The Centre’s emphasis on increasing air connectivity to the Northeast continued in the Union Budget for 2018-19 presented on Thursday, in which the finance ministry provided an impetus of Rs 1,014.09 crore for the upcoming financial year towards revival of 50 airports and viability gap funding to improve aviation infrastructure in the region under the flagship regional connectivity scheme. This amount is nearly five times the allocation of Rs 200.11 crore as per the revised estimates of 2017-18.
“Regional connectivity scheme of UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik) initiated by the government last year shall connect 56 unserved airports and 31 unserved helipads across the country. Operations have already started at 16 such airports,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said during his Budget speech. “Sarkar ki is pahal se hawai chappal pehnne wale nagrik bhi hawai jahaaj mein yatra kar rahe hain (With this initiative, people wearing slippers are also travelling in aeroplanes),” he added.
In the Budget, the finance ministry has also allocated a sum of Rs 73.31 crore as grants-in-aid to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) as reimbursement of expenditure already done for development of Pakyong airport in Sikkim, which borders China.
Around 40 per cent, or 129, of the 325 air routes awarded under the second phase of the regional connectivity scheme were for Northeastern and hill states.
These include strategic airports such as Kargil in Jammu & Kashmir, Pakyong in Sikkim, and Tezu in Arunachal Pradesh, where civilian air connectivity will be provided for the first time. Further, the phase-II of the government’s flagship scheme has also seen routes being served by helicopters apart from fixed-wing aircraft. In fact, nearly 70 per cent — or 31 out of 56 — new destinations to be connected through air transport will be served by helipads.
Furthermore, for the second round of the regional connectivity scheme, the Ministry of Civil Aviation focused on priority areas, which include the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep Islands and the Northeast region. Due to the difficult terrains of these locations, the government saw poor response from fixed-wing operators in the first phase of the scheme, and tweaked the guidelines to allow helicopters to fly in to these locations. The ministry also mandated a minimum of three and maximum of fourteen departures per week from airports in priority areas for airlines to be eligible for viability gap funding.
Jaitley, in his Budget speech, also said that the government would formulate the necessary framework for encouraging investment in seaplane activities to promote tourism and emergency medical care. So far, low-cost carrier SpiceJet has demonstrated seaplane flights in India in Maharashtra and Assam. The airline has announced plans to buy 100 seaplanes from a Japanese company at a cost of $4 million each. “This project has the potential to convert every river into a runway and every pond into an airport thus providing hundreds of thousands of airports to the country,” SpiceJet chairman and managing director Ajay Singh said on Thursday.