Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Pandemic Yes, but Problems With the UDAN Scheme Also Go Beyond That

Mumbai: So much for high flying. Data presented by the Ministry of Civil Aviation before a parliamentary panel shows that Narendra Modi government’s low-cost flying scheme UDAN – short for Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik – otherwise known by the technical moniker of Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS), has crashed landed as is evident from the routes that were operational by November 30, 2021.

Glaringly, only 22 routes out of the 94 total routes survived at the completion of the three-year subsidy period under the UDAN scheme.

The UDAN scheme was flagged off with much fanfare in October 2016 but has floundered. Since then, 154 RCS unconnected airports – including 14 aerodromes and 36 heliports – have been identified for the operation of flights. Out of these, currently, only 65 have resumed flights.

In seven rounds of bidding conducted by the ministry under UDAN, 948 valid routes have been awarded. However, the fact that these routes have been awarded doesn’t necessarily make them viable or even remotely functional. Out of the 948 routes awarded in the last five years, only 403 routes connecting 65 unserved and underserved airports are operational as of December 2021.

The catch here is that these 403 routes have been facing challenges of their own. The pandemic has made the going tougher. Out of these 403 routes, a whopping majority of 300 routes have been affected due to poor demand. The civil aviation ministry, consequently, has stepped up and decided to extend the benefits under the scheme by a year for those routes which were bound to complete their tenure by December 2021.

But the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture isn’t happy:

“The Committee notes with dismay that out of 948 valid routes for RCS-UDAN Scheme, only 403 routes have been operationalised after the lapse of 5 years, since the launch of [the] scheme in October 2016. The Committee also notes that an extension of benefits has been granted for a period of one year only to routes completing three years tenure. The Committee feels that a helping hand should be given to the fledging RCS-UDAN routes considering the low number of operationalised routes and adverse impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has resulted in lower passenger traffic and therefore, strongly reiterates its recommendation that benefits should be extended by another two years, instead of one year as granted by Ministry now.”

Miffed with the poor response to the 403 routes, the parliamentary panel had earlier, in report number 308, stressed that the ministry should consider direct air connectivity to tourist destinations and cultural sites in the country. It said:

“…Direct air connectivity to tourist destinations and cultural sites in the country can massively promote the tourism industry which will lead to the generation of more employment opportunities and faster economic growth. The Committee, therefore, observes that there is an imperative need for close coordination between the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and the Ministries of Tourism & Culture, in matters regarding air connectivity to important tourist destinations and cultural sites in the country. Hence, the Committee recommends the Ministry of Civil Aviation, to work in tandem with the Ministries of Culture and Tourism, who are vital stakeholders in this regard.”

The civil aviation ministry acted on the recommendation of the parliamentary panel but here too it had to put up with a muted response. Of the 106 tourism RCS routes floated for bidding, airlines responded with bids only for 46 tourism routes and by February 2022, only 31 out of these 46 routes were operational under UDAN.

15/02/22 Kaushal Shroff/Wire

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