June 22: Expatriates from Bengal in the Netherlands today requested visiting chief minister Mamata Banerjee to "do something" for direct air connectivity between Calcutta and Europe, the community's voice capturing the desire to see more business activity in their home state.
After an hour-long session resembling the quintessential Bengali adda - complete with songs, recitation and short speeches thrown in - members of Hoichoi posed with Mamata for a group photograph as a keepsake.
"Didi, please kichhu korun... Europe-er sathe kono direct flight nei Kolkata-r (Didi, please do something. There is no direct flight between Calcutta and Europe)," someone said even as cameras went click-click.
Soon, others in the motley group - 25-odd men and women of various ages - chorused the request for direct flights to Europe. They went on to describe how lack of direct air connectivity between Calcutta and Europe was inconveniencing them.
"Delhi and Mumbai have direct daily flights to and from Amsterdam as Jet has started operations... Very soon, Bangalore would also have daily direct flights. But we don't have one," someone rolled out the specifics.
Some old-timers in the Netherlands recounted travelling by KLM flights. On the sidelines, there was also a discussion on how Calcutta had lost several international carriers like British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM over the last few years.
"I understand your problems... Why don't you give a representation to Jet?" the chief minister, who has been desperately trying to increase Calcutta's air connectivity, suggested.
Amsterdam is Jet Airways's hub in Europe
"Didi, we tried. But the airline representatives told us that there was not enough business," someone replied.
The answer didn't please the chief minister, going by her response. "How can they say that there is not enough business?" she shot back.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee with members of Hoichoi at The Hague
Calcutta has lacked direct air connectivity with Europe for five years since German airline Lufthansa pulled out in March 2012. British Airways had withdrawn its Calcutta operations in March 2009. This is primarily because Bengal lacks industry to attract business travellers round the year.
Calcutta has a new terminal with a sprawling 2.33 lakh square metres of space, but receives few international flights. Despite Mamata offering a surcharge waiver on aviation turbine fuel, which accounts for more than 40 per cent of an airline's operational cost, no European airline has yet shown interest in the city.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had spoken about the plight of Calcutta airport, comparing it with Fatehpur Sikri, the former Mughal capital whose mansions are now preserved as heritage buildings.
"When I came back from Hanoi (Vietnam) and sat in the (Calcutta) airport, I did not see what I have seen in other airports, even in Hanoi. There was a lot of activity, and a lot of people coming and going (elsewhere). I did not see that here," Sen had said in a speech at Santiniketan in 2016.
"It felt like I was in Fatehpur Sikri somewhat. Huge corridors, luggage conveyor belts turning, but dearth of flights. That must be attributed to a dearth of business."
In The Hague, the discussion on direct flights to Europe from Calcutta didn't continue long as the chief minister was in a hurry to attend a programme at the Indian Embassy. But several expatriates that Metro spoke to said one of their biggest concerns was poor air connectivity between their home state and Europe.
An IT professional said Emirates was the most viable option for most people travelling to Calcutta from countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and the Dusseldorf region of Germany.
"One has to go to Dubai and then take a flight to Calcutta... But as we don't have enough options, the fares for Calcutta are always higher, at least by 250 to 300 Euros. If there are more airlines, competition would drive down fares," said the techie, who has been living in the Netherlands for more than a decade.
The return fare between the Dutch capital and Calcutta is around 600 to 650 Euros during the "off season". The fare peaks at 950 Euros during summer and autumn.
During the adda session with members of Hoichoi, a fledgling organisation of Bengalis, chief minister Mamata stressed that she was trying to give a big push to industry in the state. She gave a detailed account of how her government had been organising an annual investment summit to attract more business to Bengal. "I invite you all to the next edition of the business summit... Please come and do whatever you can for your state," Mamata said.