Change in air, on tracks in J&K
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi on Saturday asked Kashmiri separatists to join the mainstream and learn lessons from the groundswell of opinion against their boycott politics in the last year’s assembly elections. ‘‘Large scale participation in the elections has proved the commitment of Kashmiris to democracy. I hope the separatists will learn a lesson from this and join the mainstream,’’ Sonia said after opening Srinagar’s high-security airport to international traffic. ‘‘It’s a very happy moment for all of us. The new airport would boost tourism and state’s economy.’’ Sonia flagged off the first international flight from Srinagar to Dubai with around 30 passengers on board and inaugurated the 31km stretch of second phase of intra-Kashmir train connecting north Kashmir district of Baramulla with Anantnag in south. PM Manmohan Singh had in October last year flagged off the first Kashmir train connecting Budgam and Anantnag. The train was a runaway success from the word go with over 10,000 people travelling on it in the first week. Civil aviation minister Praful Patil said initially, there will be a weekly flight between Dubai and Srinagar. ‘‘We’ll surely extend the service to other parts of the world,’’ he said. Earlier the inaugural flight from Dubai landed in Srinagar with over two dozen passengers. Sonia received the passengers as they disembarked from an Air India plane. Years of militancy may have scarred J&K’s people but the state appears slowly to be sloughing off the scab by throwing itself open to the wider world. On Saturday, it first international commercial flight left for Dubai. It came just days after J&K got its first BPO. Srinagar’s Sheikh-ul-Alam airport is yet not equipped to the standard of an international airport but Air India-Express’ first flight to Dubai with 170 passengers represents an enormous leap in opportunity. J&K’s businessmen frequently travel to Dubai and this will become easier now as they won’t have to come to Delhi to take an international flight. Till now, the only international flights that left Srinagar were those bound for Jeddah with Haj pilgrims. The case for J&K to have an international airport has been argued for years by successive chief ministers, including Farooq Abdullah, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad. But it took Union minister of water resources Saif-ud-din Soz to convince New Delhi. Air India manager Mohammad Iqbal Dar says the three-and-a-half hour flight to Dubai is direct, cheap and uses a Boeing 737-800, considered one of the most technologically-advanced single-aisle planes. But an international flight is not enough to ensure J&K is plugged into the world, says Mubeen Shah, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries. The external affairs ministry needs to make sure that foreign consulates set up shop here so that locals acquire visas in the state. Rakesh Kalra, director of the Airport Authority of India, insists that Srinagar’s airport has been expanded to international standards. However, it crucially lacks a modern Instrumental Landing System (ILS) to enable planes to take off and land in fog. But Kalra assures that a modern ILS would be installed soon. Nasir Ahmad Shah is a travel agent and says he yearns for change. He says the flight to Dubai is a new dawn of hope. ‘‘We want more flights to come directly to Srinagar from other parts of the world as well, so that Kashmiris can earn their livelihood honourably, without begging for concessions from the Central government.’’ So too the prospect of the state’s first BPO. Chief minister Omar Abdullah laid the foundation stone at Rangreth, describing it as a surefire way to ‘‘check growing unemployment in the state’’. Prashant Ruia, chief executive of Essar Group, which owns the BPO, said they hoped to invest Rs 100 crore, providing employment to 2,000 youth. However one looks at it, J&K may finally be talking to the wider world.