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20th April '2008
Civil Aviation Bonanza
(Don’t Forget State’s Remote Areas)

Sometime back Chief Minister Azad had a comprehensive meeting with the Union Civil Aviation Minister and his senior officers. On his return to Jammu it was announced that the Chief Minister had returned with a Civil Aviation Bonanza. It is true that the number of projects cleared would give a boost to Civil Aviation activities in different parts of the State and improve its connectivity with outside State as well as outside the country business and tourism hubs. Srinagar Airport is on way to start international flights soon which would end Valley’s centuries old isolation. Credit must be given to Azad for accelerating this project, the promises of which had been pending from Sheikh Abdullah’s time in 1975. With the new projects of upgrading Airports at Jammu, Leh, and Kargil and starting new ones in Kishtwar and Poonch even the internal aviation will pick up. Kashmir has been facing acute deficiency on two counts. One has been an international connection without which tapping world tourism remains a utopian dream. It had been because of the absence of this connection that the foreign traffic to Kashmir never even reached 5% of the traffic which the metros like Delhi and Mumbai experienced. Kashmir for all international travellers has remained an add on destination. Hopefully this will end soon and the foreign tourist figures to Kashmir will dramatically rise especially by the operation of charters. Similar would be the case with Leh and Jammu. However, the other major deficiency which has been plaguing the connectivity is the access to the remote areas of the State especially during winter. The life of people in areas like Gurez, Tangdhar, Wardwan, Zanaskar and a number of other similar remote places is miserable during winter. Even in summer they have limited access but they can somehow manage. The winter creates really hellish conditions for them. From time to time Indian Air Force has been operating winter courier service but it does not suffice. Sometime back, the State Government had set up a Department of Civil Aviation. A number of helicopters were purchased. Even an 8-seater aircraft was acquired. In fact, it had been expected that this Civil Aviation Department will start a small airline to connect all the remote areas of the state. Unfortunately, this was never done and the aircraft were kept at the disposal of State Ministers and senior officials. No doubt there was need for making these people mobile for reaching different parts of the state but this was not the only aim of the initiative. The State Government had even tried roping in some private airlines and a service was started to Rajouri after constructing a pre-fabricated terminal on the army airfield there at a cost of Rs.10 lakhs. However, for reasons best known to the Government, the service was discontinued after sometime. Similar was the situation with Kargil where even a trial landing of a 50-seater aircraft was undertaken in which Chief Minister Azad as the then Union Civil Aviation Minister also participated. Had the State Government consistently pursued the project, we might have already had an internal airline touching all remote places by various types of aircraft including helicopters. Now that the State Government is once again very keen to give a boost to Civil Aviation sector it would be worthwhile to examine this internal connectivity aspect. Either the State’s own Civil Aviation Department expands its activities beyond VIPs and undertakes the true role of an internal airline or some reputed private Civil Aviation Company is invited to start the regular service to all remote areas. However, initially the basic infrastructure in the form of short airstrips and heliports with hangars and maintenance facilities which may involve huge investments would have to be provided by the State or the Central Government. Aircraft and personnel may be provided by the concerned airline or company. In the beginning, the organisation operating the services may not at all break even as the cost of operation would be prohibitive compared to the revenue earned because the tickets would have to be kept in an affordable range. This has been practically seen earlier when the State Government had engaged Pawan Hans helicopters for operating services to Gurez, Tulail, Tangdhar, Kargil, and Zanaskar. Same was the situation with the aircraft of Air Force which used to be hired by the State Government. There was a huge gap between the payments made to Pawan Hans and Air Force on one hand and the tickets charged from the public on the other. It has to be borne in mind that such services cannot be run on commercial lines but are basically for the convenience of the public. One could even compare these with other public utility services like roads, bridges, healthcare, and other such facilities where there may be absolutely no returns for the government. It is a service to provide succour to citizens in general. As such the government may have to consider provision of certain incentives to the players willing to undertake these projects. Once the services stabilise and pick up these could become self-sustaining. This would be especially so if these facilities are utilized in summer to ferry international tourists to all these locations as these have some of the finest tourism potential, so far unexplored and unspoilt. At present there is a universal campaign going on to promote eco-tourism. All our remote locations are the best spots for development of this type of tourism based on natural environment. The availability of the set up can also be a great help in the time of natural disasters which have been taking place in different parts of the State off and on. Thus, the development of this aspect of Civil Aviation can be a boon to both provision of basic facilities to our citizens living in remote areas and also for the promotion and development of these spots as future tourist destinations. If the Chief Minister takes personal interest and orders taking up of the project on a priority basis as part of the overall Civil Aviation Programme, it would truly be a Bonanza for the State!

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