Reports that airline operators first heard of the resumption of domestic air travel from a tweet by the Minister for Civil Aviation on 20 May are, if true, worrisome if only because they suggest that another effort is underway to cause confusion and consternation among passengers unable to travel for the past two months because of the national lockdown.
To add to this confusion, the Ministry has come up with such elaborate instructions for travel that they are guaranteed to make the task as onerous as is humanly possible. As has now become part of the new normal, the Aarogya Setu app is mandatory for air travel.
This would mean that under the scheme formulated by Mr Hardeep Singh Puri, only those who own smartphones can fly, not the “hawai chappal”-wearing ordinary Indian whom the Prime Minister had wanted to see on board the hawai jahaaz when he launched the Udaan scheme in 2017.
According to research put out at the end of 2019, there are at least 550 million mobile phone users in India who do not own a smartphone, against 450 million who do. This would suggest that a little over one half of Indians are ineligible to fly in terms of the Government’s new Standard Operating Procedure.
To complicate matters further, the SOP which runs into several pages, is filled with so much unnecessary trivia that it must be asked if the ministry’s intention is to cause the maximum panic. In wading through such needless homilies as “passengers should be allowed to board in batches” (as if this did not happen before Covid) and “announcement will be made in the aircraft for deplaning passengers in batches”, the passenger is likely to lose the thrust of the message on safe travel and social distancing. Travel by air which, because of its speed, involves far shorter contact with fellow humans than travel by rail will now be marked by far more stringent rules than those that apply for air-conditioned train passengers.
Certainly, the restrictions are infinitely more cumbersome than those in force for migrant labour being ferried home by buses and Shramik Special trains. This would suggest that the Ministry of Civil Aviation is determined to impart an elitist spin to its plans for reopening Indian skies, in effect to suggest that different values are put on different categories of Indian lives. While this may not be the intention, it is unfortunate that the rules sought to be introduced should suggest it.
As has been suggested more than once in these columns, government rules, notifications and messaging must be simple if they are to be effective. Allowing the bureaucrat to run amok with page upon page of rules does not help anyone, least of all those who are expected to follow them, and those who must enforce them. For now, though, we must applaud one more hesitant step taken to restore a degree of normality to life, and say it was about time this happened.