15 December 2003
India is expanding air links across the south of Asia to enhance trade and tourism.
India's Civil Aviation Ministry says airlines from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can now make daily flights to India's four main cities - Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Chennai - and to 18 other tourist destinations.
In return, India's two state-owned airlines are expected to get similar access to Southeast Asian countries.
New Delhi's efforts to boost travel links with East Asia have not excluded China. This week, India's state-owned airlines made the first direct flight to Shanghai, a move welcomed by frequent business travelers.
India is also enhancing transport links within South Asia by allowing domestic private airlines to fly to Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Pakistan and the Maldives. Until now, only India's state-owned airlines operated on these routes.
The latest measures are part of the government's overhaul of India's aviation sector.
Senior consultant S.K. Nair, at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, says Indian aviation has failed to keep pace with an expanding economy and needs major investments.
"Indian aviation sector is still a very puny sector compared to the size of the country," said Mr. Nair. "Our airports are puny compared to the kind of traffic that is handled by world leading airports. The more important aspect is that air travel itself, the costs are jacked up because of certain government policies."
A government committee has recommended that foreign airlines should be allowed to pick up 49 percent equity in the aviation sector to bring in much-needed funds for expansion and improvement. The committee has also recommended privatization of the two state-owned airlines.
Businessmen say Indian airports and state-owned airlines do not meet international standards, and overseas flight connections to many business hubs, such as the software city of Bangalore, remain poor.
Foreign investors have often pointed to India's poor infrastructure - the lack of air links, roads and power, as major deterrents in making large investments in the country.