There can be no better example of the proverbial saying that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing than the story of the up gradation of the Srinagar airport into an international airport. None of the politicians within the state or at the centre gets tired of claiming that the tourism is the back bone of Kashmir’s economy. There is no greater myth than this. However, these people who politicise tourism by taking it as the barometer of political normalcy somehow keep quiet when it comes to the setting up of the essential basic infrastructure for making tourism a pivot of the state’s economy. The most important component of the infrastructure is easy accessibility to a proposed destination. This lack of direct international accessibility has always plagued Kashmir’s foreign tourist traffic. There are no two opinions that Kashmir has some of the most viable potential for developing as an international tourist destination for all kinds of tourism. Be it the leisure variety, adventure, or winter tourism, we have inexhaustible resources given to us by Mother Nature. Unfortunately, we are ourselves due to material greed and sometimes because of our ineptitude trying to destroy these resources.
An international air connection is a must not only for developing high end foreign tourism but also for giving boost to other sectors of our economy such as handicrafts, horticulture, floriculture, and so on. This access to the outside world is also very essential for psychological reasons. The landlocked valley with a single undependable road access creates a feeling of claustrophobia among the local population. This is particularly acute during winter when sometimes the road access gets blocked for days at a stretch. The situation was not so bad prior to 1947 even though there was no air connection because of the Jhelum Valley Road which remains open throughout the year. One of the major negatives of Kashmir’s connection with India has been blocking of all earlier historical routes to Central Asia and even to the sub-continent except the sole connection through Bannihal Cart Road! In order to assure the people that the Indian connection has been an advantage, it should have been the policy of the government to fully restore all historical routes. If this could not be done due to the so called strategic and military reasons, then at least one could set up air connections to all these places.
After a wait of over 30 years, the Srinagar airport was finally declared to be an International airport and a single weekly flight was started to Dubai with great fanfare. Claiming it to be a major milestone, the Congress Chairperson Sonia Gandhi herself came to inaugurate it. However, all these so called advantages which would accrue to tourism and other sectors of Kashmir’s economy from this flight were forgotten when it was discontinued after a very short period of operation ostensibly for being economically unviable for the national carrier! This was given out as the main reason while discontinuing the service in spite of the fact that the flight was being operated as a “cattle class” flight by Air India Express, a subsidiary of Air India started primarily to look afterthe labour class in Gulf countries.
It has now been given out by the State Chief Minister that the international flights have been aborted by Pakistan due to their refusal to allow flights starting from Kashmir to overfly its territory. Pakistan is supposed to have claimed Kashmir to be a disputed territory and also held these flights a security risk for their country. If that is true then Pakistan has no business to call itself a well-wisher of Kashmiris. When the Pakistan Government is allowing a passenger bus and trade across the Line of Control, why should it object to international flights especially as these are advantageous to Kashmiris economically, socially, and even politically by opening the outside world to them? In the present sophisticated technological age of satellites monitoring every bit of soil on this Earth, Pakistanis need to clarify how these flights are a security risk to them?
Even if Pakistanis have objected to flights starting from Srinagar flying over their territory, there are many other ways of keeping these flights going. There are flights from a number of other cities in India going to Gulf which pass through Delhi before flying into Pakistani territory. Take for instance the Jaipur-Dubai flight. It starts from Jaipur but lands at Delhi and then flies in reverse across Pakistani air space to go to Dubai. Why the same procedure cannot be adopted for Srinagar flight which does not have to fly in reverse from Delhi but further ahead! Such a flight would also not have load problem as it can pick up passengers and cargo in Delhi.
Let us for the moment forget going to the Middle East and the Gulf, there are many other international destinations which could be easily connected to Kashmir without flying over Pakistani territory. During the years of turmoil, the only area which has been continuously sending tourists to Kashmir is the South East Asia. We have had tourists from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea. In fact in eighties a direct flight had been started Srinagar to Singapore by Air India. However, it was discontinued after the eruption of turmoil. It is very easy to start flights to this region which is a short-haul foreign market for Kashmir. Similarly, there are good possibilities of starting flights from Srinagar to Tashkent, Dushanbe, and Samarqand etc. in Central Asia. The flights to Central Asia will not only boost tourism but revive the long forgotten ancient trade across the Silk Route.
In view of these factors, unless there is more than that meets the eye in stopping the international flights, the Chief Minister should bid for starting international flights to destinations which do not involve overflying Pakistan. This would not only give a boost to the foreign tourist traffic but would also end Kashmir’s isolation from the outside world.