After the ceasefire deal, the resumption of international flights at the Srinagar airport was touted as another path breaking agreement on J&K involving the UAE. But the situation in the neighbourhood has grounded the initiative well before it could take off.
By Ajaz Rashid
THE DOOMED FLIGHT: The Dubai factor in the warming of relations between India and Pakistan has started to unravel. After the initial agreement, Islamabad has refused to provide airspace to the airline operations between J&K’s capital Srinagar and the United Arab Emirates, making the Srinagar-Sharjah flight commercially unviable for the private operator GoFirst (formerly GoAir).
After a gap of around six years, the Union Home Minister Amit Shah flagged off the first international flight from Srinagar’s Sheikh-ul-Alam International Airport on October 23, 2021. As per reports, Islamabad had granted airspace clearance for the Srinagar-Sharjah sector on October 23rd, 24th, 26th and 28th.
According to media reports, Shah highlighted that the resumption of international flights from Srinagar would mark the beginning of a new chapter in J&K while asserting that it would attract more tourism and investment in the newly created union territory.
Private airliner GoFirst, which operated the flight, said it will boost “trade and tourism between Srinagar and the UAE”, “The flight … will be operated four times a week” while catering to the “demand for convenient travel options for the two cities, which are popular tourist destinations as well.”
This was followed by another agreement on November 1, 2021, between the Lulu group, a UAE-based multinational conglomerate with retail interests in diverse sectors, with GoFirst, for shipping fruits, vegetables, handicrafts and other items from Kashmir, apparently for sale through its vast chain of supermarkets in the Middle East. The J&K administration was supposed to act as facilitators between the private flight operator and Kashmiri farmers and artisans.
“We are quite surprised to see the immense opportunities that we have for the exports from here – as Lulu, and we will be able to take a lot of fruit, vegetables and antique and craft and a lot more items. We assure you that we will do our best to export goods from Kashmir,” said Salim M A, Lulu Group Director after signing the deal.
The Dubai route
Srinagar airport hosted its first international flight in 2002, which took off with a batch of mostly Kashmiri pilgrims on their way to perform the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
In 2009, the first direct international flight to Dubai was inaugurated by the United Progressive Alliance Chief, Sonia Gandhi. But the flight was grounded in 2015 because of poor response, which made the sparsely populated flight commercially unviable.
The PDP-BJP coalition government tried the Dubai route again in 2018 when then J&K finance minister Dr Haseeb Drabu signed a pact with the UAE government in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the crown prince of UAE Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The deal was supposed to bring massive investment for J&K. Dubai Ports, which Mohamed bin Zayed owns, promised to invest Rs 1,500 crore in J&K by building dry ports in the capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar. A joint venture was signed, but it was lost in the din sparked by the premature end of the PDP-BJP coalition and the revocation of J&K’s special status.
In the aftermath of Article 370 revocation, the relations between New Delhi and Islamabad, which were already tense due to the Pulwama suicide bombing, began to turn sour. As the two countries engaged in diplomatic face-offs, the borders in J&K again turned hot, triggering migration while disrupting the education of underprivileged students living in border areas.
However, the Indo-Pak relations began to thaw earlier this year when the armies of the two countries pledged to uphold the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control and International Border in Jammu and Kashmir, which brought instant relief to the border residents.
It was later reported that the UAE has brokered the peace agreement.
The Doomed Flight. Srinagar airport hosted its first international flight in 2002, which took off with a batch of mostly Kashmiri pilgrims on their way to perform the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
Last month, Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal announced that different groups based in Dubai had shown “keen interest in investment in Kashmir”. Goyal said the Arab Emirates would become the first foreign country to invest in J&K following Article 370 abrogation. The funds were being invested in building “industrial parks, IT towers, multi-purpose towers, logistics centres, a medical college and a speciality hospital.”
“The world has started to recognise the pace (at) which Jammu and Kashmir is traversing on the development bandwagon,” he said.
The Deal Breaker
While the airliner and the Lulu group were expected to jostle over sharing of profits, the cargo operations between Dubai and Srinagar had the potential to turn into a ground-breaking initiative for Kashmir where farmers and artisans are the most exploited categories of people. Tourism stakeholders argued that it could have also transformed the Valley into one of the most sought-after tourist destinations for globe-trotters.
However, Islamabad watched the developments with anxiety. Under fire over rising inflation and a fledgling economy, Imran Khan Government faced criticism, both at home and from the country’s powerful diaspora, for ‘normalising’ the abrogation of Article 370 by granting airspace to the GoFirst flight.
Dr Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s ambassador to New Delhi, termed the flight as a failure of Imran Khan. “It is clear that the issue (of Kashmir) is slipping out of Pakistan’s hands. We are shaking our hands and legs in the dark. We seem to have no Kashmir policy left. It’s sad. The current government’s casual approach will haunt it,” he said.
While the private airliner and the Lulu group were expected to jostle over sharing of profits, the cargo operations between Dubai and Srinagar could have turned into a ground-breaking initiative on J&K
Islamabad feared that the resumption of Dubai-Srinagar flight and the larger warming in relations between Dubai, the commercial capital of the Middle East, and India may dent the country’s standing in the Organisation of Islamic Countries. “At this rate, it’s a possibility that soon the UAE and Iran may open their consulates in Kashmir. If this is the state of our diplomatic effort on Kashmir, it can happen,” Basit said.
A day after the Lulu group and GoFirst announced the cargo-shipping pact, Islamabad closed its airspace to the GoFirst flight on its way to UAE on November 2, prompting it to take a longer route over Gujarat which increased the journey of the flight as well as its duration.
With this move, a path breaking initiative on J&K has been grounded well before it could take off.