Air fares between Dhaka and Kolkata have surged as patients and businessmen have started coming to the city from Bangladesh in large numbers.
Passengers, tour operators and airlines said the one-way fare from Dhaka to Kolkata was more than Rs 20,000 on some days, compared with the usual fare between Rs 6,000 and Rs 8,000.
Hospitals said while patients from Bangladesh had started returning to their outpatients departments, after a long pandemic-induced gap, the numbers were still low as many were waiting for air fares to come down or train services to resume.
But patients who urgently need medical advice are having to pay through their nose to fly down to Kolkata.
Masooma Banani Mirza, a resident of Dhaka who has been diagnosed with a tumour, had an appointment scheduled for Monday at Bengal Oncology Centre in south Kolkata.
She and her husband had no option but to buy tickets for a Dhaka-Kolkata round trip for Rs 38,000 each.
“We wanted to consult an oncologist at the earliest. So, we paid the high fare,” said her husband.
Two members of a family from Bangladesh, accompanied by a third, came to Kolkata for a consultation at the OPD of Peerless Hospital. They had to pay Rs 21,000 each for a one-way journey to Kolkata.
“Two of us are suffering from a severe pain in the knee and the waist. We have come for a consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon,” said one of the patients.
On Monday afternoon, the one-way fare from Dhaka to Kolkata for Tuesday was around Rs 25,000. The fare from Kolkata to Dhaka was around Rs 18,000.
Airline officials and travel agents said the surge in demand had led to the sharp hike in fares. Flights under an air bubble agreement between India and Bangladesh resumed in the middle of February.
“Since then, hundreds of patients waiting for treatment in Kolkata have been booking tickets. Also, during this period there is a big movement of traders and tourists from Bangladesh. They buy garments from New Market and other places for Id,” said Anil Punjabi, chairman, east, Travel Agents Federation of India.
Hospitals, however, said the footfall of Bangladeshi patients was still low compared with the pre-pandemic numbers.
At the RN Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences, around 200 patients from Bangladesh would turn up at the OPD daily before Covid struck. Around 10 of them would get admitted.
Now, about 100 Bangladeshi patients are coming to the OPD daily.
“About 30 to 40 per cent of those who have applied for visa invitation letters, which are issued by hospitals to help patients get a medical visa, are not turning up. Many are saying they have deferred their plans because of high air fares,” said R. Venkatesh, regional director, east, Narayana Health, which runs the RN Tagore hospital.
Peerless Hospital has been getting around 40 patients from Bangladesh daily, compared with the 150-odd in the pre-pandemic times. “Many patients are waiting for the train services to resume,” said Sudipta Mitra, chief executive of Peerless Hospital.
Train services between Kolkata and Dhaka have been stalled for the last two years, since the outbreak of Covid. A railway official said the Railway Board had plans to resume the services from March 26 but the final go-ahead was yet to come.
The Bandhan Express used to leave Chitpore on Sundays and Thursdays and the Maitree Express on the remaining five days. The fares were around Rs 1,500 for AC chair car and around Rs 2,000 for AC first-class.