The sound of aircraft engines has changed from the loud metallic bang of the Royal Air Force&’s Hurricane fighters during World War II to the sonic boom of Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s. Welcome to Imphal&’s Tulihal International Airport. This airstrip that catered to Allied aircraft from that vintage has been expanded lengthwise and breadthwise and, as a part of India&’s Look East Policy, Union minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha said Air Asia would soon be touching down here on a regular commercial basis en route from the Indian mainland to Southeast Asia, and vice-versa. He said when he recently arrived in Imphal on a whirlwind inspection of the facilities already in place at the airport.
Allied forces constructed five airfields in the 2000-sq km Imphal Valley during World War II — at Koirengei, Tulihal, Kakching, Sapam and Kangla Sangomshang. The RAF Imphal station, as it was formerly known, is 45 km from Imphal International Airport in the Kakching area and now serves as a military base for the Indian Army, having been a major Allied forces supply airfield during the war. This airbase allowed Allied forces to fly in men, equipment and supplies, as also to provide a lifeline for the town that was otherwise cut off. Ammunition, rations and drinking water were also airdropped to Allied combat units during the Battle of Imphal, in which Japanese forces attempted to take control of Imphal. They were soon pushed back into Burma by forces led by Field Marshall William Slim, who turned defeat into victory.
Prior to 2012, Guwahati was the only international airport in the North-eastern region but as per and part of the Look East Policy, Imphal airport became a de rigueur site because the government felt it was necessary to upgrade it to international status so as to establish connectivity and trade with Southeast Asian countries and also to boost the region&’s connectivity and facilitate trade. As part of the ambitious plan, the Airports Authority of India took up upgradation work, expanding and strengthening the terminal buildings, air traffic control towers, the runway and other necessary infrastructure. This reportedly involved a sum of Rs 160 crore — the control towers alone costing about Rs 7 crore.
There are 11 operational airports in the North-east, with Guwahati as the hub for the new regional airlines. These include Tezpur, Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Silchar in Assam; Dimapur in Nagaland; Agartala in Tripura; Aizawl in Mizoram; Imphal in Manipur and Barapani in Meghalaya.
In order to develop five airports in the North-east region, projects worth Rs 141.17 crore were sanctioned on a 60:40 funding basis (60 per cent by the North East Council and 40 per cent by the Airports Authority of India). Five airports — Guwahati, Imphal, Barapani, Jorhat and Dibrugarh — were included.
After these projects were completed on 30 October 2012, the Centre declared then Tulihal Airport an international facility and soon enough, on 21 November that year, the first international chartered flight from Myanmar — operated by The Golden Myanmar, a private airline — landed there, carrying more than 100 passengers, among them Mandalay region chief minister Ye Myint and his Sagaing region counterpart.
It was, indeed, a historic occasion for Myanmar and Manipur to be connected by air since this will enhance and improve trade and bilateral relations. Chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh exuded confidence that Manipur would soon become a significant regional hub for international flights to Southeast Asian countries and commented on the possibility of introducing flights between Imphal and Monywa, Mandalay, Yangon and Kalemyo in Myanmar.
With the Centre having lifted the Restricted Area Permit for foreigners wanting to visit Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunanchal Pradesh, a sizeable number of tourists have started descending on these states. Making Imphal an international airport will definitely attract a large number of Southeast Asian tourists who can catch a train from Imphal in a short while, or from Dimapur in Nagaland or Guwahati in Assam to Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai or to Bodh Gaya on the Buddhist trail. This is feasible because we now have foreigners flying into Guwahati and after visiting Kaziranga and the tea gardens in Assam they drive up to Nagaland and enter Manipur and thereafter get into Myanmar through Moreh and travel up to Mandalay before flying out to Europe or America. With Imphal on the international airport map they will have no hesitation in putting this place on their itinerary. Thus, in the long run it will become commercially viable for other airlines to follow the path of Air Asia, which is now a near certainty, and use Imphal.
The question of Manipur being disturbed will not scare foreign tourists and, unlike the Kashmir Valley, the militants in Manipur have never taken a foreign tourist hostage as yet. But being a militant-hit area there have been surprises too, coming from the side of the Armed Forces and not from the militants. For instance, on 18 November 2015, locals residing near Tulihal airport and passers-by on the nearby Tiddim Road were startled when two Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets of the Indian Air Force made an unannounced visit to the airport and landed and flew back after remaining on the ground for 30 minutes.
Queries from a national daily to the IAF authorities in Shillong drew a blank and they printed a story of how the IAF had now started patrolling the Indo-Myanmarese region.
The more serious issues have come from the ground forces stationed in Manipur. For instance an official connected with the airport&’s security had told me about how the entire wireless communication system in the control tower had gone haywire for about 20 minutes. After hectic scurrying around, they discovered that an Inspector General of the BSF had arrived at the airport with his accompanying wireless jammer vehicle in tow. The problem was that the BSF operators in the vehicle had forgotten to switch off the jamming device. Fortunately there were no incoming or outgoing flights scheduled during those crucial 20 minutes.
Or for that matter in 2005 when an Army captain had the entire power system to Imphal, including the airport, shut down at the Yurembam power distribution station. The action reportedly was in retaliation for the entire garrison at Leimakhong going without power the previous night, which incidentally was Diwali.
All said and done, making Imphal&’s Tulihal airport an international destination is sine qua non for India&’s Look East Policy to fructify as road connectivity still remains a distant dream.
The writer is The Statesman&’s Imphal-based special correspondent.