Friday, March 07, 2008

India's 1 Billion *Strong* Population

The opening of new Bangalore airport (BIAL) is less than a month away and the severely myopic government is still only debating whether to allow two airports or shut the existing airport at HAL. No one seems to care that in a sane society, months of planning is required to carry out the transition smoothly. It is as if the airlines would be expected to move (or not?) the equipment and personnel overa distance of 40KM, with maybe a day's notice! Worse, there is no discussion on providing basic ancillaries like regulated (well-publicised, fixed tariff) taxi services to and from the airport, correct road-signage, transit/food facilities outside the airport and Park and Fly facilities to avoid extortionate taxi-cartels from holding arriving passengers at ransom.

Despite being a resident of the city, I am petrified of landing late night or during an emergency (delayed flights, floods, strikes -- all too common in Bangalore) in the middle of nowhere that is BIA. I can barely imagine the plight of a visitor who comes with little or no knowledge of Bangalore.

The BIAL consortium has washed its hands off anything and everything outside the Airport. For them, the travel ends once you exit the gates of the Terminal. That a dust road would take you from the swanky airport to city centre is the government's problem, they say. That is fair, I suppose. However, airports that pretend to be "hubs" have an excellent ground transport and passenger helpdesk infrastructure. Most of them have such perfect signage that a visitor may find his way to wherever, without once having to ask for assistance or know the local language. It may well be responsibility of the local government but it blends so well with the in-terminal flow, the comfort zone of the Airport is usually maintained through the check-in to a hotel. This applies even if you stay in a 2-star hotel.

As of today, the road connecting the airport to the city-centre has intersections every 10 meters. There is no alternative road. BIAL is about 45KM from the southern IT Corridor. At average speed of 15 KM per hour that one manages in Bangalore, passengers would have to budget 3 hours travel-time plus 3 hours check-in time, if all goes well. The rail link and expressway are both at least 3-4 years away. Construction has not even begun on either!

Despite this mockery of travel, BIAL insists that the HAL airport must be closed. Too bad if passengers are inconvenienced and too bad if those who survive are too exhausted from the ordeal. There is some lopsided contract that states no airport would operate within 150 KM of BIA, even if all BIAL did was construct a cow-shed. A contract is a contract, they say.

Indian intelligentsia defends BIAL, worrying that if a government reneges on the contract, it would send the wrong message to the International Investor community. They say that investors would shy away from Indian infrastructure projects.

My view is that by making the International Passenger community add six or more hours to a travel itinerary is not just sending out a wrong message but killing the messenger from the strain! In a free-market economy, there is no place for anti-trust contracts when all demand factors are screaming for not two but even a third airport at Mysore! The worried elite seems to be stuck in a colonial time-warp. They have not been able to break the chains that created the ramshackle days of Air India and AAI in the first place...

BIAL is in a position to be arrogant because they know that despite all the hooplah, passengers will have no option but to swallow the pill. Like everything else, they will get used to the long journey, the high taxi fare, the inconvenient schedules and the wasted productivity. Airlines will continue to expand and BIAL will continue to earn from both passengers (user-development fee) and airlines (monopolistic landing/parking fee). The government will not do anything to hurt them because a) there is no government and b) the profits are too sweet even if there was one. Besides, there is the holy contract.

Similarly, and for a change, the Indian population has a chance to be arrogant. Don't worry, BIAL would still make money, whether there was one airport or five! As for the investors shying away, there is too much money in Indian growth story for that to happen. No one is going to give up on the huge returns from Indian Infrastructure projects merely because one BIAL got screwed by the government (while it tried to screw the people). Let BIAL not be a sequel to Enron.

The government must do what is best for the Indian people and not what pleases a bunch of profit-hungry, blinkered-vision mis-managers. Indians have historically been a compromising and fatalistic people. Today, no economy of the world can survive without an "India story". It is time the 1 Billion Strong population of India appreciated its own strength and took "compromise" out of its collective genes!

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