During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and subsequently in British Governed India Amritsar was considered virtually the second capital of Punjab. Lahore was the cultural, social and educational capital of Punjab and Amritsar was the industrial and commercial capital of Punjab. The British Government was earning more revenue from Amritsar than from the largest Punjabi city of Lahore.
After India’s independence, the successive central and state governments tried to scuttle the dominance of Amritsar. Only one chief minister of Punjab, Sardar Partap Singh Kairon, who hailed from Amritsar district, was fair to this city. It was during the chief ministerial tenure of Sardar Kairon that Amritsar maintained its status as the commercial, cultural, educational and industrial capital of Punjab.
After the creation of Punjabi Suba, even the Akali Chief Minsters of Punjab persisted with the policy of destroying the prosperity and dominance of Amritsar. First, due to government’s apathy, the local industry started fleeing the city and then New Delhi replaced Amritsar as the bulk supplier of cloth. There was a time when only Sri Darbar Sahib (popularly known as the Golden Temple) saved the city from total collapse. Pilgrims kept thronging to this city to pay obeisance at the Darbar Sahib and the local Bazaars earned their livelihood from the pilgrims.
After the turn of the millennium some foreign airlines started taking interest in operating from Amritsar. These were Uzbekistan Airways and Turkmenistan Airways. Somehow the top brass of these airlines came to know that a lot of Sikhs are living in Bermingham, London and some European capitals. These two airlines started serving these expatriate Sikhs. Most of the Sikhs settled in the U.K. hail from the districts of Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Nawanshehar, Ludhiana and Kapurthala. Landing in New Delhi and traveling to their destinations in Punjab takes at least eight hours and the journey is arduous and hazardous. In addition the Delhi Police and Haryana Police also fleece and harass these visitors. Some senior citizens, who had not traveled for years to Punjab also started taking advantage of traveling by these airlines. From Amritsar Punjabi folks would take between an hour and three hours to reach their ancestral destinations. A small Russian airline also took advantage of flying Punjabis to Amritsar. The Punjabi passengers had the added advantage of pilgrimage to Sri Darbar Sahib on arrival and while departing. These few smaller airlines gave a lot of boost to the hotel industry in Amritsar and a number of budget hotels started mushrooming in the city. In the meanwhile traveling between New Delhi and Amritsar on the domestic circuit also started increasing. When some other aviation companies especially Singapore Airlines and Bombay based Jet Airways started showing interest in operating from Amritsar International Airport, the Government of India started levying higher charges for landing, parking and operating from Amritsar. These charges were twice compared to much busier Bombay and New Delhi airports.
For some unknown reasons, the Government of India’s baby Air India has always been reluctant to operate from Amritsar International Airport. In 2005, they also decided to operate on Amritsar – Bermingham – Toronto route. The date chosen to start the service was from the first of May. Everybody knows that Amritsar’s tourist season starts with Diwali (Bandi Chhorh Diwas) and ends on Baisakhi. According to English calendar Amritsar’s tourist season starts from the end of October and ends by April 15. But Air India decided to start flying on Amritsar – Bermingham – Toronto route on May the first. Air India’s expectations were that this flight will become non-profitable within a couple of months and after that they will have a good excuse to discontinue the service. But what happened is totally on the contrary, the passenger load started picking up with every passing day. Flabbergasted, the Air India persisted with this flight. Then they played another gimmick. In order to keep their full quota of landing slots intact at the Heathrow Airport London, Air India stopped operating to Bermingham and diverted their flights to Heathrow Airport London. Since fewer Sikhs live in the London area than in the Bermingham area, Air India reduced their service to thrice a week from six times a week. Again in 2009, public demand forced Air India to increase the service frequency on Amritsar – London – Toronto to seven flights per week.
At present Amritsar – London – Toronto Route is Air India’s most profitable route. On most most other routes Air India is losing money, but on Amritsar – London – Toronto Route, they are still minting money. Air India is not oblivious to the fact that there are more Sikhs living in and around Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) and in the Province of Alberta than in the Province of Ontario (Toronto area) and these Sikhs have been living in that area for a longer duration and thus are financially better off. Air India knows that more traffic is generated everyday from Vancouver to Amritsar than it exists between Toronto and Amritsar. In spite of that Air India is quite reluctant to start Amritsar – Vancouver flights.
Air India has two choices for flying to Vancouver. They have the option of flying directly via the North Pole to Vancouver in 14 hours by long haul Boeing 777-200Aircraft, or they can fly by conventional aircraft via Seoul, Beijing or Tokyo.
The expatriate Sikh community can help Amritsar International Airport. Recently some Sikhs based in England talked to the executives of Mahan Airlines of Iran to start a service between Amritsar and Barmingham via Teheran. Mahan Airlines obtained rights from the British Government to operate to Bermingham Airport. Since Bermingham is not a frequently touched international airport, the British authorities readily agreed to the request. After that Mahan Airlines applied to the Indian authorities to allow them to operate from Amritsar International Airport. Since Amritsar Airport is not very important to the Indian authorities, permission was readily granted to Mahan Airlines to start operating from Amritsar Airport. Consequently from July of 2009, Mahan Airlines has started flying thrice a week to Teheran International Airport and from there the passengers are put on the connecting flights to Barmingham. This makes every body happy. Iran gets thus far untapped business and Amritsar and Bermingham also gain passengers.
Similarly a wise influential Sikh talked to the high ups in Qatar Airways. He told them that there are thousands of Sikhs and other Punjabis living in Melbourne, Houston, Washington D.C. and New York areas. As a result Qatar Airways are starting services from Amritsar with effect from October 11, 2009. They are going to fly four times a week from Amritsar, but their convenient connections to other world cities will make Amritsar a very well connected international airport.
It is my humble request to the well wishers of Sikhism, living in the Canadian Province of British Columbia, individually or as a delegation, to seek interviews with the executives of Korean, Chinese, Taipei and Japanese aviation companies to start two-way flights from their capitals to Vancouver and Amritsar with a two hour change over interval at their headquarters. The arriving flight from Amritsar should wait for passengers from Vancouver and the one from Vancouver should wait for passengers from Amritsar. I can bet these flights will run full to capacity and be highly profitable. There is so much passenger rush on this segment that Vancouver – Amritsar flights can run on all seven days.
Similarly, the influential Sikhs living in Northen California area, where more than two hundred thousand Sikh farmers, truckers and professionals reside, can request the Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Taipei aviation companies to start San Francisco to Amritsar flights via their capitals or hub stations. These flights, to start with, can be thrice a week. Los Angeles area is now becoming more heavily populated by the Punjabi diaspora. Even LA Sikhs can make a similar arrangement. Amritsar International Airport is already on its way to become very well connected with important American cities, the only exceptions will be Chicago and the West coast cities like Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. If the local heavy-weight Sikhs try to talk with important airlines, even the difficult to connect West Coast can be connected with Amritsar.
The Government of Punjab is not interested in developing either Amritsar city or Amritsar Airport. They are pushing for early construction of Chandigarh/Mohali International Airport. Some of the airlines, like Jet Airways and Singapore Airlines, which had pulled out of Amritsar International Airport, have recently re-applied to operate out of Chandigarh International Airport. That means some one quite high up in the Punjab Government prompted them to pull out of Amritsar International Airport and the same aviation companies will soon start flying from Chandigarh International Airport.
Amritsar is the fulcrum of Sikh community. It is the duty of every devout Sikh to make sure that Amritsar survives with grace and dignity. Even if we belong to other places, Amritsar is still our centre. We should not let it fall by the way side.