Announcement of a massive augmentation of air connectivity in the northeastern region set the tone for the first North East Development Summit which was inaugurated by the President of India Ram Nath Kovind in Imphal on Tuesday. Addressing potential investors and sending across a reassuring message to the northeastern states, Ram Nath Kovind harped on the region, and particularly Manipur, being the “gateway to India linking with the Indian subcontinent and the ASEAN (countries)”, and listed out the initiatives taken by the Centre to improve connectivity by modes of road, railway and air.
The two-day summit seeks to boost trade and investment and is being attended by national and foreign investors and international finance agencies. The Manipur government has reportedly signed 39 Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), worth INR 3500-4000 crore with different firms/companies.
Manipur is a strategic point to connect the North East with Southeast Asian markets. Moreover improved connectivity of the northeastern states can end the region’s geopolitical isolation, boost social and economic mobility and market integration.
“The Government of India’s approach to the development of the Northeast is an urgent and speedy enhancement of connectivity. This is a multi-modal programme, across land, water and air,” the president said.
19 “new airports or underserved airports”, including More in Manipur, Rupsi in Assam, and Tura in Meghalaya will be added to the country’s civil aviation network. Further 17 new heliports will be opened in the region. Imphal will get a direct flight service to New Delhi from the first day of the coming year. Union civil aviation minister Jayant Sinha, making the announcement at the Summit said the flight will be operated by Air India twice a week and it would gradually be converted into a daily service.
Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla further urged for direct flights services to other major cities like Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai as well.
Nagaland chief minister TR Zeliang asked the Centre to allow international flights from at least one of the northeastern airport such as Guwahati. He was echoing the appeals of the Assam government, which earlier this year had requested the civil aviation ministry to tweak the regional connectivity scheme in order to connect Guwahati with the capitals of at least seven Southeast Asian countries. Assam shares more than 4,800 kilometres of border with Bhutan and Bangladesh and also lies in close proximity to many Southeast Asian nations. But the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi Airport or the Guwahati International Airport has only one direct flight to Thimphu in Bhutan at present. Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram share boundaries with Myanmar, India’s gateway to the ASEAN nations, but there is no direct flight from any of the northeastern states and people in this region have to go via Kolkata to reach Myanmar. Among the ten states of ASEAN, Myanmar is the only nation that India shares both a land and maritime border with.
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has urged Bangladesh Civil Aviation Minister Rashed Khan Menon for steps to introduce a direct flight service from Dhaka to Guwahati. Sonowal further requested Menon to accelerate trade and commerce with Assam through international trade centres located on the Assam-Bangladesh border at Golakganj in Dhubri, Mankachar in South Salmara and Sutarkandi in Karimganj districts. Menon, who also spoke during the inauguration of the Summit, said his country is willing to partner with India for development projects to connect Northeast region with the ASEAN countries.
While road connectivity within the hilly northeastern region and with mainland India hardly shows any significant sign of improvement, the Union Aviation Ministry has of late been busy in the region. Spicejet is apparently looking to operate in the North East by procuring seaplanes that could seat 9-10 passengers and land on smaller airstrips. The DoNER Ministry is looking to introduce a helicopter-based dispensary/OPD service in far-flung areas of the region by the beginning of 2018. The services will start from Shillong and Imphal, both of which have premier postgraduate medical institutes from where doctors and paramedical staff can move with equipments in helicopters and service remote areas in the whole region.
Yet amidst the intensive drive to boost air connectivity in the northeastern states with an eye to push India’s Look East policy, it has been reported that the Imphal international airport, named Bir Tikendrajit International Airport, has been left out of the list of 18 airports selected from across the country for better air connectivity with Southeast Asian countries. 18 airports have been selected under the Open Sky policy for smooth and easy access by aircrafts originating from the Southeast Asian countries. Only one airport in North East, the Guwahati International Airport, features in the list.