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Five years of India’s regional air connectivity scheme, UDAN, would call for celebrations as well as a look at the lessons learnt since its launch. UDAN, short for Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik (‘the country’s common residents will fly’), has provided affordable air services to citizens across the length and breadth of India. Till mid-July 2022, UDAN had operationalized 425 routes, connecting 68 destinations. More than 10 million people have availed the benefits of affordable air travel to these destinations, which had been left unserved or underserved earlier. By 2024-25, the number is expected to double. The success of UDAN has effected a paradigm shift in the nation’s psyche vis-a-vis air travel. It has democratized this mode of transport.

Air travel, which was considered the preserve of the elite till a few years ago, is now seen as an efficient option for all walks of life. If we observe the profile of travellers at airports across the country, it truly represents the aspiring population of ‘New India’. Importantly, by adopting air travel, common people have begun contributing to the aviation sector’s growth. Aviation now has the potential to overtake Indian Railways in passenger volumes in second-class AC and above categories. Though launched as a scheme for affordable regional connectivity, UDAN has created an interesting developmental model as well.

In 2016, India’s top six airports handled 65% of the country’s air traffic. This skewed pattern of growth in aviation, concentrated on metro routes, is finally in the process of rectification. Since UDAN’s implementation, the share of non-metro airports in the domestic passenger pie has increased. Airlines have been putting these emerging destinations on their route maps as traffic grows. Darbhanga in Bihar, Jharsuguda in Odisha, Shillong in Meghalaya, Kishangarh in Rajasthan, Jagadalpur in Chhattisgarh and Hubli in Karnataka, with large rural catchment areas, are a few shining examples of the non-metro growth model of aviation. This has helped reduce the disparity between urban and rural areas. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned recently, UDAN fits well into the framework of “growth through inclusion".

The UDAN scheme is a unique collaborative model that includes all stakeholders. Though administered by the government, it has an active partnership with states, airlines and airports. Resource pooling has been achieved by the active contribution of these stakeholders, through either monetary or non-monetary incentives for airlines and airports, even as the Indian government provided budgetary support for the necessary infrastructure as part of its larger policy framework.

States provide part of the viability gap funding and extend security and fire services free of cost to airports. Earlier, states were passive partners. But for this scheme, 30 states and Union territories have so far signed MoUs with the central government for participation. This displays the true spirit of ‘collaborative federalism’.

Now consider the role of the aviation industry. Airlines voluntarily contribute a fee for UDAN’s implementation and have launched services on routes beyond the usual bounds of commercial viability by using government incentives offered under the scheme. Airports help airlines reduce their operational costs by waiving some of their charges to help make services affordable. Some players in the aviation ecosystem are even responding to the opportunity by thinking beyond metro-focused models.

So, UDAN has an essence ‘of the sector, by the sector, for the sector’. It was the sector’s foresight to invest in regional connectivity as a way to increase demand and trigger a virtuous cycle of growth.

Collaborative efforts have gone smoothly, as no litigation over the scheme has taken place till date among stakeholders. It’s not that differences have not arisen, but with transparent processes and a partnership of trust between the government and the aviation industry, these differences are addressed within the realm of the administrative framework. Perhaps very few government schemes can claim such a distinction.

UDAN has also created a model of resilience in the face of sudden challenges. For example, during the covid lockdown of 2020, Lifeline UDAN allowed airlines to participate in transportation of medical cargo without loss of time and to the satisfaction of health authorities at the Centre and states. The ministry of civil aviation recently designed a Krishi UDAN scheme under a similar framework, enhancing cargo logistics at high-potential airports for perishable agricultural produce. If everything goes well, a few north-eastern airports will soon be connected to international destinations under International UDAN, boosting the government’s Act East policy. An ability to fine-tune and adapt the framework to address new challenges is clearly a key strength of this policy approach.

A few years ago, inclusive growth in aviation would have sounded conjectural. UDAN has given our aviation sector a new outlook and has been instrumental in encouraging regional development. The scheme has been designed to ensure that the benefits of air travel reach one and all. However, to address the fast-rising aspiration levels of New India, UDAN would need to reinvent itself further with a focus on deeper connectivity.

The soaring journey of UDAN over the last 5 years has provided us valuable lessons on inclusivity, collaboration, adaptability and resilience. These guiding principles would define how it fares from here onwards till 2026, which is the scheme’s sunset year.

These are the author’s personal views.

Usha Padhee is joint secretary, civil aviation, Government of India. 

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