The Government of Kerala (GoK) has once again come under scrutiny for its decision to hire a helicopter for the Chief Minister’s travel despite grappling with a severe fiscal deficit. The contract, set to be finalized soon, will cost the State Rs 80 lakhs for 25 hours of usage, with an additional Rs 90,000 per hour for extended travel. The helicopter can accommodate up to eleven passengers, including the pilot.
Officially, the helicopter’s deployment is attributed to tasks such as monitoring Maoist activities, conducting relief operations, and supporting police actions. However, insiders suggest an “additional purpose” for the Chief Minister’s “emergency travels.” Delhi-based Chipson Aviation is reported to be the lessor.
This move has sparked controversy reminiscent of 2020 when the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, faced allegations of extravagance. At that time, Kerala was grappling with a significant debt burden, and the victims of the 2018 floods were still awaiting government relief, even after two years. The decision to hire a helicopter drew criticism from concerned citizens throughout the state.
The negotiations for the helicopter contract began in March 2023 but encountered obstacles due to disagreements between GoK and the lessor. GoK insisted on the helicopter being stationed in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram, while the Delhi-based company preferred its helipad in Chalakkudy, Thrissur district. The lessor remained firm that GoK should bear the cost of keeping it in Thiruvananthapuram.
Regardless of GoK’s stated reasons for hiring the helicopter, it is widely perceived as primarily for the Chief Minister’s travel. Previous allegations include its use for attending party events and the diversion of cyclone relief funds to cover its expenses. In response to mounting opposition, GoK decided not to finance the helicopter from the State Disaster Relief Fund.
Earlier this year, allegations arose regarding the Chief Minister’s helicopter journey from Kochi to Palakkad to avoid protests along the route.
Some political observers have humorously suggested that the Chief Minister’s helicopter flights within the state benefit the people by sparing them from the disruption caused by extensive security arrangements during his ground travels. It has been reported that approximately forty vehicles accompany the Chief Minister’s convoy, often causing inconvenience to the public.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition Congress have criticized GoK’s helicopter deal, given the state’s precarious fiscal situation. They point out that the government is struggling to pay farmers for their paddy, and significant sums have been spent on constructing cattle sheds at Cliff House, the Chief Minister’s official residence.
Kerala’s treasury is under considerable strain, as evidenced by the government’s decision to lower the upper limit for treasury payments to Rs 5 lakhs. This reflects the magnitude of the current fiscal crisis, with State Road Transport Corporation employees staging protests over unpaid salaries and pensions. Recently, a prominent actor publicly criticized the government for failing to compensate farmers for their paddy in the presence of two ministers.
While dissatisfaction with GoK’s choices is widespread among the public, the government appears to be less responsive to the concerns of the common citizenry, except for staunch supporters of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist).