After transiting through the chamber of horrors that is Mumbai airports departure terminal,when we collapsed,drained of all energy,into the controlled safety of a European aeroplane,the pilot apologised. I know you have had a stressful time, he said,but I hope our charming crew will now be able to make you comfortable during the flight. In all my years of frequent flying I have never before heard a pilot do that. But,conditions at Mumbais international airport are so bad these days that he must have sensed what we had been through.
The rites of departure have been turned into instruments of torture that must leave foreign travellers regretting that they ever dared to come to Incredible India. Many of us who remember this airport before M/S GVK & Co were given charge of modernising it are beginning to remember the old airport with nostalgia. True it was nowhere near world class. True it was a grubby old airport that smelled of dirty toilets and clogged drains but there wasnt the chaos that there now is. There was a system of sorts in place that led in ordered fashion from checking in to immigration,security and departure. This system has been turned by GVK & Co into a bewildering obstacle course for reasons that appear to come from an absence of any concept of management.
Problems begin from the moment you enter the airport premises. You find yourself in a kilometre-long queue of vehicles that move at bullock cart pace because the road is too narrow for them to unload passengers at the terminal fast enough. If this were not bad enough,there is additional obstruction caused by police barricades. Then,there is the cacophony of horns and desperate passengers pushing and shoving their way through the departure terminals inexplicably narrow and limited entrances.
Inside the terminal there is more chaos as passengers rush around looking for some system of coordinated exit. There isnt one. So weary travellers wander backwards and forwards in a vast,confused crush of humanity that makes conditions at your average Indian railway station seem ordered and efficient. When I finally managed to get my boarding card I asked the airline staff if things were this bad every day. The man I asked gave me a weary look and said,Yes. They are always this bad but they have got worse since 26/11 because of the police barricades. I should mention here that I did not see any policemen either inside the terminal building or at the barricades.
What does it matter if they were there or not? What hope is there of Mumbais policemen stopping the next platoon of highly trained terrorists when they were unable to stop Shiv Sena hoodlums from smashing up the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel last week? How was that allowed to happen? Does the Chief Minister of Maharashtra not owe us an explanation? If the police cannot prevent a bunch of local hoodlums from wreaking havoc what hope is there of them stopping terrorists? As for the Shiv Sena it should be ashamed of itself for attacking a hotel so soon after the horror of the attacks on the Taj and the Oberoi. We cannot expect sensitivity from vandals; what we must expect is governance from governments.
To come from Mumbai airport to Zurich airport,as I did,is to become even more acutely aware of how shabby,Third World and third rate India looks from the outside. In the past 15 years that I have been coming to Zurich airport en route to Davos for the World Economic Forum annual meeting,I have seen it change from a small,relatively old fashioned airport into a vast,modern airport with trains running between terminals. At no stage of this transformation did I see the chaos that you see at Mumbai airport. Does GVK not owe Indian taxpayers some explanation?
Last year I came to Zurich from Delhi and described similarly horrific conditions at Delhis international airport. Luckily,other newspapers and TV channels picked up the story and a media campaign began that resulted in vastly improved conditions. It is time a similar campaign began to ensure minimum conditions of orderly transit at Mumbais international airport. If Indias commercial gateway looks no better than the slums that have been so celebrated in Slumdog Millionaire,then there is no hope that anyone is going to take us seriously as an emerging economic superpower. Personally,I think we should abandon that dream until we can make our major international airports resemble at least modern Asian airports. If GVK has bitten off more than it can handle then it really is time for them to be given the boot. We cannot continue to throw good taxpayers money after bad.