TRAVEL IN INDIA

4:19 AM 1 Comments

It is over a 100 years since the advent of flying. It, however, continues to be held in awe. Commercial aviation is the worst hit, worldwide, not just because of stringent operating standards required, high pay-scales of work force and extremely high running cost but also the rhythmic, unsavory, mysterious occurrences related to aviation. Any hint of inconvenience to air-passenger’s safety would bring back the litany of stories similar to the ill-fated, yet unknown destiny of the Malaysia Airlines MH-17 recent disappearance. The checks and balances would become more stringent, for want of anything better, knee-jerk solutions would be put forth and not surprisingly implemented. Why so not?
Man naturally can walk, run and swim. The only thing that he is not endowed with is the ability to fly. Centuries of dreams have come true for the mankind, when mechanics helped him to fly, but along with it came the fear of failure of the machine and the consequent catastrophe. To make matters worse, flying got associated with glamour and wealth. This by natural progression got the Governments all over the world implementing strict safety mechanisms and levying higher taxes.
Today, a passenger is charged while flying, for passenger service fee, transaction charge, service tax, user development fee, fuel charge, airline congestion charge, other than the basic air fare. Instances of these allied charges far exceeding 200% of the basic air fare have become the norm and not even blinked at. Relaxation in the Indian skies after a long restriction to Private/Corporate participation in the sector has seen the entry of many players. In the present environment these can only be categorised into two- those who have gone bust and those who are going to go bust. Air India is not taken into consideration in this as the props that it has got is divine and unshakable.
Apart from high pay-scale work force, running costs, real-estate costs, there are other tangibles which make aviation a high cost operations. The high maintenance to ensure safe fly-worthiness of airplanes require periodic replacement/servicing of expensive parts, add to this the woe of Governments taxing high on the aviation fuel. This is like burning the candle from both ends.
If we stop to look at other alternatives of travel in India, they are the Roads and the Railways. Roads, they are still work in progress and really not an alternate to long distance travel. The only other alternative is the Railways. Is it really? One has to book a ticket 90 days in advance for a chance to get a seat - even during off season. If one misses that, then the only route is TATKAAL, that too there are no guarantees, this is like adding fuel to fire. You pay a premium for a travel plan less than 90 days.
The boast of one Billion human resource to tap in from, for the achievement of greatness of the nation, falls flat when it comes to the planning and execution of provision of infrastructure for movement of people. Additional trains, tracks, bogies, holiday specials, are but stop gap arrangements and even the railways would hit a ceiling after optimum capacity. Then what?
Today in the age of information, we never cease to sing praises of net, net connectivity and speed of transfer of information. The speed and ease of transfer of people, goods and commodities would be the true test for the development and progress of a nation.
Historically, development of Human race can be directly linked to connectivity. When road travel was the major means of communications, Harappa, Mohan-jo-dharo boasted of good roads and prospered, even today the Grand Trunk road built by Sher-Shah is a good example of far-sightedness, Kautilya, in Arthashastra, expounds the importance of good connectivity. As the progress of Sea-travel increased, we saw the development of Port cities, but, ironically, in today’s age there appears to be nothing significant in promoting air-travel be made easy and accessible to common-man.
The Government is expected to spend money to ensure good infrastructure and gets paid back for such expenditure spread over a large period of time. That is because the infrastructure so produced would bring about progress of the area and the country as a whole in an exponential fashion and the pay back commences long before the recovery of the actual money spent on the development of the infrastructure.
By demystifying and not associating Air-Travel to luxury and glamour, we would be able to provide the common man an alternate for travel. It would spread the load, more participants would want to enter the sector which in turn would stabilize the sector. Maturity in any industry would come only from the fact that there is stability and a fair chance to run the enterprise with a minimum assured return.
Today the price of an air ticket varies more than the spikes of the stock market index on a tumultuous trading day. The variations being so large that a man on a budget has to think twice before making a decision of air travel. The profit-booking by the operators during holiday/peak season is indicative of the scare regarding revenue generation prevalent in the industry. The test of maturity and confidence of the industry would be when the operators actually reduce the price of the ticket on each flight operated, as a practise, having achieved the breakeven point.
The Utopian situation would be that major passenger travel for long distance would be by Air, major transportation by Rail is of freight, goods and commodities and the major inter-city personal movements by buses and metro.
Airports Authority of India has 125 airports under its charge. Identifying and encouraging operations from airfields less used/closed near to major hubs would be a win-win for all concerned. Infrastructure development of good roads/metro, rail from these places to the heart of cities would offload air traffic to major air hubs.
The not so transparent air ticket charges combined with additional airport and Government levies, added to that the high tax on Aviation Turbine Fuel, both state and central, really need a revisit by all the participating players. The Government(s) needs to move away from the Draconian outlook to the Aviation sector and seriously empower the sector to do well, otherwise the present day set up is like the story of the Dacoit leader wanting to invite the best singers, dancers and artists to his hideout to entertain his gang. He also declares a Prize money of Rs100 crore to the best participants. On being asked by his crony as to why should they part with the money earned, laying their lives at great peril? The leader says ‘Not to worry, these guys after collecting their Prize are going to go home through our jungle only. We will rob them on their way out.’

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