Running in the Indian election? Get an armored car

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Sunchit Sobti’s factory in Jalandhar has already retrofitted four SUVs for political bigwigs since the upcoming poll was announced a few weeks ago. (AFP)
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The outlay is considerable for reinforcing a vehicle, costing anywhere between $7,000 and $70,000. (AFP)
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Mechanics fit an SUV with blast-resistant doors and bulletproof windshields in a Punjab garage. (AFP)
Updated 02 April 2019
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Running in the Indian election? Get an armored car

  • It is a pattern that repeats itself every election season in India
  • ‘You can’t even trust your friends, forget about enemies. I can’t compromise on my safety’

JALANDHAR, India: The mechanics retrofitting cars with blast-resistant doors and bulletproof windshields in a Punjab garage have been flat out of late — elections are looming, and politics can be a dangerous game in India.
In the past, prime ministers were assassinated, political motorcades ambushed and party officials attacked, and some candidates aren’t taking any chances.
Orders for specialized armored cars have been piling up at Sunchit Sobti’s factory in Jalandhar, where his crew have already retrofitted four SUVs for political bigwigs since the upcoming poll — the biggest election in history — was announced a few weeks ago.
It’s a pattern that repeats itself every election season, said Sobti, whose father started supplying armored cars for politicians and other VIP clients in the 1980s when an armed insurgency was raging in Punjab.
“This one is the mother of all elections,” he said, as sparks flew from welding equipment on the factory floor.
“Like all big events, there are bigger risks involved and leaders want to ensure they are safe. We have been working on orders for months.”
It was not just political candidates keen to bullet and blast-proof their cars but party bookkeepers and backroom heavyweights too, he added.
At least seven rival companies contacted by AFP, in northern Punjab, neighboring Haryana and also Maharashtra state in the west, have also experienced a spike in election-related orders for armor-plated vehicles.
The market for such cars in India is worth $150 million a year and growing by double digits, industry representatives said. Companies like Mahindra & Mahindra, and Tata Motors, also offer a small range of pre-made armored vehicles for civilian use.
The outlay is considerable for reinforcing a private vehicle, costing anywhere between $7,000 and $70,000.
It can take weeks to bolster a car with imported ballistic glass and steel plates able to withstand grenade fragments and gunfire, and even longer for the permission needed to put the car on the road.
But for some, it is a price worth paying.
“Success and jealousy knock at you together,” said one Punjabi state lawmaker who last year had his SUV armor plated. He declined to be named.
“You can’t even trust your friends, forget about enemies. I can’t compromise on my safety.”
India has a history of political violence, with particular bloodshed around election time as competition intensifies between the country’s hundreds of registered parties, who field thousands of candidates at state and national polls.
More than 100 politicians or party officials were murdered in 2016 alone, the latest figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau show.
Armed insurgencies simmer in at least nine Indian states, from Kashmir in the snowy north to the jungles of the country’s interior, creating risky conditions for party officials and their candidates on the hustings.
Twenty-five Congress politicians were murdered in an ambush on their convoy in 2013 by Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh, as the restive central state prepared for regional elections.
Even in regions free of rebel uprisings, feuds between political rivals can turn deadly.
In February a regional lawmaker in West Bengal was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in the country’s east.
More than two dozen political figures from warring parties have been killed in Kerala, a southern state and one of India’s most developed, in the past three years.
Sometimes politicians themselves have violent records, with two dozen winning candidates in the last general election in 2014 possessing murder or attempted murder charges.
As campaigning gets under way for the 2019 contest — voting starts April 11 and spans nearly six weeks, with 900 million Indians eligible to cast ballots — security is again a central concern for the monumental poll.
In trouble spots, candidates are escorted by police as they drum up support.
But former Delhi police chief Maxwell Pereira said the overwhelming majority of politicians never faced any danger, and it was the state’s responsibility to ensure protection for at-risk officials.
“Only police should make a call on whether they require personal protection or armored cars, after assessing if there is a credible threat,” Pereria said.
That is not stopping candidates from taking matters into their own hands and turning their cars into tanks as polling day draws near.
“We want our customers and leaders to be safe,” said Narinder Singh, a mechanic at Sobti’s workshop in Punjab.


Rwanda’s rhino population grows, tourists expected to increase

Updated 25 June 2019
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Rwanda’s rhino population grows, tourists expected to increase

  • There are only about 1,000 black rhinos left in the wild, Jes Gruner, the Akagera National Park manager, said
  • In 2017 tourism earned Rwanda $437 million

KIGALI: Rhino keepers who successfully delivered five endangered black rhinos to Rwanda spent months hugging and coddling them inside their transport boxes to prepare them for the journey, a rhino handler said as the animals were freed on Monday.
The two male and three female eastern black rhinoceroses were flown from Safari Park Dour Kralove zoo in the Czech Republic, where they had been getting to know each other after arriving from separate European parks.
“The preparation process took several months. It started in autumn last year when two animals were brought here from Denmark and England. They started to bond, which always takes weeks because black rhinos are very alert and nervous animals,” said rhino handler Jaromir Sejnoha from the Dvur Kralove Safari Park.
“In the final phase (of preparations) the rhino is trained to stay inside the box for several minutes. We feed them and hug them in there, so they aren’t scared of the box and become accustomed to it, and so on the day of transportation they don’t get nervous and the whole transportation goes smoothly.”
There are only about 1,000 black rhinos left in the wild, Jes Gruner, the Akagera National Park manager, said. The new arrivals mean Rwanda is home to 25 of them.
Tourism is a key foreign exchange earner in the East African nation, home to mountain gorillas and the so-called “Big Five” African game animals — lions, rhinos, elephants, buffalo, and leopard.
“Every year our tourism numbers are going up and bringing these rhinos I am sure will help,” Gruner said.
The park received 44,000 visitors who generated over $2 million last year, Gruner said.
In 2017 tourism earned Rwanda $437 million. Clare Akamanzi, chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board, said 2018 numbers were not yet ready due to a change of methodology.
The push for tourist dollars in not without controversy. The government’s 2018 deal to pay British football club Arsenal £30 million ($38 million) to have “Visit Rwanda” emblazoned on the team’s jersey was criticized by politicians in some donor nations who questioned whether it was a good use of money by a government still heavily dependent on foreign aid.