Canada is home to one of the largest Indian diasporas – 80 percent of whom are from Punjab. Almost 1 million Punjabis live in Canada and comprise close to 3 percent of the country's population.
However, direct flights between Canada and Punjab remain a distant dream.
There are no direct flights between Punjab and any major Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, despite the repeated insistence by members of the Indian diaspora as well as local politicians.
The closest flight that is available to them is from Canada to Delhi, which itself is around 12-15 hours long, following which they have to undertake a journey of hundreds of kilometres by road to reach their native home in Punjab.
A Long, Tiring Journey
Harmindar Dhillon, a lawyer based out of Ontario, says that travelling between his home state of Punjab and Canada is an arduous task.
"It takes me 12 hours to reach Delhi from Toronto. It takes me another eight hours to reach my hometown in Jalandhar, which is such a tiring journey," he tells The Quint.
Dhillon says that a massive amount of air traffic that comes from Vancouver and Toronto goes to Delhi, and 80 percent of the passengers then travel to Punjab by bus, which costs around Rs 3,500, or private cars and taxis, which can cost upto Rs 10,000.
The travel takes an even higher toll on senior citizens, many of whom have even stopped coming to Punjab because they find the travel unbearable.
Manan Gupta, an Indian-origin media commentator based in Brampton, tells The Quint that his parents were in Punjab's Kapurthala during the COVID-19 pandemic and were unable to travel to Canada due to the absence of a direct flight.
"My parents are in their early eighties. It is a difficult task for us to manage their travel from Kapurthala, which is a small town, to Delhi first, and then from Delhi to Canada," he says.
"Had it been a direct flight from Amritsar, which is only a one-hour drive from my hometown, things would have been much easier," he adds.
Apart from the journey, Gupta says, several other obstacles restrict the travel for seniors. "For instance, they require wheelchairs, they have language problems, they need better washroom access, places to rest, and other such facilities."
Connecting Flights: Not an Easy Option
Apart from travelling by road, the other option left to those who want to travel to Punjab from Canada is to take a connecting flight from Delhi to Punjab. However, this option is not as feasible as one might think due to a mismatch of flight timings.
Sameep Singh, convenor of FlyAmritsar – an initiative started to bring about better travel options from different parts of the world to Amritsar – tells The Quint that while most flights from Canada reach Delhi at around 8-9 pm, there is no connecting flight to Punjab before 6-8 am the next day.
"People can’t stay at the airport for 10 hours," he says.
The absence of direct flights has also led to the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport in Delhi becoming a chokepoint.
The pinnacle of the logistical nightmare was witnessed in December last year, when there was overcrowding in the airport – which led to delayed flights, due to shortage of infrastructure and manpower, and dozens of people even missing their flights due to long waiting periods.
If the governments of India and Canada initiate direct flights between Canada and Punjab, a huge portion of this traffic can be diverted, thus leading to an ease in the bottleneck at the Delhi Airport.
What Do Indian & Canadian Govts Say?
A breakthrough in cooperation between the aviation sectors of India and Canada had come in November last year when the Open Skies Agreement was inked. The agreement allows the two countries to operate unlimited number of flights.
This came after talks between Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and his Canadian counterpart Omar Alghabra in May 2022.
Earlier, only 35 weekly flights were allowed between the two countries.
The agreement had raised hopes among the Punjabi diaspora in Canada, who believed that direct flights between Canada and Punjab would finally be initiated.
However, not a single city of Punjab was included in the agreement. Instead, it was decided that unlimited flights would fly between Canada and only six metro cities in India – New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, and Kolkata.
"The disappointment is that India controlled which cities they would allow Canadian carriers to fly to. They did not include even one city from Punjab, despite the fact that 80 percent of the traffic coming from Toronto to Delhi goes further to Punjab," Harmindar Dhillon says.
He also says that the inclusion of Hyderabad in the Open Skies Agreement was strange, since the number of Telugu-speaking people in Canada is small, and they make up an insignificant proportion of the air traffic between Canada and India.
Hence, Hyderabad could be excluded from the list and a city like Amritsar or Chandigarh could be added, thus easing travel for people.
Meanwhile the Canadian government has put the onus on India after facing criticism from the Punjabi diaspora.
Transport Minister Alghabra tweeted in December last year that the country is willing to begin direct flights to Punjab, but it needs a green light from the Indian government.
Several Punjabis have also been calling for their local MPs to raise the matter in the Canadian Parliament.
Sameep Singh, who runs FlyAmritsar, had reached out to MP Brad Vis to sponsor a petition on his behalf in Parliament, calling for direct flights.
"Within 30 days of filing the petition in January 2022, we got 14,000 online signatures and 4,000 manual signatures, which is a huge number."Sameep Singh
Further, Wis along with MPs Tim Uppal, Jasraj Singh Hallan, and Mark Strahl also wrote a letter to Air Canada last year, asking them to initiate direct flights.
"As Canadian MPs representing vast and diverse communities, we write to highlight the significant economic and social value in establishing direct flights between Canada and Amritsar," the letter stated.
Tourism Sector Suffering
One of the biggest casualties of the absence of direct Canada-Punjab flights is the tourism sector of Punjab.
In 2017, the Golden Temple in Amritsar was certified as the world's most visited religious destination by the UK-based World Book of Records. The temple is known to draw 1 lakh visitors on a daily basis and anywhere between 1.5 lakh and 2 lakh on weekends and religious occasions.
However, due to the absence of direct flights, a large portion of the Punjabi diaspora in Canada decides not to visit the state altogether.
"There are lots of people in Canada, especially senior citizens, who want to go to Amritsar's Golden Temple for pilgrimage, but are facing great difficulties in doing so," Manan Gupta says.
He also says that there is a large number of ethnic Canadians who want to come to India and explore Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and other tourist destinations, but decide against it due to the exhausting travel involved.
"Right now, they don't feel motivated enough because it's a long flight and they will have to waste time at Delhi Airport. Further, they don't want to be stuck on the highway for such a long time," he adds.
Not only will easing travel lead to more people coming to Punjab, it will also lead to frequent fliers coming even more frequently.
"If direct flights are started, people like me will come more often as it will save me one and half days on each trip. Many second generation NRIs would also like to come to celebrate special occasions like marriages," Dhillon says.
Imploring India to consider the plight of travellers, Gupta says, "The only thing needed here is political will. India has the capacity to create miracles. Initiating direct flights is just a simple task."
The Quint reached out to India's Union Civil Aviation Ministry and the Transport Ministry of Canada but has not received a response from either.