The Pulse

Northeast India Gets Closer to ASEAN, Courtesy of Bhutan

A new air route brings northeast India closer than ever to Southeast Asia.

Northeast India Gets Closer to ASEAN, Courtesy of Bhutan
Credit: Flickr / rjsvlajean

The presence of the heads of state of all the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states at India’s Republic Day celebrations earlier this year signalled growing bonhomie between India and the ASEAN countries. For its part, the Modi government has also tried to reach out to its immediate neighborhood through its “Neighborhood First” policy. In the light of these developments, the launch of a direct flight route between Guwahati, in the Indian state of Assam, and Singapore by the Bhutanese Airline, Druk Air, marks a big step forward in Northeast India’s growing connectivity with ASEAN countries.

Although the maiden flight was completed successfully on September 1, 2018, regular flights will start only from September 29. The launch of the Guwahati-Singapore route (the flight starts in Paro in Bhutan) was announced at the opening of the Royal Bhutanese Consulate General in Guwahati earlier in February this year. The Assam government has also been pitching for the ASEAN countries to set up their consulates in Guwahati, the biggest city in northeast India.

This push toward increasing connectivity with northeast India is also in keeping with India’s “Act East” policy. After the Modi government came to power in India in May 2014, the “Look East” policy was renamed  the Act East policy. This new route has been started in keeping with the Air Services Agreement signed between India and Bhutan and also marks the Golden Jubilee of diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan, which were established in 1968 with the appointment of a resident representative from India in Bhutan. It is worth mentioning here that Bhutan was the first country that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited after taking office in May 2014. Modi had also invited the heads of state of all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to his oath-taking ceremony.

The Gains for Northeast India

First, the new flight route will provide direct connectivity to Singapore for travelers from Assam and the other northeastern states. This will be a boon for people from the northeast, who till now had to travel via other airports in the country to travel to Singapore and other destinations in Southeast Asia.

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Second, it is also hoped that it will facilitate increased tourist footfalls in Assam and the other states in northeast India, given their pristine beauty and also given the Buddhist heritage in some parts of the northeast.

Third, the states of the northeast are also beginning to court foreign investment as seen in the maiden Global Investors’ Summit in Guwahati, Assam earlier in February this year. In February 2018, the government of Assam signed an agreement with the National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC) to build a 65-story Twin Tower Trade Center in Guwahati, Assam, which is trying to be a hub of India’s engagement efforts with the ASEAN countries.  Earlier this year, two land border crossings were also opened in Manipur and Mizoram, which will allow for overland travel between India and Myanmar. 

The Gains for Bhutan

First, Bhutan hopes to increase tourist numbers into the country.  In addition, it also hopes to draw in more tourists from the northeastern states of India. Bhutan already has close ties with the northeastern states, especially with Assam.

In addition, it is important to note here that India is one of the fastest growing aviation markets in the world. New Delhi has a Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS), also known as UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik), which was first announced last year. The Assam government has been trying in its own way to foster increased connectivity with ASEAN and will be providing $13 million per annum for three years to help start international flights to the ASEAN region. In addition to Singapore, Guwahati is likely to have direct connectivity with other international destinations in the neighborhood soon.

A Bumpy Road Ahead

However, the biggest challenge will be to ensure that the flights are full capacity; otherwise, they may not continue for long. In addition, there has to be a concerted push by all the northeastern states to promote tourism in this region so as to draw tourists from the ASEAN countries. The hospitality industry in the region also needs a shake up in order to cater to the needs of an international clientele.

Be that as it may, what is certain is that with this direct flight between Guwahati and Singapore, a new era has dawned in terms of aerial connectivity between northeast India and the ASEAN countries, especially with Singapore. Hopefully, this will spur greater trade and closer people-to-people ties between northeast India and the ASEAN region, as envisaged in New Delhi’s Act East Policy.

Bhutan surely deserves a lot of credit for helping bridge the connectivity gap between northeastern India and the ASEAN region.

Rupakjyoti Borah is with the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore and author of the book, The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India? An earlier version of this article was published here.