Of VIPs and helicopters
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] recently attempted to avail of the helicopter service from Dimapur to Tuensang. Twice. The helicopter flies to Tuensang from Dimapur twice a week – on Tuesdays and Thursdays. My first attempt was on September 24, 2013. When I bought the ticket at the ISBT counter I was given a departure time of 11:30 a.m. On my way to the airport, I received a phone call informing me that the flight had been pre-poned. When I reached the airport I ran to the counter to get my boarding pass and, at that moment, the chopper took off. Upon further enquiry I was informed that I had been given the wrong departure time due to an error in the entry of the flight plan.Apparently all the other passengers had arrived much ahead of the reporting time and so the chopper was able to take off. I decided to take the next flight which would be on Thursday. (To my everlasting relief I later found out that the chopper had returned to Dimapur without landing in Tuensang due to bad weather but that’s another story for another day).
On the 26th I went through the same ritual. I arrived well on time, got my boarding pass and waited for the departure call. The one notable difference was the absence of the helicopter from the scene. I did not pay too much attention though. Maybe I had a vague notion that the chopper would make a dramatic entrance on the runway and we would run to it with jackets flapping, holding on to our hats and caps. As the departure time approached, the staff informed us that a VIP had chartered the flight from Kohima and, as a result, our departure time had been ‘indefinitely post-poned until further notification’.
Apparently this was not the first instance of the regular flight being disrupted due to a VIP’s ‘flight plan’ – all very important ones, I’m sure. The helicopter finally arrived very unfashionably late and we were quickly taken in through the security checks and to the departure lounge where we found ourselves waiting some more. It appeared that the weather in Tuensang was being un-cooperative and as I waited, even the clouds in Dimapur seemed to get darker, the wind stronger and the helicopter flimsier. I finally gave up all pretense of courage and requested to be shifted to the second flight because I wanted to wait out the weather. (There were two flights that day due to the cancelled flight on the 24th).
At the airport I learned that the previous day another VIP had chartered the chopper for an official programme and got so delayed that the helicopter was unable to make its regular run to Kiphire. That in itself is astonishing. What is heart-breaking was that, in Kiphire, a family was waiting to bring a patient for medical treatment in Dimapur. Instead the flight got cancelled and the patient passed away the same evening. I do not know who the VIP is. I did not want to know so I did not ask. I do not know anything about the patient, what kind of illness or how seriously ill he or she was. And really, do any of that matter?
I write this article not to dishonour those who are involved with providing helicopter service in Nagaland. The staff at the airport was polite and helpful and I’m sure that the pilots are also doing their best to ensure the safety of their passengers. I, however, question this VIP culture that has assimilated into our Naga culture. This VIP culture that insists on its right of way forgetting that leaders have been put in their position to serve the people and not the other way round.
Considering the condition of our roads (or the lack of roads) and the lack of proper medical facilities, sometimes the helicopter is the only life-line to receiving timely medical help for our people in the rural areas. Will it be possible for the helicopter service to continue its regular runs uninterrupted – irrespective of whether it has been chartered or not? Will it be possible to prioritise passenger travel and not the very important programme of an official? And will it be possible to ensure that this principle is applied not only to the helicopter service but to the delivery of all other services in our state?
It is heartening to know that the chopper service in the state is going to improve with more helicopters leading to greater connectivity. I hope that the next time we will not have to hear a similar story but instead be able to share about how a life was saved because of the regular delivery of our helicopter service.
*The first flight on the 26th did finally take off but returned to Dimapur without landing in Tuensang due to bad weather. I don’t think I’ll be attempting a helicopter flight any time soon in the future.