Is this the infrastructure we deserve?

There are few things that leave me feeling more pessimistic about India's future than taking a flight from Mumbai's international airport to Bangkok's international airport. Having made this short journey just before writing this piece, the differences between the two airports are still fresh in my mind and I am going to list them here to emphasise why I believe India is never going to catch up with even a small country like Thailand on the infrastructure front.

I arrived at Mumbai airport more than an hour and a half before I was due to take my flight and it's just as well that I gave myself that much time because I barely made it. At immigration the queues were long because the immigration officers read every passport cover to cover with moments off in between to throw belligerent looks at the departing passenger. After this came an ordeal of waiting endlessly to get past security for the simple reason that there were too few metal detectors. The ordeal did not end after crossing security. I continued to stand in a queue of tired, increasingly irate passengers because, inexplicably, there is only one escalator that takes you down to the departure gates. At the bottom of this single escalator are a sad, little collection of shops that reek of our socialist days.

At Bangkok airport, moving sidewalks took me to the immigration desk in less than five minutes. The immigration officer took less than a minute to examine my visa, my bag arrived within minutes of my arriving at the carousel and I was out of the airport in less than fifteen minutes. And guess what? When I first came to Bangkok in the late seventies, this airport was more dilapidated and decrepit than our airports in Delhi and Mumbai. In 30 years it has been so transformed that it counts among the most modern airports in the world while our airports remain in a state of 'renovation' so dodgy that it took one rain storm for the roof to fly off Delhi's brand, new, privately managed airport.

This is not the first time that shoddy construction has been exposed at this airport either. Last time it rained heavily, the roof leaked and there were sections of the terminal that were flooded. What makes this kind of news even more depressing is that if these are the standards that we are getting from the private sector, there is no hope at all. Having grown up in socialist times, when all our infrastructure was built by the PWD, I am a passionate believer in the market and private enterprise. But, all public-private partnership will come to a quick and ugly end if taxpayers' money is paying for shoddy construction by private companies. We have a right to know what is going wrong.

Our infrastructure problems do not end with airports. Our railway stations are among the most decrepit in the world. Our highways are so old-fashioned that they would not be counted as modern roads in any other country. And, the sad truth is that unless we can do something about the dreadful state of Indian infrastructure, India is quite simply not going to make it. Of course the fundamental problem lies with government and its inability to modernise archaic procedures that ensure delays and substandard design. If this does not change and if deadlines are not imposed for major projects, nothing will change. But, the truth is that these changes happen when citizens demand them and when we in the media make it our job to point out the importance of these changes.

As things stand, we are much more interested in politics than governance, so when the roof of Delhi airport flew off two weeks ago, the news barely got reported. Everyone was more interested in Jaswant Singh's book on Jinnah and on the bizarre goings-on in our main opposition party.

That depresses me almost more than anything else. Our national obsession with the chatpata political gossip of the day is so much more important than governance that while the world changes for the better, India changes for the worse. From Bangkok I drove into Thai villages that looked not very different from our own but they were spotlessly clean and orderly. This is a change that has happened in the past 10 or 15 years, during which time our villages have lost their rural charm and gained nothing from urbanisation except squalour and ugliness. The time is not far when all of India will begin to look like a vast slum, but to us this seems not to matter. What concentrates all our energy is the political gossip of the moment. So I suppose we get the governance we deserve and the infrastructure we deserve. How depressing is that?

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