Had anybody from Guwahati in Assam wished to travel to Delhi 15 years ago, they would have had only two affordable options: take a 27-hour train, or stay at home. Assam, part of India’s north east region which borders China, is, like all of its neighbouring states, mountainous and swathed in tea plantations, mists and mysticism. Its people are not only virtually physically disconnected from India – a slip of land above Bangladesh links them to India’s bulk – but spiritually and emotionally they are considered very much “other” by the Indians of Bombay and Jaipur.
Few left these states, and even fewer arrived. The region became disconnected from the national consciousness. Investment and growth was rare, yet political unrest was only too regular: the Maoist rebellion currently searing India’s east coast has its roots in the north east.
Yet now the strange sounding states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura, Assam, Mizoram and Sikkim are finding themselves more than ever connected back to a national sense of India. And this is not due to the steel railway lines that once attempted to bind and weave together this vast and beguiling nation, but to a growing fleet of Airbus A320s and Boeing 737-800s.
The liberalisation of Indian civil aviation has created a thriving low cost carrier sector, where efficient operators such as Spice Jet, Indigo and Kingfisher Red offer fares that allow the average Indian to do something they have never been able to before: travel around India, quickly, cheaply and in comfort far beyond that of a carriage on an Indian train – or a European low cost carrier. There are now over 40 daily flights into the north eastern states from around India. With speed, and powered with jet fuel, the north east is seeing the real benefits of a re-connection back into the nation. As with all these economy-class flights not only come more tourists, but also vitally for any regeneration: the business men. Assam’s growth rate has risen from 2.6 per cent in 2000, to 8 per cent in 2010.
Perhaps because of this economic boom and the reintegration back into a national sense, peace also seems to be a possibility. The rebellion which cost 998 lives in 2009 is now being directly challenged. The notoriously bitter partisan political parties have come together to sue for peace. The government has recently reacted in kind with a huge infrastructure programme worth around €3bn; a first in this once-considered investment black-hole. This is a strong endorsement given the federal government’s “2020 Vision” once claimed that “the challenges to ensuring peace and progress in the region are formidable.”
As a tea picker ruffles his way through the dense green and goes about his medieval and backbreaking life on an Assam plantation, he will look up and see the vapour trail of a Pratt & Whitney engine. He may not realise that these are India’s new peacemakers and life givers, for they carry on them not only people – his people – but a growing sense of a united India.