UDAN: Fulfilling the dream of cheap airfare for every Indian

High-speed connectivity serves as a significant catalyst for economic and commercial activities in any country. When such quality resources as well as infrastructure reach smaller towns and common people, the pace of growth undergoes a stupendous shift and thrust a new momentum.

It assumes newfound significance while India moves towards self-reliance and a resulting expansion of its economy, and immediate priority is to be accorded to developing quality infrastructure and high-speed connectivity as well.

Numerous government-appointed task forces were of the opinion that massive potential lay in a scheme that would focus on bringing the dream of air travel to fruition for the common Indian, thereby also spurring trade and cross-city connectivity.

With a keen focus on energy, roads, railways and urban projects, the government has already undertaken many infrastructure and connectivity projects under the able aegis of the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Indian Railways as well as the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.

It was with this intent of ensuring regional connectivity as well as to the fulfilment of aspirations of the common people that the flagship programme of the government of India — UDAN (Regional Connectivity Scheme) — was undertaken. The Centre planned and is now working on operationalising 100 unserved and underserved airports and at least 1,000 air routes under the UDAN scheme (‘Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik’).

The scheme is aimed at enhancing connectivity to remote and regional areas of the country and making air travel affordable. It is a key component of the Centre’s National Civil Aviation Policy led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and launched in June 2016.

It has two components: The first one is to improve the existing airports and develop new ones for faster regional connectivity. The second is the addition of new, capped airfare and financially viable regional real roots.

Last month, the scheme completed five years of its success since the take-off of its first flight back in 2017. With an enhanced aviation infrastructure and air connectivity in Tier-II and Tier-III cities, the scheme has been able to fulfil the aspirations of the common Indian in a relatively short time span. In the last five years, the scheme has significantly increased the regional air connectivity in the country. Now, India becomes the world’s third-largest market in aviation sector.

A major area of focus for the Ministry of Civil Aviation has been to better connect previously unserved and underserved 68 such destinations that include 58 airports, eight heliports and two water aerodromes.

At the same time, the scheme has been able to initiate 425 new routes providing connectivity to 29 states and seven Union Territories across the nation.

Through the scheme, an approximate figure of about 1.2 crore passengers have been able to avail the benefits, providing a much-needed platform to regional carriers to scale up their operations.

In a testament to the commitment that was made over eight years back that the Indian aviation industry would undergo a transformation, 425 routes have begun with 575 routes on track for implementation within the next half a decade. Another significant boost has been towards developing airport infrastructure with the target of 100 airports of which 68 have already been operationalised.

Through this massive scale upgradation work, the idea is to ensure that airways can adequately compete with railways as well as roadways and become the bulwark of transportation in India within the next few years.

The scheme is implemented on the ground through a myriad of processes. Upon identification, air routes are bidden upon by airlines and the one with the lowest subsidy ask from the government is given a chance to operate flights on the selected route.

These companies provide half seats on each of their flights (with minimum nine and maximum 40 seats) at the subsidised rate of Rs 2500, and the rest of the fare is compensated for by the government through a mechanism called the Viability Gap Funding (VGF) – an amount shared between the Centre and the concerned states. In addition, benefits like free security, electricity, fire services etc. are provided for by the state governments.

Through the scheme, a diverse range of stakeholders have benefited. Passengers have received the benefits of air connectivity, airlines have received concessions for operating regional routes, unserved and underserved regions have also been benefited in terms of economic development through direct or indirect benefits of air connectivity.

In addition, a framework based on need has been created to cater demands of medical cargo deliveries, value realisation of agriculture products as well as the connectivity of the Northeast region with the rest of the country. Like the Lifeline UDAN initiative was inducted in March 2020 during the Covid-19 period and it helped operate 588 flights transporting almost 1000 tonnes of voluminous cargo and essential medical services to various parts of the country, which proved to be live-saving for millions affected by the unprecedented health crisis.

Second in the line is Krishi UDAN that managed value realisation of agricultural products, and IUDAN — international UDAN routes especially in Northeastern Region (NER) and tribal districts to explore international connectivity with the neighbouring countries. These are all pillars of the framework that has been created based on need, within the UDAN regional connectivity scheme.

According to a study by the Ministry of Civil Aviation in 2015-16, 65 per cent of air connectivity and 61 per cent of air traffic were confined to only six metro cities in the country. The same study from 2021-22 confirmed that over 70 per cent of air traffic had shifted to Tier-II cities with these smaller cities observing more than 5 per cent increase in passenger traffic.

These are significant changes that have opened up tourism opportunities for places that were hardly accessible only six or seven years back. Deoghar and Kushinagar, with their massive significance in terms of religious and cultural tourism, are two places that have immensely benefited from the scheme. With increased tourist footfall, there has also been a steady increase in the number of jobs that have been created through these projects straightaway.

To ensure that the ordinary citizen gains access to the best yet affordable connectivity mechanisms, UDAN has been able to create a favourable impact on the economy of the country along with receiving a positive response from the industry stakeholders as well.

Ensuring balanced regional growth leading to economic growth as well as employment generation to the local population, the scheme has been able to revamp the system in its entirety. With a structured scheme like this in place, the government has been able to put forth a strong foundational base that would enable public welfare, inclusive growth as well as boost employment and connectivity further ahead.

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