For close to a decade, Ved Prakash Ram has set up his tea stall a few hundred metres away from the boundary wall of the airstrip in Jagdalpur, the headquarters of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. For him, an aircraft usually means the thump of a helicopter. But around 1 pm Thursday, Ved Prakash heard an engine he didn’t recognise. It was the low hum of a twin-engine, 19-seater Beechcraft 1900 D. “The new sound was unfamiliar, it sounded different,” he said.
As the Air Odisha plane passed through the celebratory water cannon salute in Jagdalpur, Prime Minister Narendra Modi waved a green flag in Bhilai, 300 km away, in a symbolic gesture to mark the beginning of commercial flights linking Bastar under the UDAAN regional air connectivity scheme.
Inside the new Bastar terminal, constructed at a cost of Rs 39.58 crore, reporters and officials watched and waved as the flight took off on its 40-minute hop to Raipur – a journey that takes six-seven hours by road. “For many years in India, all the talk about Bastar was about bombs, guns, pistols and violence. Today, the talk about Bastar is linked to the airport in Jagdalpur,” said Modi.
Rajat Kumar, Special Secretary (Civil Aviation), Chhattisgarh, told The Indian Express that the airport was important for Bastar to shed the image that it is “an island”.
“The socio economic benefits are there, of course. Tourism, with all the avenues Bastar has, will get an impetus. But this also helps people’s day-to-day lives in terms of businessmen and service providers travelling to and fro, and common people using the air services. Officers monitoring projects in Bastar can now do that more efficiently. It opens up the world,” he said.
Kumar said that under the UDAAN scheme, three other airports in the state — Bilaspur, Ambikapur and Raigarh — will get similar daily services. “We are looking to open up the Bilaspur and Ambikapur airports in 45 days. Raigarh will take a little time. We are also looking at ways to keep the prices subsidised. Presently, of the 18 seats, nine seats are between Rs 1,600 and Rs 1,700, making it affordable. The other nine seats are at the company’s cost, which could be between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,000. Currently, for the first nine seats, the central government pays the difference. We are looking at whether the Chhattisgarh government can do something for the other nine,” he said.
On Friday morning, a day after the inauguration, there were signs of teething trouble. All around the compound, flowers were strewn around, with airport officials making calls to the Nagar Nigam, asking their cleaners to arrive. Around 8 am, a group of five passengers argued loudly with two flustered Air Odisha officials. Under the full schedule, the flight was to arrive in Bastar at 8.55, proceed to Vishakhapatnam, return to Bastar, finally moving to Raipur. But the passengers were told that clearance for the Vishakhapatnam leg had still not been given despite tickets having been sold online. “We didn’t get a single message or phone call to intimate us,” an irate passenger said.
A few kilometres away, at the Maharana Pratap Chowk, one of Jagdalpur’s busiest traffic junctions, the mood around the commencement of the airport, was brighter. And political. With crucial assembly elections towards the end of the year, massive hoardings found their place in the chowk with prominent BJP symbols, thanking Chief Minister Raman Singh and Prime Minister Modi.
The Maoist-affected Bastar region is a Congress stronghold, with eight seats out of 12 in an area that is larger than the state of Kerala. “These are mostly rural tribal seats, and have issues of their own. But one of those 12 seats is Jagdalpur, which is currently held by the BJP. This is one of the biggest cities in Chhattisgarh, and has a urban population. Here, the fact that an airport has come up will be a sign that we have brought development,” a BJP leader said.
One of the four passengers who took the flight back from Raipur to Jagdalpur Thursday was Manish Gupta, editor of the Bastar edition of Navbharat and a veteran of the region. “It could be a turning point in the Bastar narrative. For so long, Bastar has been treated as if its entire area is conflict-ridden. This will tell people that there are parts of Bastar that have become normal, and are open to visit and invest,” he said.
At 9.10 am Friday, as the flight from Raipur landed, the four passengers who alighted were given roses at the entry gate by airport officials. One of the passengers said: “In the morning, someone in Raipur asked me if I wanted breakfast. I told him I would have breakfast at home, in Bastar.”