Agartala/Aizawl, Feb 15 : With the number of flights to and from the northeastern states witnessing a sharp decline over the past several months, passengers from the region are facing severe difficulties travelling to other parts of the country.
The drop in flight numbers to the mountainous states of Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya is mainly attributed to modification in the Civil Aviation Ministry's 25-year-old Route Dispersal Policy (RDP), which made it mandatory for all airlines to operate 10 per cent of their flights in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast.
While ticket prices for flights to Kolkata, Delhi and other cities from all the northeastern states have shot up three to five times after Jet Airways, SpiceJet and IndiGo carriers suspended operations or reduced their frequency, the situation is most critical in Mizoram, from where no air tickets are available thoughout February.
"Some people from Mizoram wanted to go to neighbouring Silchar (in southern Assam) to catch Kolkata or Guwahati-bound flights, but there are no tickets available until the first week of March," said a travel agent in Aizawl.
Mizoram BJP President Johny Lalthanpuia said Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu has promised the state new Air India flights from Aizawl to Guwahati and Delhi.
But following delay in these, the state government has started negotiating with some private airlines to start their services from Aizawl, said the state government's principal consultant for civil aviation Wing Commander Joe Lalhmingliana said.
Tripura Transport Minister Pranajit Singha Roy said the state government has approached both the Prime Minister's Office as well as the Civil Aviation Ministry on countless occasions requesting them more flights to and from Agartala.
"We even requested BJP president Amit Shah to intervene in the matter, but without success," Singha Roy told IANS, adding, "We've almost lost hope."
The minister said that in November 2018, the Tripura government even reduced the VAT (value added tax) on aviation turbine fuel by two per cent to lure private airlines.
"This reduction in VAT results in a revenue loss of Rs 1.20 crore per year for the state government.
But we've done it to reduce the inconvenience to the people," he added.
Over the past one year, Lok Sabha MPs from Tripura Jitendra Chaudhury and Shankar Prasad Datta, and Rajya Sabha member Jharna Das Baidya too have met the Civil Aviation Ministry bosses and CMDs of private airliners many times with requests to increase their flights to the Northeast, but with no positive outcome.
"The current BJP-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government wants to diminish government control on civil aviation, telecommunication and petrochemicals causing a monopoly of private companies," Chaudhury told IANS from Delhi, where he met the Civil Aviation Minister and SpiceJet CMD Ajay Singh.
A senior Airports Authority of India (AAI) official, on condition of anonymity, said that in 2016, the Civil Aviation Ministry amended the RDP (formulated in 1994) reducing the liability of airlines from 10 to six per cent flights in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, and adding Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Kochi in Kerala to the mandatory list.
"This amended policy has hampered the interest of Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast creating an unprecedented crisis of flights between these regions and other parts of the country," the AAI official added.
He said that taking advantage of the amended RDP, the airline companies are gradually reducing their services from the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir on the pretext that these routes are losing sectors.
"These arguments of the airline companies are factually incorrect.
In the mainland states, air passengers are just 10 per cent of their total population, while they are around 40 per cent in the northeastern states.
"In addition, a large number of people from bordering districts (along India) of Bangladesh are availing of Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai-bound air services from the Northeast," the official added.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)