Friday, June 11, 2010

Patna Airport and The Juggernaut of Bihar's economic development

When news came of Bihar being the second fastest growing state in India, there was all round skepticism, even derision in some quarters. I remember the TV debate in which a geriatric retired member of the Indian Planning Commission tried to deride the suave NK Singh by hinting that as the basic data is supplied by the state government, there is reason to doubt it. Funny why he never doubted the data from any other state or even Bihar data for years when its growth was slower. Bizarre was the statement of Mr Pronab Sen, the Chief Statistician of India who, in spite of the data being released by his own Central Statistical Organization, claimed it is not his data. He was probably implying that he is a mere clerk whose job is to tabulate the data given by the state governments.

I am happy to say that there a been continued flow of data which supports the story of an economic turnaround in Bihar. There was the news of Bihar being the fastest growing cement consumer in India, then the huge growth in foreign tourists in Bihar (mostly Gaya) and now there is the news of Patna being the fastest growing airport in India. Year on year, it had a massive 60.8% growth in passenger traffic. Having been a regular user of the Patna airport since 1988, I always believed in the potential of the airport. I have seen withdrawal of the regular international flights from Kathmandu, the introduction of the IA flight to Mumbai in the early nineties via Ahmadabad and later by Sahara via Lucknow or Ranchi, the increasing frequency of the flights to Delhi and so on. I always found the flights to be full and getting a ticket never easy. So I always felt that there was scope to have more flights. In this context, I was very surprised when IA discontinued its flight to Mumbai. As a private citizen and one who is directly affected, I tried to take this up with the authorities but was told that this is a commercial decision taken due to lack of traffic. I found it strange since all the flights I had taken on this sector around that time were pretty much full. Thankfully, it is the age of liberalization and private carriers took up the space and we soon had Mumbai - Patna flights by Kingfisher and Go Air proving my hunch to be right. There is the similar story of telecom. When a modern day enterprise like Airtel, free from biases or a blinkered view of Bihar, came to the state, telecom took off in Bihar and the current growth is quite in step with the rest of the country.

This growth amply proves that when Bihar has been given a chance, it has delivered. These nail the lie that there is something inherently wrong with Bihar. These negate the cynicism of the likes of the above mentioned planner who have hitherto dominated economic policy. Historically,they have come up with harebrained schemes like the Freight Equalization Scheme and then blaming Bihar! In spite of these obstacles, Bihar has delivered. Now it is for the rest of the country, particularly the central government, to amend policies which can accelerate this growth.

On the airport specifically, Patna is a very small runway and very little scope to increase its length or the operational area. So a modern airport with facility to land aircraft like A380 is required. I know the planners may find the idea laughable, but given that Bihar is a landlocked state with a massive and increasingly prosperous non resident population. There is vast scope of tourism given the holy places of the Buddhists and Jains in Bihar. There is no reason to continue to penalize the poor migrant from Siwan by forcing him to go t Delhi and then take a flight to Dubai. (Siwan has among the largest Indians in the gulf). The international hub of Singapore is just two hours away. A good airport at Patna will convert the trickling traffic to a gushing stream. I hope Praful Patel as also the authorities at Patna listen to the changing times and take appropriate steps.