India plans to launch flights to Asean capitals from Assam

People belonging to the Tiwa tribe at a community fishing event as part of celebrations for the harvest festival of Assam, in Morigaon district, in the north-eastern state of Assam, India, on Jan 16, 2018.
People belonging to the Tiwa tribe at a community fishing event as part of celebrations for the harvest festival of Assam, in Morigaon district, in the north-eastern state of Assam, India, on Jan 16, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - India is planning to operate flights from the north-eastern state of Assam to Asean countries, including Singapore, through a scheme that subsidises air travel.

The move comes amid a growing focus on pushing India's ties with South-east Asia.

Assam's Minister for the Act East Policy Department Chandra Mohan Patowary told The Straits Times that the federal government and the Assam state government are working on a plan to start routes from Assam's capital Guwahati to South-east Asian capitals including Hanoi and Singapore.

At present, international visitors to the north-east must transit in cities like capital city Delhi or the eastern city of Kolkata.

"This will have an economic impact on Assam and the north-east," Mr Patowary said of the plan at a conference organised by the think-tank Kalinga International Foundation in the city of Bhubaneswar.

He said that tenders to award the routes to Indian airlines would likely take place in May.

The air connectivity project is part of the federal government's Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS), which seeks to connect smaller cities and towns by subsidising fares, maintained at 2,500 rupees (S$50) per hour, and reviving old and disused airports and airfields.

Rates for the international routes have not been fixed yet but the Assam government is setting aside one billion rupees for the subsidies. The money for the subsidies will come from the federal and state government.

Assam, with a population of 30.94 million, is seen as the gateway to India's north-east region and borders Bangladesh and Bhutan.

The north-east is connected to the Indian mainland by a narrow stretch of land known as the Siliguri corridor or "Chicken's Neck".

Distinct from the rest of India due to its location, connectivity and infrastructure remains poor.

Plans to link the area to South-east Asia, including a trilateral highway linking India to Thailand and Myanmar, have been slow.

Analysts say much depends on whether private airliners find it viable to fly from Guwahati to Asean countries.

"They are doing this domestically. I am not sure how far it will work out," said Mr Rajan Mehra, chief executive of private luxury business jet operator Club One Air.

"Those who have smaller planes will find it difficult to subsidise the seats. The gap that is being bridged (by the governments) is also small. I think the takers will be larger players because they need those with deep pockets and have plans to fly overseas."

Mr Khin Maung Nyo, adviser to the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, noted that travelling to the north-east from Myanmar is difficult at present.

"It is not easy to come to India. I have to take a flight to Thailand and then to India even though Myanmar borders India and is the closest (country) in Asean," he said. "It (air connectivity) will be a good idea. But one also needs to look at the economic viability."

Last year, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan urged India to improve air connections with the Republic and other Asean countries.

Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, chairman of the Kalinga International Foundation, said India's Act East policy could only be successful if connectivity is improved from the north-east.

"Without connectivity, neither tourism nor business will thrive and costs will remain high," he said. "Connectivity has emerged as a central challenge for our Act East policy. It is important not just for local development but also for access to the wider Asean region."