Every once in a while, I want to scream about
India's infrastructure. It is not about the big ideas such
as how can we get more then $400 billion over the next
decade to finance roads, power, ports, railways, airports,
rural infrastructure and urban facilities. It is invariably
about the many little things - of how our lack of attention
to details coupled with atrocious implementation can make
inadequate infrastructure facilities absolutely horrific.
The last few days, I have been in travel mode. One part of
the journey pleasurable. The others were absolute
nightmares. Let me start with the enjoyable one. My wife
Radhika and I were returning from London by Jet Airways. I
have a dislike for the enormous crowds and general lack of
space in Heathrow Terminal 3. To my pleasant surprise, Jet
Airways had completely eliminated all the stress of this
otherwise crowded airport.
Business class travellers have a special kerb-side check-in
that is fast and extremely peaceful. In literally five
minutes, Radhika and I were through. Immigration and hand
baggage screening through the Fast Track process was also
over in less than ten minutes. Within fifteen minutes of
getting out from the taxi, we were ensconced in the quiet of
the lounge savouring a much needed morning cup of coffee.
The plane took off on time; the cabin crew was excellent;
the food was good; the seats became flat beds; and we could
rest for most part of our flight back to Delhi.
Then came terra firma and its nightmares. Everywhere in the
world, national (or European Union) citizens have special
lines, and go through immigration very quickly. Even in the
US - a country not well known for its friendly immigration
processes - an American citizen goes through much faster
than others. In Delhi, too, we have two separate serpentine
lines, one for Indians and the other for foreign passport
holders. With one exception: almost always, there are fewer
immigration officers for Indian nationals who, therefore,
typically take double the amount of time than foreigners do.
We took over an hour to go through immigration. And as we
stood in a long, barely moving line, we saw all manner of
our brethren going through the special counter - mainly
because they had some official escorting them through
India's Babu Fast Track. The air conditioner was not
Why this crazy delay? Immigrations officers will tell you
that it is because so many international flights land at
more or less the same time of the night. I don't buy this.
If eight or nine major flights land between 10.30 pm and
1.00 am, then it is obvious that there will be a deluge of
anything between two thousand and twenty-seven hundred
passengers. That's known. Therefore, good management
requires that there be an adequate number of immigration
counters and, more importantly, that each of these counters
be manned by a person.
There were sixteen immigration counters in the zone that we
went through. Only nine were manned. This is not an
exception. Any frequent traveller will tell you that on a
good day, two-thirds of the immigration counters are manned;
typically it is less than half.
This, too, will elicit a quintessential babu response: "Kya
karein? Staff nahi hai." For a government whose headcount
only increases over time, why is there no planning to have
an adequate number of trained immigration officers? The
answer is as simple as it is unfortunate: we couldn't care
less. The people who matter are escorted through special
facilitation counters; as for the rest, who has ever cared
for the hoi-polloi?
Think about it. Its not difficult to have fully manned
immigration counters with the right kind of persons. If that
were so, people would exit at double the speed. And a
terrible airport like New Delhi's Indira Gandhi
International Terminal would become more bearable. Instead,
it is horrific - better only than Sahar in Mumbai, which has
to be the worst major airport in the world.
Poor infrastructure is not just a matter of bricks and
mortars; it's about an attitude to performance. Even the bad
can be made to look better; so why do we persistently make
it look worse? Because we don't care.