Agartala, June 1 (IANS) The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has begun preliminary work to upgrade the airports in Imphal and Agartala as international airports as part of India's "Look East" policy to boost the region's connectivity and trade with Southeast Asia, officials said.
"As part of the ambitious plan, the terminal buildings, air traffic control towers, runway and other necessary infrastructure would be expanded and further strengthened in both Agartala and Imphal airports," an AAI official told IANS.
"Over Rs.160 crore would be spent to gradually develop Imphal and Agartala airport to international standards. Modern Air Traffic Control towers are being set up at a cost of Rs.10 crore each in the two airports," said the official, asking not to be named.
Currently, Guwahati airport is the only international airport in mountainous northeastern region comprising eight states, including Sikkim.
Since 2010, Bhutan's Druk Airlines has been operating flights from Guwahati in the Bangkok-Guwahati-Paro (Bhutan) route once in a week.
AAI chairman V. P. Agarwal and Civil Aviation Secretary K. N. Shrivastava will hold a high-level meeting in Agartala June 6 on the upgradation of the Agartala airport as an international airport.
"Upgradation of Agartala airport, development of two other abandoned airports in Tripura and modernisation of the airport would be discussed in the June 6 meeting," Tripura transport secretary Kishore Ambuly told IANS.
The Tripura government has long been demanding to operate flights between northeastern states and adjoining Bangladesh to boost trade, tourism and people-to-people contacts.
According to Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, Imphal Airport would become an international airport in July this year.
"Upgradation of Imphal airport into an international airport would also boost the trade, tourism, investment and people-to-people contact between the southeast Asian countries," Singh said at a business summit at Sagaing in western Myanmar this week.
Nagaland Commerce and Industries Minister Pangnyu Phom and Mizoram Minister of Trade and Commerce Lalrinliana Sailo also said at the May 28-29 meet that the move would expand business opportunities.
To improve the air connectivity in the northeastern region, fresh bids have recently been invited for a dedicated airline in the region.
For some time, the North Eastern Council (NEC), a regional planning body, and the Union Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) have been trying to operate a regional airline to connect selected airports in eight northeastern states.
"The NEC had floated tenders twice to select the airline. Two operators had submitted their bids but none of them could qualify in the technical bids. Fresh expression of interest is being floated for the same," an NEC official told IANS.
"The regional airline will be beneficial for the people of the northeastern region, which lacks adequate air and surface connectivity," the official said, adding that the operator would be offered subsidies from the NEC.
With Guwahati as the hub for the new regional airline, there are 11 operational airports in the northeast, including Tezpur, Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Silchar in Assam, Dimapur in Nagaland, Agartala in Tripura, Aizawl in Mizoram, Imphal in Manipur and Barapani in Meghalaya.
The proposed regional airline would also be connected with the Bagdogra airport in West Bengal.
The official said that at least 12 new airports are expected to be operational in the near future in the region.
"To develop five airports in the northeastern region, projects worth Rs.141.17 crore have been sanctioned recently on a 60:40 funding basis (60 percent by NEC and 40 percent by Airports Authority of India)," the official added.
The five airports include Guwahati, Imphal, Barapani, Jorhat and Dibrugarh.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)