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Up in the Air: How the 1991 reforms changed the way Indians travelled

Liberalisation of the aviation sector transformed the way a whole generation travelled, even if it meant giving up watching the world go by on a bus or train.

Written by Smita Nair |
July 25, 2016 8:51:45 pm
25 years of reform, 25 years of liberalisation, 1991 budget, indian aviation, how indians travel, india travel trends In keeping with India’s economic progress over the last 25 years, its countrymen or women too travel differently now from the days of long train journeys and those back breaking bus rides. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

Rishul Saraf is 23 and he speaks very fast. Especially when he excitedly recalls his first flight. His family was flying Ahmedabad to Delhi and it was a family emergency. “We may take it for granted today. But I still recall the voice of the captain booming inside the cabin as he identified the aircraft as Boeing 737 from the 800 series,” says Saraf. “I vividly recall watching another aircraft outside my window, an Indian Airlines A320. I wondered why is my flight of this make, and the flight outside of another. Today I know the registration number of every flight I have taken, including the built details of every aircraft.”

Saraf is a mechanical engineer from Ahmedabad, who loves big machines, works now in Mumbai having completed his studies in Chennai. And Saraf travels back home every month.

That should hardly surprise anyone. For many like Saraf, home is now that much closer thanks to the democratisation of flying brought about by the opening up of India’s aviation sector – first in the 1990s, the entry of private airlines over the next two decades and the country’s first low cost airline – Deccan and the concept of no frills airlines. That Open Sky policy of the mid-1990s and competition in the sector – part of overall liberalisation by successive governments over the last 25 years besides economic growth is what has fuelled the growth of the aviation industry here connecting more families and homes.

From just 36 lakh passengers carried by what was called air taxi operators in 1994 – the year when the monopoly of state owned airlines was ended, airlines in India reported 396.04 lakh domestic passengers in 2016, reflecting the growth and success of a competitive sector in the post liberalisation era.

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And you have to be of a pre-1990’s vintage to be able to appreciate the transformation over India’s skies for the ordinary flyer. For, in those days, those who flew were either the rich or if it was an emergency. Or, you had to be lucky as Vishnupriya Sinha, 62, a homemaker from Patna. “ I had an uncle who was from the airline industry. He took us from Ranchi to Jamshedpur when flying was still new in India. The flights were short, but the view was spectacular from that height.” And not many realise that liberalisation, especially of India’s aviation sector, has also meant linking the land locked North East and the mainland closer. Hussain, 26, who is from Dibrugarh in Upper Assam should know. For, connectivity is something which had promised for decades by successive governments. “For someone from the North East, there are only roads. Going up and down – life is all about getting a seat either in a day super or a night super, different definition for buses. ” Airlines have made life better for Hussain and many others spread across the seven states in the North East.

The shrinking of distances also means less of enjoying the country side like in the past when many had to either take the train or a bus and little in terms of nostalgic memories. ” “Our memories are of taking road journeys going past Kaziranga and seeing the one horned rhino often across the national highway Flights have made life convenient and my mother insists on taking the flight even though a total train journey from home to Mumbai will cost me Rs 3,000 as it is faster.” says Hussain.

And in keeping with India’s economic progress over the last 25 years, its countrymen or women too travel differently now from the days of long train journeys and those back breaking bus rides. If flying for Saraf is about discovery – for those like Karan Singh Bindra, 31, a textile businessman, it is the multiple options travel by this mode offers which proves to be the clincher. While Bindra finds train travels more “calm and relaxed” (it doesn’t have the several levels of security checks and layers of engaging with the travel machinery), airlines provide the traveler a choice in convenience, especially for a businessman like him. And for Bindra- there is the attraction of leaving Mumbai early in the day, getting on to a flight to Amristar, praying at the Golden temple and still be back home for dinner. This was unheard of years ago,” he says.


The opening up of the sector has also rubbed off in other ways. With air travel becoming more affordable and greater empowerment of women, many young professionals too have been encouraged to fly. With “time becoming an expensive commodity in new age,” Piya Bose, 33, a former lawyer, who organises travels under the banner ‘Girls on the Go’ talks of the empowerment factor, citing an instance when women in the age group of 50 to 60 had their tickets for Europe booked by their sons. “When I went to the home of one of the woman, she was in the kitchen, peeling vegetables and asked to speak to her son. In the middle of the trip, while we were doing Spain, it was these same women who asked me if I could fit in Ibiza. I was taken aback. They had a great time and I even had few of them saying that they were more evolved than their sons. Traveling made them take their decisions, and air travel also made it easier for them,” she explains. Bose—whose first international trip was a breezy tour to South America says the only new discomfort to air travel is the “nervousness and excess scrutiny” because of threats and terrorism.

Two decades or more of opening up and greater connectivity to international destinations from the six major metros and a few other cities besides new airports has also meant that a growing number of Indians are now able to explore the world. Bindra’s whose family takes a foreign trip every year is a case in point.

For some others like Madhu Channa, 62, during her working life, the option to fly was exercised only to save on holidays and to report to work soon after a long break and during an emergency. Otherwise, she would rather spend time on a train, finishing her collection of Mills and Boons. “ Train journeys worked wonders for a reader,” she says. Madhu Channa is not alone. Shaili Sathyu, 41 a theatre artist loves her train journeys, and says the airlines are still too expensive to travel for a troupe. Sathyu still treasures the post cards her mother, screen writer Shama Zaidi, sent her from different destinations while filming Yatra. a travel documentary around train journeys in India.


The thrill of watching from the window seat of the Chalukya Express, the Dandeli forest come into view is worth much more than waiting for two hours before boarding a flight, she reckons.

“In trains it’s mostly keeping your ear to politics. It’s also a space where you realise everybody has an opinion these days. On a flight, you reach your destination even before you have settled in your seat,” says Saraf.

For an aspirational India, rising incomes and a more mobile and young work force could well mean that there are many more like Saraf who would rather want to reach their destinations faster than settling into a seat on a train or a bus watching the world go by over the next 25 years.

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First published on: 25-07-2016 at 08:51:45 pm

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