about us
  areas of expertise
  our projects
  ideas & resources


  Index of Articles          Index of Perspectives            Next Article


When Inadequate Becomes Horrific

Omkar Goswami


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 working.

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.

Published: Business World, March 2006


                 Index of Articles          Index of Perspectives            Next Article