//THE NR EYE: Airfare hike: Joke is always on Gulf NRIs

THE NR EYE: Airfare hike: Joke is always on Gulf NRIs

3 July, 2006, The Peninsual Online, Qatar, by Moiz Mannan

Overseas Indians Affairs Minister Vyalar Ravi’s plea to exempt Gulf passengers from the hike in airfares is most likely to fall on deaf ears; and the minister probably knows it too.

Raising the fares during the peak vacation season seems like a cruel joke played on overseas Indians in the Gulf who have been repeatedly assured by their ministers of a ‘fair’ deal.

With all good intentions, Ravi did plead for the Gulf NRIs at a recent meeting with his colleague Praful Patel, the Civil Aviation Minister. Ravi has reportedly urged Patel to convene a meeting of airlines to press home the fact travels in this sector “may be distinguished from the pleasure trips undertaken by tourists in the European sector”, Ravi wrote in a letter to Patel.

Ravi has also attempted to use the logic that for their sheer numbers, Gulf NRIs are significant contributors to the economy in terms of remittances.

The five million-odd Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) residing in the Gulf countries, 60 per cent of whom hail from Kerala, have over the years urged the Indian authorities to address a number of issues pertaining to their welfare in the light of their non-permanent status in the Gulf and their significant contribution to India’s forex reserves. One long standing issue is that of exorbitant airfares charged by Indian carriers on the Gulf-India sector and in particular the Gulf-Kerala routes.

The NRIs have been raising this issue over the past two decades on every plausible platform and with every visiting official of the Central and state governments in a bid to highlight the plight of thousands of low and middle income workers in the Gulf who are unable to visit their families even once in two or three years owing to the high airfares charged on the sector.

NRI representatives say sporadic moves to marginally adjust fares are cosmetic and not in consonance with the actual reality of fare structures that could be applied on the sector, taking into consideration the distance and flying time.

The emergence of a few ‘budget’ airlines raised as many reservations as hopes. NRIs are of the view that a budget airline would make sense only if a rational fare structure is devised.

The NRI organisations are also urging the government to implement the open skies policy. The Gulf-Kerala sector, in particular, is seen as a monopoly.

There is an unrelated but pertinent factor in favour of the persistent demand for lower airfares. Several studies have shown that long periods of absence by Gulf workers from their homes have resulted in negative social and familial consequences like marriage break-ups, family disruptions and psychological effects on wives and children of these workers.

Lower airfares could be one factor that could enable more regular meetings between the NRIs and their families, thereby mitigating some of these social problems. Children of NRIs, who inevitably have to return to India for higher studies, can also benefit from such a move.

Fed up with appealing to the Indian carriers, Kerala decided a couple of years back to have its own airline. The ‘Kerala Air’ proposal sought to involve capital raised from the state’s diaspora in the Gulf, apart from other investors.

But once again the proposal ran into the Ministry of Civil Aviation. The ministry would not allow the airline to operate on international routes unless, among other things, it had flown on domestic sectors for at least five years and had a minimum fleet strength of 20 aircraft.

At the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas earlier this year, Kerala NRIs adopted a resolution demanding the Centre’s clearance to the proposal as a special case. Making a fervent appeal to Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, the NRI delegates from the Kerala said clearance to the airline would help the lakhs of poor workers in the Gulf countries who can’t afford the exorbitant ticket prices of Air India.

Then chief minister, Oommen Chandy, who accused the Civil Aviation Ministry of being “insensitive” to the repeated requests of the state government to moderate Air India ticket costs, said the government was determined to launch its own airline. He said Kerala could not wait for five years to start Gulf operations and it definitely could not start with more than 5-7 aircraft.

The Kerala government has already approached Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Finance Minister P Chidambaram on the issue. The state assembly has passed three resolutions seeking clearance for the joint venture airline.

There have been two all-party delegations from the state to the central government on the demand.

So can one expect Praful Patel’s ministry to relent? We must remind ourselves here that contrary to what the political masters have been saying, the Indian government, in December 2004, decided to allow private sector domestic airlines to operate flights to all international destinations except those in the Gulf region.

The moratorium on private airlines flying to the Gulf region would continue for the next three years, the Cabinet decided.

During that period only Air India, Indian Airlines and their subsidiaries will be allowed to operate flights to the various regions in the Gulf including United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This was not surprising as the bulk of operational revenue and profits of both Air India and Indian accrue from these routes.

When asked about the moratorium on Gulf operations, Praful Patel had said: “Government policy is evolving. There is nothing sacrosanct. If there is a boom we may review it”.

One wonders what ‘boom’ the minister was talking about.

Let us also remind ourselves here that while Vyalar Ravi comes from a state where every other household has a member in the Gulf, Praful Patel gets elected from a pre-dominantly rural constituency in Maharashtra where most people have heard of Dubai only because of Dawood Ibrahim.

Clearly, the Civil Aviation Minister’s priorities are different.