According to the current month’s schedule, 20 flights to and from six cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad — operate out of Darbhanga.
And the passenger count — arrivals and departures — varies between 1,700 and over 2,800.
Over the past few months, an innocuous but interesting pastime has gripped the citizenry of Bihar’s cultural capital — Darbhanga.
It’s laying bets on how many passengers will travel through the seven-and-half month old airport in the city.
Ever since the first civilian passenger aircraft landed at the Darbhanga airport on November 8 last year, the passenger count, and the number of flights, has been steadily rising.
Today, it is one the fastest growing airports in the country.
Darbhanga airport, which belongs to the Indian Air Force (IAF), got on the country’s air map with a SpiceJet flight from Bengaluru landing on that winter afternoon.
According to the current month’s schedule (see ), 20 flights to and from six cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad — operate out of Darbhanga.
And the passenger count (arrivals and departures) varies between 1,700 and over 2,800; it was on Sunday (July 25), on Saturday (July 24), on July 22 and (the highest daily count so far) on July 18.
Many, cutting across all ages and communities, sportingly bet on what will be the passenger count the following day. There are many WhatsApp groups dedicated to this ‘betting’ which, say residents of this seat of culture and education, is innocuous and never involves any money.
But that aside, the operationalisation of Darbhanga airport has changed lives and lifestyles of innumerable people in Mithilanchal and even beyond, including neighbouring Nepal.
The more than 70-year-old airport has handled about 3.5 lakh passengers till now, and many of them have been first-time fliers.
And it has made life a lot easier for the people of not only Mithilanchal, but also the entire north-central Bihar.
Getting on the country’s aviation map has facilitated trade and commerce and also boosted Darbhanga’s tourism, education and cultural prospects.
Boost to trade and commerce
Sheoprasad Singh, an exponent and exporter of the famous Madhubani paintings that Mithilanchal is famous for, runs a handicrafts showroom near the Arya Samaj Mandir in Darbhanga’s Shivaji Chowk.
“Going to places like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru to hold exhibitions of paintings and artefacts was a big bother earlier. Not only has that become much easier now, sending the paintings to buyers in other cities and even outside the country is a breeze, thanks to air connectivity,” Singh, 55, told Swarajya.
Since November, Singh has travelled four times by air to Delhi and Mumbai, twice to exhibit paintings and some other artefacts, and twice to meet major buyers.
“Once the pandemic ends and everything gets back to normal, I am expecting a big jump in business. Two Mumbai-based art dealers have told me that they will fly down to Darbhanga later this year to see the paintings we produce,” said Singh.
He engages half a dozen Madhubani artists in his workshop.
Darbhanga, and Mithilanchal, is famous for its many varieties of delectable mangoes. And exports of this produce has seen a steep rise this season despite the pandemic.
“We could not export anything last year because of the lockdown. And in the past also, we could not export much since sending mangoes to markets outside the state was a time-consuming process and at least 20 per cent of the fruit would rot in transit. But this year, we could send many consignments by air to Mumbai and Delhi and we got excellent prices,” said Shahnawar Alam, a major dealer in fruits in Darbhanga.
Bholanath Paswan, who owns a trading company and also some mango orchards, told Swarajya that air connectivity has unlocked the export potential of Darbhanga’s mangoes as well as makhana (lotus seeds) that Mithilanchal is also famous for.
“I have already got enquiries from exporters to Gulf countries for the gulabkhas, ranipasand, sundariya and some other varieties of mangoes from local orchards. I’m looking at exporting at least a few hundred kilos of our specialty mangoes next year,” Paswan told Swarajya.
Legend has it that Mughal emperor Akbar found the mangoes of Darbhanga so tasty that he ordered the planting of 40,000 saplings of the fruit tree here. “Darbhanga’s mangoes have found mention in Mughal era texts and were a favourite in the royal durbars across the country,” says Maithili scholar and Sanskrit pandit Satyendra Narain Jha.
Jha, whose forefathers were senior officials in the court of the Maharajas of Darbhanga, owns a mango orchard and is also a major trader in the fruit.
“Till 2019, despite my best efforts, I could not send mangoes to other cities. I tried to transport them to Patna by road and then book them in air cargo, but the procedure was so long that many fruits would rot before reaching the destinations. This year, I sent a few boxes of mangoes as a trial run to a friend in Muscat. It took only three days to reach him and all the fruits were in good condition. I am in talks with importers from the Gulf countries and from next year, will start exporting mangoes there,” said Jha.
Leg-up to education and culture
Darbhanga has been a centre for higher and technical education from the British days, thanks to the Darbhanga Maharajas who set up many educational institutions. It has a few universities, medical and engineering colleges as well as many general degree colleges which attract students from all over north Bihar.
Air connectivity, say educationists, will facilitate close academic ties between Darbhanga’s institutions and renowned ones outside the country.
“We have a few exchange programmes with top-notch institutions in the rest of the country, but travel has always remained a problem. One had to take a flight to Patna and then drive a few hours to reach Darbhanga. Many senior academicians would thus shy away from coming here. But that is now a problem of the past,” said Nand Kishore Mishra, a professor of Indian history at Lalit Narayan Mithila University.
Professor Bishambhar Thakur of Kameshwar Singh Darbhanga Sanskrit University is looking forward to the resumption of normal academic activities. “Once that happens, getting in Sanskrit scholars from other parts of the country to deliver lectures, address seminars and conduct research and other academic activities will be so easy, thanks to the air connectivity. Our teachers and students can also go to other centres of Sanskrit learning and gain a lot,” Thakur told Swarajya.
Darbhanga is also known as the cultural capital of Bihar and the air connectivity will lead to enhanced cultural exchanges with the rest of the country and world.
“Darbhanga’s folk art, Maithili songs and poetry, Madhubani paintings and many other art and cultural and literary traditions will receive a major boost. It has become so easy now for our artistes, poets, performers and others to travel to the rest of the country and the world,” said Avdesh Prasad ‘Maithili’ who scripts short plays.
Ibrar Khan and Kishore Singh, partners in a Patna-based travel company that has a branch in Darbhanga, told Swarajya that air connectivity has unlocked Mithilanchal’s tourism potential.
“Darbhanga is well known for its culture and has many palaces and places of tourist interest. There is also a lot of potential for religious tourism. We have already planned attractive tour packages that we’ll roll out after things get back to normal. Many from other cities have shown a lot of interest,” said Khan.
Kishore Singh hails from Darbhanga and his family owns a large haveli near Darbhanga Medical College. “We are planning to renovate a few rooms and make it a high-end homestay since we expect a healthy inflow of tourists once things start getting back to normal,” he told Swarajya.
Darbhanga MLA Sanjay Saraogi, who belongs to the BJP, says that so many people are travelling by air to and from this city is definitely benefiting the local economy.
“Once this pandemic ends and normal life resumes, we’ll see a lot more people travelling by air from here. Trade and tourism will increase exponentially and the economy of Mithilanchal will flourish,” he told Swarajya.
Darbhanga’s aviation history
Darbhanga is not new to aviation and got on the country’s air map as early as 1950 when Maharaja Kameshwar Singh Bahadur started ‘Darbhanga Aviation’ with a fleet of four Douglas DC-3 aircraft.
The Maharaja built the airport and the airlines operated flights to Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai. It operated successfully till two of the four planes crashed. The 1962 India-China war dealt a body blow to the airlines and the Maharaja sold the third aircraft to another aviation company while the fourth was acquired by the IAF.
The IAF also took over the Darbhanga airport and has made it a major air base for fighter aircraft.
People of Mithilanchal have, since 1965, been demanding the revival of civilian flights from Darbhanga. But their pleas and deputations to successive Union governments had not yielded results.
In 2014, soon after coming to power, the NDA government at the Centre promised to revive civilian flights from Darbhanga.
The Union Civil Aviation Ministry brought Darbhanga airport under the Regional Connectivity Scheme called UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik) that offers limited subsidies, subject to many conditions, to commercial airlines to operate out of smaller or greenfield airports.
The foundation stone of the terminal building and other facilities was laid by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and then civil aviation minister Suresh Prabhu in the presence of junior aviation minister Jayant Sinha on December 14, 2018.
In a little less than two years, the airport became operational and flights started operating out of it. Plans have been finalised to acquire more land to expand the airport with a new terminal, apron area and also extension of the existing runway.
The airport, say senior officials of the Bihar government, will be upgraded with the installation of CAT-1 Instrument Landing System (ILS) to facilitate operation of flights at night.
Airports Authority of India (AAI) officials told Swarajya that Darbhanga airport will be among the top 25 airports in the country in terms of passenger count and is expected to handle nearly 7.5 lakh passengers in this financial year.
Not only the people of Mithilanchal, but also those of other districts of north Bihar and even adjoining areas of Nepal, who are flying in and out of Darbhanga, are ecstatic.
“The dreams of lakhs of people of Mithilanchal to start air services from Darbhanga have been realised, thanks solely to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who envisioned the UDAN scheme. The operationalisation of the airport will go down in Mithilanchal’s history as a major landmark that heralded the economic, educational and cultural revival of the region,” said Saraogi.