The news that inter-state and inter-district helicopter passenger service would be soon introduced in Manipur is welcome, although we must at this stage throw in the caveat that this welcome would be conditional on who the service is meant for. The status of surface communication infrastructure being what it is, a lot many regions of the state virtually remain out of easy reach even to this day. As reported every now and then in various newspapers, children can still die so senselessly of simple and imminently curable ailments such as dehydration caused by dysentery and diarrhoea. Likewise, delivery cases are still huge life threatening risks for mother and child alike, malnutrition is commonplace, education facilities are abysmal, etc. If the intent is correct, and the economic properly worked out, helicopter service should do in physical connectivity what the arrival of mobile telephony has done in terms of telecommunication to these remote regions. Ordinary villagers probably are hardly likely to be able to afford travels by this means, but what is also equally important is that this should bring government services much closer to them. For then, at least the scope for government servants to furnish excuses for being absent from remote places of postings should be severely restricted. Towards this latter purpose, the government should also arrange to have better government accommodations constructed, living environment improved, service perks for difficult posting enhanced etc, for its employees posted in these places.
Having said this, to be a little sceptical, it is quite predictable many of the routes for the helicopter service listed by the government would ultimately prove unprofitable. Some routes on the other hand, such as to the expanding commercial townships of Moreh and Dimapur from Imphal, should prove instant hits. This will be especially true if the service is to be handed over to private commercial carriers. We hope the government has done enough feasibility studies already, and knows which routes it should be prepared to subsidise and which not etc. Nobody would want to see the service wound up, even partially, before the fanfares on the introduction of the service have died down. Such a consequence would be a big letdown for everybody, and a deflating experience for the SPF government headed by chief minister, Okram Ibobi. The success or failure of the project indeed should have a very significant impact on the electoral fortune of the ruling group in the next Assembly election a year hence.
However, let nobody be fooled that the helicopter service can ever be an effective substitute for surface transport infrastructure. It therefore should not be allowed to be served as an excuse by the powers that be to dither on development and improvement of existing inter-district and inter-village roads. In fact, if the goal of achieving complete road connectivity of all settlement pockets in the state has been sidelined, the introduction of the helicopter service would be reduced to nothing much more than a gimmick. Let the government never forget that the primary need is for roads. Only after acknowledging this, can its plan of diversifying the communication agenda to other fields, acquire moral legitimacy.
Since the helicopter passenger service is unlikely to be inexpensive and within the means of ordinary folks to avail of unless heavily subsidised by the government, if things misfire, it can hit the government in another nasty way. It would be good to recall the immortal statement of elite highhandedness supposedly made by Queen Marie Antoinette, although there is no proof of this, but definitely made by a French royalty. When she was informed in the course of a severe famine in France that the French peasants had no bread to eat, she reportedly retorted in an unparalleled demonstration of heartlessness: “Let them eat cake”. This kind of arrogance of the ruling class in France of the time ultimately led to explosive uprising of the ordinary people now known in history as the French Revolution. The helicopter service to be introduced in Manipur, should not amount to such a statement. When the villagers have no roads or the money to afford even bus travels, let not the government end up telling them: “Let them travel by helicopter”.