'God's Own Airlines' and NE connectivity
By Dr Ranjan K Bhagobaty
Requirements of my job as Scientist in the Quality Evaluation Laboratory of a Central Government Commodity board Headquartered at Kochi (Kerala) provided me with an opportunity to experience the lifestyle of the city that has now become Kerala’s economic hub and also to experience almost a cross country flying experience every time I visited my hometown Guwahati. Each time I travelled from Kochi to Guwahati via Cheni or Mumbai with a stop over in Kolkata through various airlines I experienced the various motions that a traveler belonging to the North-Eastern has to go through to reach his beloved hometown. These experiences range from good to horrific ones, but in all the trips there were some commonness. The one that stands out among them is the lack of adequate displays and announcements for the flights to Guwahati in the airports. To highlight this point further, if I had a flight from Cheni to Guwahati via kolkata, the announcements and online display boards would sometimes describe the flight as being from Cheni to Kolkata. To add to this is the experience of frequent gate changes at the last moment for flights to Guwahati. Elaborate security checks, questioning by CISF staff about the reasons of travel (over and above their stipulated routine), ibility to check in luggage at Kochi for fil receipt at Guwahati even if one is travelling through the same airlines, did make me wonder if it would have been easier for me to travel to Dubai (destition in an intertiol route) from Kochi in comparison to experiencing travel to the exotic North-Eastern region of India.
The average traveler from the North-East not only undergoes these often, tiresome physical ordeals while visiting his or her hometown by the air route, but also is forced to take a roller coaster ride of emotions. Emotions, that every logical thinking and Indian tiol would go through. These very emotions and the inquisitiveness that comes along with them, had once compelled me to ask in a phone-in programme aired by NE Doordarsan, as to why only Druk Air from Bhutan is operating an intertiol flight from the Lokapriya Gopith Bordoloi Intertiol Airport, Guwahati. The answer I got was on expected lines: “The permission to operate Intertiol Flights connecting SE Asian cities like Bangkok, Singapore exists for Guwahati Airport but perhaps the major Indian Airlines first need to work out the economics”. My mind suddenly feels like a virtual search engine flashing into my easily erasable memory (pun intended) words like Look East Policy, Act East Policy, tiol Waterways, Border Trade, Trans-tiol highways, Tender for low Cost Airline, DoNER, NE Industrial Policy, Witch hunting, Majuli......... This unending bombardment of key words similar to the repetitive humming of opening lines (Mukhraa) of a Bollywood blockbuster song, is broken by the high pitch and almost robotic in-flight announcement of the flight attendant informing that flight attendants on-board can speak Hindi, English, Bengali, Marathi and Tamil. As I look outside the window of the airlines I see around five Spicejet (once promoted heavily by SUN media group) aircrafts parked adjacent to the flight I have boarded and again go on a daydream of being able to look out for a truly tiol airline operating from the North-East, having its owners in the North-East, in the near future thought my flight window. An airline from the NE region catering to the needs of the people of the region while also having a Pan India network. Conflicting thoughts again appear to flash by: “Litigation against BCCI for not allocating an IPL match in NE region, the development of the idyllic hilly town of Dharamsala into a cricketing venue of intertiol standards”, but I quickly put an end to this by deciding to take a p before I arrive at home sweet home Guwahati.
These experiences have somehow left such an indelible mark on my psyche, that when I saw news reports of the new aviation policy affecting NE air connectivity, I filly thought of giving shape to the keywords that have troubled me for long. The effort here is not to enter into a political slam game as seen in prime time TV, as Kerala and major states of the North East including Assam have mostly been led by governments belonging to similar political ideologies. The effort here is to highlight the fact that a region’s collective political, administrative and economic will to develop itself, can go a long way in translating dreams into ground realities.
My brief stint of work in the head office of one of India’s export promotion commodity boards, also allowed me to interact closely with two senior and prominent IAS officers of repute who apart from being known for their administrative abilities were also the pioneers at establishing India’s first airport in the public private partnership (PPP) mode: Cochin Intertiol Airport Limited (CIAL) and the now famous “God’s Own Country” campaign of Kerala Tourism respectively. The first one, among these two able IAS officers of Kerala cadre, after completing his tenure in the Board (Central government deputation) has now again returned back to his pet project CIAL as its Maging Director. The second IAS officer during whose tenure in Kerala Tourism “God’s Own Country” campaign started, is the present chairman and has steered the Commodity Board to newer heights through aggressive export promotion strategies , initiatives at opening up of Sigture Stalls and Quality Labs across India. The point I am making here is the fact that the North-East also needs able administrative officers who can perceive the people’s need, are determined and are visiories in their own right. Maybe these breed of officers exist in the North East also, but somehow are still to show their potential.
The buzzword in entire Kerala now is of “Air Kerala”. Air Kerala is an airline promoted by the Government of Kerala, registered as a subsidiary of the Cochin Intertiol Airport Limited (CIAL). Once operatiol, Air Kerala will be India’s first airline with a State government as one of the primary stakeholders. The State government, CIAL and other public sector companies will together hold 26% of the shares of the company, while the remaining 74% will be issued to individuals and private groups. The primary aim of the airlines would be to cater to the aspirations of around 2.5 million Keralites employed in the Middle East who often face hardships due to high airfares and flight cancellations. As an off spin this would increase air traffic within the region and to other commercial hubs in India. In March 2015, the Board of Directors of the airline decided to defer the start of commercial operations until decided to wait till a “clear picture” emerged on the move to amend the ‘5/20’ rule. The same rule has now been cited by the major air operators to the North East for reducing flight capacity and frequency while keeping fare regimes high.
The North Eastern Region has its own unique difficulties and people’s aspirations for development. Germany like most developed European countries and Australia have maged to develop their own models of Air Connectivity solutions through world class infrastructure while at the same time keeping their inherent sense of beauty and love for the environment intact. A colleague of mine recently quipped at me telling that “its okay to Think Big, but at micro-level things can be implemented”. Although I did not contest his viewpoint, I wondered what we have achieved since last many decades by thinking micro and by living with micro-roads (with big pool like potholes in the city centres), micro-shopping centres etc. It is by Thinking BIG and Implementing BIG that our neighbouring country just across the intertiol border near Aruchal Pradesh has developed world class infrastructure in the from of all-weather four-lane highways, railheads and airports. Can we tell our children, who most often study and get jobs in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi to dream big for NE India? Can the Business community of the region just for a change, think something as big as ‘Air Kerala’ or perhaps even bigger than that? And will we have Administrators and Politicians both at the regiol and tiol level to support such start-up initiatives and steer them to success? Well, by the time it happens, high speed Bullet trains will be commonplace in Mumbai or say Ahmedabad and God’s Own Country perhaps will be planning for intergalactic travel......But then we can always hope........ Because it is this indomitable hope and positive energy, that helps us to carry-on with our simple day to day routines amidst the rudimentary connectivity infrastructure of our exotic paradise.