Worried that the closure of the greenfield airport in Sikkim may impact India’s Act East strategy, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is pulling out all stops to revive flight operations from Pakyong airport—the state’s first and India’s 100th airport.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated the airport, around 31km from the state’s capital, Gangtok, in September last year. It was built at about 4,600 feet above the sea level.
With an eye on China, India is working on developing critical infrastructure and a slew of connectivity projects in the region. The airport and the Bogibeel bridge over the Brahmaputra were expected to boost defence logistics along the India-China border and reduce travel time.
Arunachal Pradesh has also appeared on the air-map recently. These projects in the North-East were expected to open up commercial connections to South-East Asia, providing new trade routes and a source of major economic activity for the region.
“The AAI (Airports Authority of India) is looking to restart operations at the Pakyong airport soon. There are some issues with the airport, which the AAI is looking to address. We are trying to restart operations there by October-end-November," said a top AAI official, requesting anonymity.
Pakyong is an AAI-operated airport under the Udan regional connectivity scheme, which provides air connectivity to the remote corners of the country. The only flight at the Pakyong airport was operated by Ajay Singh-promoted SpiceJet, connecting Sikkim to Kolkata. However, the flight operations were ‘temporarily’ suspended in June after SpiceJet cited operational constraints owing to bad weather and low visibility.
“The Pakyong airport is partially functional on account of visibility issues linked with the terrain," said a senior Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) official who also didn’t want to be named.
Japan has joined hands with India to help aggressively develop infrastructure projects in northeastern states. As part of the strategy, which is being viewed as an attempt to contain China, an India-Japan Coordination Forum for Development of North-East has been set up to focus on strategic projects such as connectivity and road network development, electricity and disaster management.
“SpiceJet flights to and from Pakyong airport have been temporarily suspended w.e.f from 1 June 2019 due to operational constraints owing to the bad weather condition and low visibility at Pakyong. Pakyong is a VFR (visual flight rules) airport and does not have instrument landing facilities," said a SpiceJet spokesperson in an emailed response.
“Required minima to operate from this airport are 5,000 feet, which is difficult to achieve on most of the days in a year. To avoid inconvenience to our passengers, flight operations have been temporarily suspended. SpiceJet will share an update once flight services on Kolkata-Pakyong sector resume," he added.
SpiceJet’s website states the airline has listed Kolkata-Pakyong flight (SG3324) from 27 October 2019 to 28 March 2020.
The development comes in the run up to the 21 October by-polls to three Assembly seats in the state. The BJP, which drew a blank in the Sikkim Assembly elections earlier this year, recently announced that it has tied up with the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha Party (SKM) for the by-polls.
Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram have also come on the rail-map for the first time. The government is also working on 15 new rail lines at ₹50,000 crore to provide rail connectivity to all capital cities of North-East states.
BJP had promised to pay special attention to the region in its election manifesto. “There will be special emphasis on massive infrastructure development, especially along the line of actual control in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim," the BJP manifesto said.