From my childhood I have been hearing & have been writing umpteen number of times, that the world has transformed into a global village, but it seems to hold true only outside our forsaken valley. With each passing Day, coming to or going out of this valley is becoming a herculean task and not everyone is up to it.
Jammu-Srinagar Highway is one of the most dangerous highways with an enormous fatality rate (almost 100%) in case of an accident. If one survives an accident on this highway it is a miracle. Now due to this reason not many people prefer to travel by road, but the only other option i.e air travel, is fast becoming out of bounds for the common people. Air travel to & from Kashmir is becoming an elitist activity. The “Maharajah” syndrome is kicking back in, due to the prohibitive cost of air travel, the only people who can afford it are the rich and powerful.
In the early nineties with Indian economy opening up, the Air Corporation Act, 1953, was repealed to end the monopoly of the public sector and private airlines were reintroduced. This was done to promote healthy competition and it was thought that the benefits would trickle down to the common people. This has been proved true for rest of India minus Kashmir.
On the Srinagar route the airlines have monopoly and the customer has no say. It is the airlines only that decide the fares and there is no one to question them. The airlines are acting as a cartel and seem to be deciding the pricing with mutual consultation, which illegal & completely nullifies the basic goal with which the Air Corporation Act, 1953 was repealed.
The civil Aviation Ministry, Central & State governments are turning a blind eye towards this issue. It is not only an issue of me not being able to afford air travel but a lot of other things are interwoven with this issue. We get a better idea what other things are being affected by the airfare by taking a look at the objectives of civil aviation ministry which are:
a) To ensure aviation safety, security
b) Effective regulation of air transport in the country in the liberalized environment
c) Safe, efficient, reliable and widespread quality air transport services are provided at reasonable prices
d) Flexibility to adapt to changing needs and circumstances
e) To provide all players a level-playing field
f) Encourage Private participation
g) Encourage Trade, tourism and overall economic activity and growth
h) Security of civil aviation operations is ensured through appropriate systems, policies, and practices
Let's discuss the objectives one by one:
a) Talking of safety & security that seems to be only part that it is being taken seriously in Kashmir, in fact too seriously leading to inconvenience to commuters and they wish they had never come here.
b) We can call the environment in which the companies operate on Srinagar route anything but liberal. If prefer to call it monopolistic because customers have no say in it and they have to accept each and everything that is being offered to them by the airlines.
c) If we can call the prices on Srinagar route reasonable then what do we call reasonable! When one can get a stay of two nights in Bangkok, plus the travelling cost from India in about Rs 11,000 and at the same time the ticket fare from Dehli to Srinagr or vice versa is above Rs 15,000, is this what we call fare pricing (in tourism season the prices go as high as Rs 30,000). Is it that Kashmir is on a different planet altogether!
d) Government has never been flexible to anything when it comes to Kashmir so how can we expect them to flexible with respect to air travel. People have been demanding for long for making Srinagar Airport operational 24x7, instead of the current operating window of morning till evening. This will increase the availability of the seats thus matching with the demand and taking away the undue advantage that the airlines have currently due to which they are able to charge so high charges.
e) Government with its attitude is providing more than a level playing field to the airlines, they are giving them undue leverage to operate as they wish and to charge people as much as they can.
f) Government is not allowing any public transport to travel from city to the airport, if you don’t own a car then either you have to walk approx 3 km's uphill or hire a private cab (extremely costly), so what encouragement can be expected to be given for private participation.
g) Many studies and researches have shown that air transport has a direct effect on trade, tourism and overall economic growth of any region. Now at one hand Government is trying to show that it is trying to promote all these things in Kashmir but on the other hand is having a very dismal approach towards the Srinagar airport. It is not bringing its foot down on the airlines and telling them that they cannot charge customers over the sky prices. After all that was why the Air Corporation Act, 1953 was withdrawn in the first place. (h) So the civil aviation ministry & state and central Government’s have to set their systems, policies and practices with respect to Srinagar airport right.
The condition of the Jammu-Srinagar Road and the extremely high airfares to & from Srinagar only act as deterrent for people from coming or going out of the valley. This completely negates the governmental rhetoric of them promoting economic development, tourism or people to people contact. It is not something that authorities are unaware of but what amazes me is their inaction, unless it is exactly what they want, turning Kashmir into a forbidden Valley!
Also appeared in "The Kashmir Monitor"