Late in the evening of June 10, a section of the staff at Kozhikode airport clashed violently with personnel of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), leading to the death of a Head Constable, and triggering a rampage that forced the airport to shut down for several hours.
Both the CISF and Airports Authority of India (AAI) have described the incident as a “one-off” case. Officials on both sides concede, however, that the force tasked with securing India’s airports has had frequent run-ins with the many other agencies with which they share their operational space — and that tensions, manifested in ego clashes and simmering mistrust, retain the potential of becoming flashpoints.
What are the points of interaction and potential conflict between the CISF and other agencies or organisations at India’s airports? What is the nature of the relationship, and the likelihood of discord?
The CISF was put in charge of managing airport security after the IC-814 hijacking of 1999. Nearly 21,000 CISF personnel are currently deployed at 59 airports across the country. 330 personnel have been posted to Kozhikode International Airport, where they work in eight-hour shifts, with 45 personnel on duty at any time of day or night.
Most CISF personnel in Kozhikode are from other states, mainly from North India. Very few have their families in Kozhikode. The AAI had no place for them to stay until two months ago, when barracks that could accommodate 150 people became operational near the airport.
The Airports Authority of India manages 125 airports, including the international airport at Kozhikode, where it has a staff of 250, who are organised into both recognised and unrecognised trade unions, with the latter affiliated to trade union wings of political parties. Sixty-six of the employees are in the Fire and Rescue Wing, which was in the thick of the action on June 10. The AAI’s Fire and Rescue staffers are the most enthusiastic trade unionists, with a bad reputation for shirking work.
The CISF regulates entry to airports, checking passes and the cargo/luggage of every person who enters the terminal building. Those entering operational/air areas are subjected to detailed examination, including frisking. This is mandatory for airport employees, who are frisked every time they enter the restricted area. The Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) allows some exemptions, but they are not available to any AAI staff.
“It is the CISF’s mandate to check identification papers and frisk any employee entering the airport. There can be no let-up on these rules. Sometimes, certain passengers and employees at the airport object, which can lead to a confrontation. The CISF can show no leniency, they are bound by rules. Any slip-up by can spell danger for airport security,” a senior CISF official said in Delhi.
And yet, it was precisely the objection by unionised AAI employees to being frisked by the CISF that led to the scuffle — and death of Head Constable S S Yadav — at the entry gate of Kozhikode airport. While frisking remains a sensitive issue with a section of AAI staff — who perceive being touched, or the roaming of their bodies by hand-held metal detectors, as humiliation — the CISF expresses dismay at their apparent failure to appreciate the requirements of security.
Officials on both sides say it is often not what is done as part of the security drill, but how it is done that triggers problems. In Kozhikode, for example, AAI staff complain CISF personnel work like machines, and demonstrate no courtesy while searching pockets. Things are not helped by the fact that due to reasons of language, the nature of their respective duties, and the changing hours of work, chances of communication between these two groups are virtually non-existent.
Officially, most AAI staff and CISF personnel claim to have a cordial mutual relationship, and that an incident like last week’s could be attributed to an aberration in the behaviour of individuals. Yet, the CISF has had several minor run-ins with AAI staff earlier too. AAI staff have complained against certain CISF personnel, including Sub Inspector Sitaram Chaudhari, whose weapon went off accidentally, killing Head Constable Yadav.
CISF and AAI officials say egos have been at play, along with poor leadership. Grievances were not addressed, and the efforts to bridge the communication gaps were inadequate. The possibilities of a more bonhomous and cordial relationship went unexplored. According to AAI staffers, had corrective steps been taken on complaints against CISF men, a message would have gone out to the entire constabulary.
CISF sources in Kerala said the situation was similar at other airports in the state, raising fears of a repeat of last week’s incident. However, AAI officials in Delhi said complaints of highhandedness against the CISF were not very common, and were always taken up on priority and corrective measures were put in place.
Apart from CISF, multiple agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Bureau of Immigration (BoI), Customs and Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) are deployed at the airport. All of them are bound by regulations of BCAS. The BCAS is headed by an IPS-rank officer, who reports to the Ministry of Civil Aviation. AAI too works under the same Ministry. However, the CISF reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs. So do the IB and Immigration officials. But Customs and DRI report to the Ministry of Finance.
The Kozhikode tragedy has resurrected the argument for a separate Aviation Security Force (ASF) for airports, which former civil aviation minister Ajit Singh mooted three years ago. A panel of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which visited India in 2011, had recommended legislative changes to create an ASF under the control of BCAS.