HUMAN RESOURCE Development Minister Arjun Singh has got himself a rare privilege: he is now eligible for protection by a gun-wielding personal security officer (PSO) even inside planes. Such protection during air travel is granted to only VVIPs, who get the special security cover set out in the Special Protection Group Act.
The list includes the prime minister, former prime ministers, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and her children. Singh's gun-handling PSO is permitted to guard him in all commercial flights including those of Air India and Indian airlines within and outside the country.
But in these days of heightened terror perception around the globe, when carrying weapons except by authorised personnel is strictly prohibited in planes, it remains to be seen how airlines will ensure the officer with the gun for the HRD Minister in his travels outside the country. A senior Civil Aviation Ministry official said domestic flights could permit weapons for PSOs if the Home Ministry sanctions them for a VIP. But prior permission from the airlines is needed for international flights.
Based on current threat perception, intelligence agencies have assigned Z-category protection for the HRD Minister. This is just a shade less than is allowed under the highest Z-plus category. It entitles Singh protection by two PSO's round-the-clock with eight more guarding the front and rear gate of his official residence. Besides this, an escort car accompanies him on roads.
A government official, on condition of anonymity, said the proposal for the special security cover for Singh was sent to Home Minister Shivraj Patil for approval "only after intervention at the top."
Exceptions, as in the case of Singh, have been made in the past twice by the previous NDA government. This was for L K Advani as both the deputy prime minister and home minister. Advani mostly travelled across the country in government-owned planes, especially those belonging to the Border Security Force. Advani continues to enjoy Z-plus security and is among the most threatened after Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and former Prime minister Vajpayee.
Significantly, while the SPG Act provides for the highest security cover to proximate relations of the protected persons, both Robert Vadra and Ranjan Batachariya (son-in-laws of Sonia Gandhi and A B Vajpayee) are not eligible for it. They are co-opted while travelling with their spouses.