Indian airports: Why are they so bad?

February 23, 2000

In the latest NRIOL opinion poll which asks the question, "Are you happy with the service at Indian international airports?", a staggering 89% percent of you were not happy. This is obviously not news to any of us who have travelled through an Indian airport.

Although in some ways the question highlighted the obvious, it's important that the point be made time and time again: that India's airports need to be improved.

For a long time, air travel in India has been considered a luxury. In fact, it still is out of the reach of the average Indian. So spending money on upgrading the airports can very easily be viewed as a lavish exercise, spending cash on something that only the "rich people" use.

But is this in India's best interests? I remember an international software conference being held in Bangalore, where a huge poster at the airport welcomed delegates with the words "Welcome to India's Silicon Valley". The only problem was that while you were reading this poster, your stomach was being given a good churning because of the huge potholes on the approach road leading out of the airport. Of course, facilities inside the airport are not good either.

Indian airports - particularly the main international ones such as Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai - have to be viewed from a different angle. They need to be treated as part of India's overall business and tourist infrastructure, and given the appropriate levels of investment. The government quite happily provides tax breaks and incentives for companies to import equipment that results in foreign exchange earnings. Why not view the airports in similar fashion - as an investment tool that will result in better business for the country?

For a long time, successive Indian governments have chanted the "trickle down" mantra - that once India becomes a rich country, we can afford to spruce up minor things like airports. But does this logic make sense?

To progress economically, India needs to be tied in to the rest of the world. Being self-reliant is good, no doubt. But like it or not, we will have to be keyed in to the world economy in the years to come. For example, had India not opened up to the world, there would be no Indian IT success story to rave about.

And to be tied in with the rest of the world, we need, as a bare minimum, decent international airports. Visitors, particularly foreign ones, want to do business with as minimum of fuss as possible. If you have a problem finding a trolley or the toilets are dirty (and you get asked for a tip by a shady looking character) - this straightaway reduces your inclination to return to India. Your image of the country being a third world hell-hole only increases.

The message that needs to be driven into the government's head is this: sprucing up the airports doesn't mean a disregard for the poorer sections of society. As anyone knows, India works on several levels - we have a great space programme but not good roads. But having bad roads doesn't preclude the need for a space programme. If we waited until the whole country was sorted before we had a space programme, we would wait forever.

The same logic should apply to airports, particularly as the investment is bound to pay off many times over in the way of business and tourist inflow. Best of all, as the British Government has done, the government should privatise the airports themselves.

- Chetan Dhruve in London

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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