed by an hour due to congestion). The fuel on arrival was more than the minimum diversion fuel. There has been no violation or breach of any regulatory requirement… IndiGo has responded to the queries made by the regulator. At IndiGo, safety of passengers, crew and the aircraft is the utmost priority and at no stage it can be compromised,” the airline said.
In New Delhi, Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju told Lok Sabha that neither the IndiGo flight nor the Air India flight ahead and the SpiceJet flight behind it had asked for priority landing and all three flights were allowed to land in the normal landing sequence. “The IndiGo flight had to hover for 13 minutes only and landed at 8.40 pm. It is incorrect to say that the flight was made to hover for 30-40 minutes,” he said.
Raju said the DGCA had ordered an inquiry into why these three flights reported low fuel and whether they carried sufficient fuel as per regulatory requirements prescribed by DGCA. He said any aircraft which takes off from one airport must carry enough fuel to reach its destination, hover for 30 minutes, and reach the notified alternate airport which, in this case, was Bhubaneswar airport.
Members from the Trinamool Congress and Congress alleged a conspiracy, linking it to Banerjee’s stiff opposition to the demonetisation move. In Rajya Sabha, Trinamool Congress member Derek O’Brien sought to know why the aircraft was made to hover over Kolkata even though the pilot had informed the ATC about the problem. “Is there more to this than meets the eye… Is it a coincidence that this Opposition leader today is at the forefront,” O’Brien said.
In Kolkata, after Army personnel were spotted at toll plazas, Banerjee attacked the Centre. “This is a clear violation of the rules and understanding, the Army has been deployed without informing the democratically-elected government. This is very bad. The Army has come all the way to the Kona Expressway toll plaza near the state secretariat as well. The central government is trying to create a civil war like situation in the country. This is against the Constitution.”
“Even if the Army is conducting a mock drill, it has to coordinate with the state. This is not done. Is this Emergency?” Banerjee said. Derek O’Brien tweeted a video that showed Army personnel at a toll plaza and asked whether “Besides Financial Emergency”, the Centre had “also imposed General Emergency”
The Army, in a statement, said it was at the Bengal toll plazas as part of an exercise to “gather statistical data about load carriers that could be made available to the Army in case of a contingency.” The statement said, “For this purpose, vehicles are spotted to get basic parameters like make load capacity etc. The vehicle is then marked so that the next checkpoint knows that the vehicle had already been checked for the parameters. There is nothing alarming about this and it is carried out as per government orders.”
The Defence spokesperson in Kolkata said: “This is an annual exercise which is conducted by the Army. The representatives of the District Magistrate and the local police accompany the Army personnel. The current exercise was held after a meeting with representatives of the DM and local police officials at the HQ Bengal Area.”