Emila Shenga had set out from her home state Sikkim to take the civil service examination in New Delhi, but she never made it. A landslide on the only road that connects her mountainous state to the Bagdogra airport in neighbouring West Bengal put paid to her IAS aspirations.
“I was a hostage to Sikkim’s landlocked geography,” recounted a distraught Shenga. Thousands of others have silently suffered similarly with Sikkim’s connectivity to the rest of the country dependant only on a single road passing through West Bengal.
But for the first time ever since Sikkim joined the Indian Union as its 22nd state in 1974, an high-altitude airport that is set to go operational by the year-end has raised hopes among its 6,00,000 residents of breaking free of the state’s physical barriers.
A Greenfield airport at Pakyong, about 35km from the state capital Gangtok, promises to provide direct connectivity to the tiny Himayalan state.
“The work for the airport has been completed and it will be inaugurated by the year end,” said a senior official of the Airport Authority of India.
Built at a cost of 300 crores, the airport at an altitude of 4,700 feet will be among the five highest airports in the country. True to its altitude, the airport has already let hopes of the people to soar.
“Once the Pakyong airport is inaugurated, it will ensure that Sikkim people do not have to travel 124 km via the choked National Highway 10 to catch a flight. Direct air connectivity will further boost tourism – the mainstay of the state’s revenue,” Sikkim’s long-time chief minister Pawan Chamling told HT.
Connectivity, or the lack of it, often decides between life and death in Sikkim.
The state has no rail connection and minus an airport, people have had to rely on NH 10 to reach their destinations outside for everything from specialized treatment to job interviews. Apart from landslides that are frequent, political turmoil in north Bengal over the demand for a separate statehood for Darjeeling has also repeatedly caused disruptions to traffic.
“A bandh is called in north Bengal and people of Sikkim are trapped,” admitted Akshyay Sachdev, the additional director general of police. Stories abound about critically ill patients unable to make it to Bagdogra for being airlifted to other cities for better treatment.
Officials are promising to inaugurate the airport at the earliest to ease Sikkim’s travails. “We are waiting for the clearance from the Union civil aviation ministry about the airlines that will operate flights from the Greenfield airport at Pakyong. Once the flight and route for the first flight is decided, the date of inauguration will be finalised,” a senior official said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to inaugurate the much-awaited airport.