India is looking to expand the regional air connectivity scheme UDAN, formulated under its new aviation policy, to cover countries of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha said on Tuesday.
He was addressing a curtain-raiser event for a conference on `Bimstec: An Enabling Architecture for Growth, Prosperity and Partnerships', slated for November, marking the 20th anniversary of the grouping.
"What the government of India would like to see is that we can take the policy design behind UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik or 'common people of the country can fly') and extend it across the Bimstec region," Sinha said.
"So if we can link Pakyong (greenfield airport in Sikkim), there is no reason why we can't link an airport in Bhutan or an airport in Myanmar in the same fashion," he said.
The conference, planned for 2-4 November this year, is being organised by industry body Ficci and India Foundation with the support of the ministry of external affairs and the state government of Assam in Guwahati.
Bimstec comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Its main objective is technical and economic cooperation among south Asian and Southeast Asian countries along the rim of the Bay of Bengal.
Bimstec is increasingly seen as an alternative for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), which has virtually been rendered ineffective as a bloc, largely due to non-cooperation by Pakistan.
The UDAN scheme, a key component of the National Civil Aviation Policy launched in June last year, focuses on regional airport development and connectivity and making air travel affordable.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the first flight under UDAN - from New Delhi to Shimla – in April.
Sinha said that to make the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean the real power centre of the region, the Bimstec countries would have to work together.
"Trade and business and commerce are really going to be the engine that is going to be able to drive prosperity and closer collaboration and linkages across the Bimstec countries," he said.
Stating that to strengthen trade and business, connectivity was vital, he said: "As far as India is concerned we have poured tremendous resources to both road and rail linkages."
He said that the government was working on expanding road linkages not only in northeast India - seen as the hub for India's engagements with Bimstec - but also to Myanmar and on to Thailand.
He said that the government was pushing for broad gauge rail tracks across the northeast and was opening up trade connectivity to Bangladesh.
He said that work was also on to develop waterways, including one on the Brahmaputra river to Bangladesh.
However, for high value economic progress through business and tourism, aviation was very important, he said.
Sinha said the conference in Guwahati would look at the possibilities of having an open skies policy between the Bimstec countries.