(The operation of a private helicopter service is welcome but it needs full government backing from the State and the Centre to succeed)
Recently the announcement about the formation of a private limited company, Kashmir Air Services was made by some local entrepreneurs known as Dar brothers. They have been operating a reputed timber company known as Dar Timber Company. They are also in hotel business. According to press reports the entrepreneurs have already done the ground work like approaching the Directorate General of Civil Aviation and so on. They intend to operate a helicopter service to various Tourist Resorts and some other places which sometimes remain cut off especially during winter such as Tanghdar, Drass, Kargil and Uri. They claim to have selected key professionals to operate these services. Initially they plan to induct six helicopters. They may also operate services to Shri Amarnath Ji Cave and Vaishnov Devi Ji Shrine. They have also indicated possible operation of an air ambulance. The initiative is most welcome and timely and is in fact most needed. However, the question is how soon their proposals will be cleared by various authorities?
Incidentally, the State Government itself had taken a decision couple of decades back to start such services. In fact, a Department of Civil Aviation was set up which still exists! Some helicopters and a small plane were procured for the purpose but unfortunately after sometime the state authorities developed cold feet and the fleet of the aircraft remained for the use of the Chief Minister and other important officials. The state government has been going in a see saw manner in this regard. There never was a genuine interest and a really sincere effort even though such air services by helicopters and small aircraft are very urgently needed especially during winter. The state government has mostly been depending upon the Indian Air Force to operate courier services through M-17 helicopters during winter to cut off places like Tanghdar, Gurez, Zanskar and so on. For these services the Air Force charges are quite high. Sometime back the State Government had also taken on lease two helicopters from the Pawan Hans limited. These were operated to Gurez, Tanghdar and sometimes to Kargil and Zanskar. One was later on kept at Vaishnov Devi Ji shrine for taking Pilgrims up from Katra. A small aircraft service was also started between Jammu and Rajouri but was subsequently discontinued. In fact, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the then Civil Aviation Minister also travelled in a small aircraft on a maiden flight to Kargil for a survey but the flight never started. For reasons best known to the government, no one has so far seriously considered operation of a regular helicopter or small aircraft flight to these far flung cut off areas especially during winter.
Incidentally for some years starting from 1987 Pawan Hans helicopter leased by the state government was regularly used in winter to ferry heli-skiers from Srinagar Airport to Centaur Hotel and then from there to Gulmarg and Sonamarg. The French heli-ski expert Sylvain Saudan used his own small French Lama (Cheetah) helicopter in Gulmarg and Sonamarg for heli-skiing. These operations continued even during the turmoil of nineties! A similar operation can be again started for current winter as there would be many foreign skiers interested in coming to Gulmarg. They can be ferried straight from Srinagar airport to Gulmarg.
In view of these possibilities, it is more than welcome if a private initiative has been taken in regard to the operation of a helicopter service to various tourist resorts and cut off places. The state government needs to encourage and assist such ventures. A similar initiative from reputed domestic and international airlines needs to be encouraged for operating international flights from the Srinagar Airport to South East Asia like Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and in the Middle East to Dubai and Jeddah. Even flights to Central Asian destinations like Tashkent, Coolab (the burial place of Shah-i-Hamadan is in Khatlan Province of Tajikistan) could be very viable. Unfortunately, all these initiatives have to pass through the prism of “Security” which shoots these down without any argument. Even night flights from the airport are still hanging fire. One hears that these would be soon started.
But there is still a “Security” question mark! If Kashmir has to revive Tourism and provide succor to stranded patients in far flung areas, the “Security” grid has to take a broad minded decision and not only allow but encourage such initiatives. However, keeping the past in view, one has to keep the fingers crossed and wait to see if the private initiative really materializes!