Should Outbound Travel be Part of Foreign Policy?

A panel discussion on a recently released book, ‘Aviation and Foreign Policy’ by Sanat Kaul was held under the auspices of India International Centre, New Delhi. The session was chaired by KN Shrivastava, Director, India International Centre who is also a former Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, with Ambassador Nalin Surie, former Indian High Commissioner to United Kingdom, Ambassador to China and Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and the author Sanat Kaul. The discussion was moderated by Navin Berry, Editor, Destination India magazine.

In his introductory remarks, K N Shrivastava said that the progress in Indian Civil Aviation has been outstanding with our airports now better than many European airports. he emphasised that this book is a must read for not only all those interested in the subject but others also as travellers. Sovereign rights over a country’s air space were enshrined in the Chicago Convention of 1944 which has led to each country giving another country the right to fly over the other country for commercial flights which has been well brought out in the book. He cited the criticism by the author on restricted bilateral policy followed by India in early years but explained that this pent up demand led to privatisation of airlines and none of the airlines are now government owned or controlled. This has brought greater benefit in terms of growth of airlines, leading to a more competitive edge with foreign airlines. He said the book has come up with the innovative idea of aligning the Civil Aviation Policy with Foreign Policy and has suggested that those countries not connected in the region but desirable from a foreign policy angle, but not viable to commercial airlines, should be connected through a scheme similar in nature to the domestic subsidized scheme such as UDAN.

Aviation had a retarded Growth to Begin with

Sanat Kaul shared that the idea of writing such a book on establishing a relationship between the two policies came from Ambassador Nalin Surie which he took up reluctantly as there was no background or past work on it. Giving a background to Aviation in India he stated that India aviation had a retarded growth due to the monopoly of two public sector airlines with their sluggish management and government policy in not giving out sufficient air service rights due to their pressure. However, this got corrected but also went overboard with too many rights given to foreign airlines. This issue was pointed out by both by Comptroller and Auditor General in his report No 40 on Civil Aviation in the year 2016 and in Annual Economic Survey of the Finance Ministry in 2016-17. Because of these circumstances, two countries in the East and West of India i.e., Singapore and Dubai, came up as international hubs largely because of Indian traffic.

On the issue of relationship between Civil Aviation and Foreign Policy he referred to Ambassador Rajiv Sikri’s book which has stated that in order to reinforce our foreign policy the need to have a better understanding and appreciation by the people of any two countries is needed in this day and age, and air connectivity is an ideal choice. Even earlier, Air India, then the monopoly airline for external travel, was nudged by the Foreign Ministry to go to some countries of importance to India, even though the route was not remunerative. However, when Air India lost its monopoly in 2004, it was not able to provide this service from its resources as it had to compete with other Indian carriers.

The question of better international connectivity from a foreign policy angle was again taken up by Prime Minister Vajpeyi in 2003 when he made an open offer to ASEAN countries to connect to 18 Indian major cities directly from their countries. A similar offer was issued to SAARC countries. However, only those countries which had strong airlines and had existing flights into India took advantage of these proposals. Therefore, the then Prime Minister’s offer was unattractive mainly because it was without a full proposal, which looked into the financial needs of the airlines to operate these services. The airlines of other countries which did not have an existing service into India found it unviable as they did not have any significant traffic into India. This shows that airlines need more than landing rights, as the service must be viable.

Should there be a Closer Play between Aviation and Foreign Policy?

Then there is the issue of India Outbound traffic which is growing faster than the India inbound. This is a great asset which foreign policy makers should consider. If our outbound traffic is incentivized, into directions which are of importance to foreign policy objectives, then it could of great advantage. How to incentivize our outbound tourists to desired countries has been discussed in the book. Further, how to incentivise our airlines to go to unremunerative routes has been discussed in the book.

In this context, mention was made of how China has channelised its huge outbound traffic and how it uses the leverage of its outbound traffic to reward and reprimand countries. China has been quite successful in using its outbound to achieve its foreign policy goals.

Lastly, Kaul highlighted the Look East Policy has totally missed out the role which Andaman and Nicobar Islands can play in it, as strategically placed chain of islands in the Bay of Bengal. The general impression with foreigners is that India is a peninsular country far away from the straits of Malacca, which is unfortunate. With over 570 islands connecting Myanmar with Indonesia, it has a major stake in the Malacca Strait. With the last island of Great Nicobar Island barely 100 km from Sumatra tip, and near the western entrance of Malacca strait, it has a major role to play in the geo-politics of the region, provided India plays its cards properly.

Some Interaction is Already in Place: Nalin Surie

Ambassador Nalin Surie recalled how it was at his initiative that a reluctant author wrote this book but he is happy with the outcome. He stated that diplomacy is not about writing reports but much more in terms of providing inputs for trade and development. Air connectivity is crucial. He agreed that Prime Minister Vajpeyi proposal offering 18 destinations to ASEAN members countries was a very good initiative, among many other initiatives, but it was not acted upon. However, today in continuation of his efforts we have good highways, airports, a large basket of exportable goods. It’s time to bring Civil Aviation Policy in sync with Foreign Policy, which indeed is already taking place. He referred to many suggestions in the book and stated that foreign policy extends to all aspects of the country like economy, culture, tourism and in all these, aviation plays a very important role. People to people contact, export of high value goods, and other activities require good connectivity. He mentioned that up to the late nineties we had very little to export and therefore, foreign policy could not push an ‘empty drum’.

However, India is now a different place and foreign policy is much more integrated into the Indian system. He also confirmed that Indian foreign policy did utilise the services of then Air India as a monopoly airline to go to countries which served India’s foreign policy interests. He gave the example of Air India going to Dar es Salaam and then to Harare in Africa on a nudge by the foreign ministry when the route was not viable, but it was a matter of pride for India to show its flag. This issue is as true today as it was then, especially when India is aspiring to be the third largest economy in the near future. As Indian outbound grows and Indian tourists visit different parts of the world, they would prefer to fly on their own airlines. However, with the growth in outbound travel by Indians, the airlines are opening new locations. He stated that government should be a facilitator and improve the bilateral agreements for a fair deal and even create hubs as has been discussed in the book.

China’s Long Term Initiatives Have Worked well for them

On the issue of China which the author has dealt in detail, he stated that China had a long-term plan as they have in all sectors and implemented it. Initially they had a large number of airlines which they subsidised and later amalgamated them into a few. Connectivity was a crucial issue for them and they had a long-term strategy for it. They bought planes from Boeing and Airbus in large numbers collectively for its airlines, made them set up plants in China and now they have their own manufacturing facility for a commercial aircraft. They developed hubs for domestic as well as international traffic and implemented their plans meticulously. After consolidation of their airlines, they now fly to every part of the world. Another aspect of the Chinese planning was that they decided in the eighties that they will go for an open economy for which they needed good connectivity. On this issue he felt, however, that we cannot go down the Chinese way and subsidise our airlines. India, on the other hand, is now doing well in civil aviation and we should continue the way we are. Our private airlines are doing well and our orders for new aircrafts are highest in the world. Ambassador Nalin Surie concluded that we should continue with the present policy which is doing well.

Moderator Navin Berry, making his interjections, said that that India cannot pursue open skies as a policy. There has to be a quid pro quo in what we give and what we receive. Usually, countries that declared open skies, did not have much sky of their own. Relating to the success of opening routes with countries, He recalled how India and the US had an open bilateral, where any number of airlines and flights was possible. Yet the India-US route was heavily services by third country airlines. ‘Flying the flag’, in his opinion, was a thought process that had lost its relevance in the emerging world of competitive marketplace where airlines had to see profits on routes, and governments were longer subsidizing air travel.

During the Q&A session, KN Shrivastava raised the issue of subsidy. He recalled how in his time as Secretary Civil Aviation he had tried to nudge airlines to go to Siam Reap in Cambodia which is the airport for Angkor Wat or to Ho Chin Min city in Vietnam or Chabahar in Iran. However, all the airlines which were private stated the route would not be viable. Sanat Kaul argued that while the Foreign Ministry funds roads, ports, hospitals, why a small portion from within its budget, could not be considered for subsidy to airlines to go on select unviable routes, based upon seat utilisation. Perhaps an initial subsidy for three years till such time the route would become viable? Nalin Surie opposed the subsidy issue and stated that our philosophy of development assistance is based on a country’s desire for a project and this concept does not find a place in it. Subhash Goyal, Chairman, STIC Group, added that we need flights into Africa especially to meet the Chinese influence. He also wanted a removal of the 20% tax on international travel.

On Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Ambassador Surie stated that while the strategic importance of these islands cannot be discounted, yet he was not in favour of promoting tourism in these islands or developing them into another Hong Kong. Lt Gen Arun Sahni stated that he agreed with the author on strategic importance of these islands and stated that a lot of work has already started for this purpose.

Deepak Dadlani, former chairman, Air Cargo Agents’ Association of India, wanted greater emphasis on cargo by air which has a great future and requires very little additional expenditure. Nalin Surie agreed with this suggestion and said that this point was extremely important from a connectivity and trade point of view, especially with regard to high value, low volume, cargo.

In his concluding remarks, Shrivastava said that creating a fund for outbound on the lines of UDAN for a limited period should be considered and to that extent he is in agreement with the author. He stated that many of the routes which started under UDAN subsidy scheme have already become viable and not being subsidized. He again highlighted how it was a very important book, with rich content and ideas that required a larger debate.


Sanat Kaul is a retired civil servant who has worked as JS in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, has been India’s representative at ICAO, Montreal. Kaul has written extensively on civil aviation matters.



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