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Inside the Black Hole of Delhi

Anybody who has travelled out of the Delhi airport, will know that things have got much worse. Nobody disputes that the airport needs to be modernised. All renovation must be done in a manner that causes as little inconvenience as possible to already harassed passengers, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON MAR 09, 2008 02:11 AM IST

Prakash Karat must love the new owners of Delhi’s international airport. When the government first mooted the idea of privatising India’s airports, the Left parties made the loudest objections. The rest of us took the line that inefficient public sector monopolies needed to be de-nationalised so that they could be run by the super-efficient Indian private sector. After all, we argued, how could things get any worse than they already were?

We were wrong. The Left was right.

Anybody who has travelled out of the hellhole that is Delhi airport will know that things have got much, much worse than anyone thought possible. Nobody disputes that the airport needs to be modernised and renovated. But equally, all such renovation must be done in a manner that causes as little inconvenience as possible to already harassed passengers.

In fact, the modernisation process has been so poorly conceived that large sections of the airport are off-limits to passengers and rather than open up new gates to ease congestion (at the main entrance or in the security area), the airport’s private owners have simply looked for space to hire out to shopkeepers at fancy rents.

To the greed and incompetence of the new management, add the ineptitude and laziness of the government authorities that man its various functions. Chief among these is the immigration department. Immigration officers face a genuine problem. There aren’t enough counters to handle the flood of passengers at peak hour. But this does not explain why so many counters go unmanned. Even when the queues stretch to the gate of the terminal and then back again, something like a third of the counters will be empty. Worse still, many of the immigration officers are marginally literate police inspectors who hate their jobs (no bribes to be earned at the airport). Even when they know how to use their computers (and many cannot type), they couldn’t be bothered to clear passengers quickly. A month ago, I arrived on an international flight to find a scrum in the arrival hall as passengers mobbed the two immigration officers on duty. Nobody bothered to enforce the discipline of a queue or to see that other counters were manned.

I could go on. The CISF has improved its overall standard but its officers still account for half the delays at the airport (though part of the problem is infrastructural). Airline counter staff tend to be rude and unhelpful. The road outside the terminal is so unevenly tarred that is almost impossible to run your trolley smoothly. And that’s assuming you find a trolley.

Contrast the nightmare that is airport privatisation with the Indian Railways, where, against all odds, things have steadily got better over the last four years.

That’s when you realise that the only thing worse than a slothful public sector monopoly is a greedy private sector monopoly.

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