Monday, September 19, 2011

Physical isolation breeds alienation

Before 1947, Kashmir was connected to Central Asia and beyond apart from various parts of the sub-continent. In those days, caravans would be coming and going to Yarqand, Kashgar, and even Tashkent. There was no ban on travelling to all parts of the globe even though the travel was slow and difficult. But now Kashmiris have been living in a virtual prison in physical terms. There is only one entry and exit through Delhi. Such a situation makes local people claustrophobic and is one of the main factors for alienation of the people. People cannot even fly directly to Saudi Arabia for performing Hajj as is possible from other metros. Speaking during the inauguration of the recently held 9th Annual Convention of the ATOAI (Adventure Tour Operators Association of India), Captain Gopinath, Chairman of Deccan 360 giving his assessment stated that one of the main causes of alienation of Kashmiris has been lack of connectivity between various remote parts of the state. He offered to set up helicopter and small aircraft air services to remote valleys in Jammu & Kashmir including Ladakh.
It is true that there has been alienation between different inaccessible parts of the state especially in winters when all these areas become totally landlocked. Being landlocked in these remote parts during severe winters not only causes great inconvenience and hardship but also psychologically causes lot of depression. Captain Gopinath felt that with air connection through small turbo-prop aircraft requiring simple grass strips, all these areas could be thrown open to tourism apart from providing various life saving essential services to the local population. The state government operates a courier service through Air Force aircraft during winter. However, the proposal of starting such an air service to different parts of the state has been in the pipeline for a long time. In fact, the helicopters purchased by the state government sometime back with the setting up of a civil aviation department were precisely for this purpose. Unfortunately, these have mostly been used for ferrying politicians and officials. In the recent times, there has again been a proposal to start a state level airline for connecting inaccessible areas. However, it is not known as to at what stage the proposal is? The offer given by Captain Gopinath is worth considering as he has declared in his speech that he will not be looking for any state subsidy.
The question of connectivity had risen during the course of discussing various difficulties faced in the development and promotion of adventure tourism which is usually more pronounced in remote regions of the Himalaya. In fact, connecting remote and inaccessible areas by air should be the priority of the state government not because of tourism but for allowing access to the people living in these areas to various essential services including specialised healthcare. Development of tourism would be an added advantage accruing from such a project. This will also generate employment opportunities.
As already mentioned in the beginning of this article, apart from the lack of connectivity of different areas of the state, Jammu & Kashmir also suffers from lack of connectivity with the outside world. While talking of connectivity for development of tourism, the first requirement is the overall connectivity of the state to the global air routes. Even in the best of times, the number of foreign tourists visiting Kashmir was less than 5% of the total foreign arrivals in India. The main cause was the lack of connectivity of Kashmir to international air routes. All foreign tourists intending to visit Kashmir had to take a domestic flight from Delhi and pay additional air fare which could be easily avoided if Kashmir was on international air map! After umpteen promises, the Government of India had finally declared Srinagar as an International Airport but the single weekly flight started to Dubai was discontinued hardly after six months or so and the reason given in the Parliament was that the flight was not commercially viable. There cannot be a greater lie than this!
There seem to have been some other reasons than economics in discontinuing the flight. Let us forget tourism and consider the overall psychological impact of this "joke" played on Kashmiris. It has generated more alienation from the mainstream! Captain Gopinath appeared to be very much speaking the truth in regard to lack of internal connectivity. It is imperative for the Government of India to end Kashmir's physical isolation by starting direct flights to at least Middle East, Central Asia, and South East Asia, (all short-haul flights) if not to Europe and America. This would be in addition to removing the lack of connectivity within the state itself. One hopes someone is listening and that the "Interlocutors" prescribing medicines for all ills of Kashmir do not miss this ailment of physical isolation!

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