India to start flights to Asean from Assam

Plan as part of subsidised air travel scheme comes amid push to grow ties with S-E Asia

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 Delhi or 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, 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 subsidies. The money 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 linked to the Indian mainland by a narrow stretch of land known as the Siliguri corridor or "Chicken's Neck". Connectivity and infrastructure remain poor in the region, which is distinct from the rest of India due to its location.

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

"Those who have smaller planes will find it difficult to subsidise the (cost of) 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," said Mr Rajan Mehra, chief executive of private luxury business jet operator Club One Air.

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

Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, chairman of the Kalinga International Foundation, said India's Act East policy could be successful only 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2018, with the headline 'India to start flights to Asean from Assam'. Print Edition | Subscribe