The first time I flew into Kolkata's Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport (formerly Dum Dum Airport) the city was still called Calcutta. It had been the capital of British India until 1912 and today it's the capital of West Bengal and the third biggest city in India with a population of 15 million-- give or take. The airport had the torpid, languid feel of the Raj with long, slow-moving lines and devoid of any hustle or any bustle. It's about a step and a half up from a primitive tropical airstrip. Roland was just there a few months ago again and he said it hadn't changed a bit (although there's a new terminal "being built." In India everything is "being built.")
Kolkata's airport may be the silliest, but it is hardly the only silly airport. A few years ago I was so mortified by a few hours of chaos at Delhi Airport that I wrote a quickie post about the experience. Robyn Meredith's classic bestseller comparing development in India and China, The Elephant and the Dragon, uses the pace of airport development in the two countries as a metaphor for the advances made in China and the plodding, endemic backwardness of India. Largely due to Chinese authoritarianism-- and Indian democracy-- China has surged light years ahead in infrastructure. In India, writes Meredith, "companies must navigate antiquated customs processing, variations in taxes and byzantine rules for transporting goods between Indians states in addition to the crumbling highways, decrepit airports, and what-me-worry ports... Progress on India's development projects is on again, off again, as if ambivalent India still can't decide whether it wants to be part of the modern world. The city of Bangalore's airport is a prime example. Originally built in 1942, the airport has changed little in the past sixty-plus years. It's white tile floors, poorly lit corridors, and shabby stained chairs-- needed for the long wait at the lounge conveyor belt-- make the airport look as if it belonged in the developing world. One might find a thin airport worker leaning against the wall, asleep, or another staffer eating his dinner at a table set up near passport control, not far from a neatly stacked pile of fifteen-foot-long tree branches. A rumpled red carpet, held in place with duct tape, shows the way outside, where a crowd of perhaps 250 people-- waiting relatives, taxi drivers, hotel touts-- mill about at nearly any time of night or day... The Chinese government's drive to build superior physical infrastructure-- tens of thousands of miles of highways and modern airports-- allowed China to dominate manufacturing exports. Without high-capacity, dependable modern infrastructure, the world's sophisticated supply chains simply don't work." Writing in 2007 Meredith pointed out that although "China's big cities already have new airports, the nation intends to spend more than $17 billion in order to build over forty additional airports by 2010." This morning when I work up it was big news that India's capital finally has a modern airport terminal.
Frequent travelers to India are in for quite a shock the next time they fly in to New Delhi's international airport with its new state-of-the-art terminal.
For years, arrivals at Delhi's main airport were greeted by the grim sight of dingy walls, dim lighting, congested counters and the smell of overflowing toilets when they went near a washroom.
But now, with the new Terminal 3, a futuristic 2.7-billion-dollar facility in glass-and-steel, the capital finally has a showcase airport that chimes with India's global aspirations.
The sky-lit terminal, one of the world's largest, "signals the arrival of a new India, committed to joining the ranks of modern industrialized nations," Premier Manmohan Singh said at the inauguration ceremony on Saturday.
Sprawling over four square kilometres (1.5 square miles), the terminal was completed by an Indian-led consortium in just 37 months-- a huge achievement in a country where major infrastructure projects regularly run years over schedule.
"India has never been recognised as able to build an infrastructure project on time, but we have demonstrated that we are capable of beating anyone else-- and on this massive scale," said Aviation Minister Praful Patel.
That remains to be seen and I'm not counting on what optimistic India boosters are calling a "game changer." It took them longer to finally throw up a modern terminal in their capital city than for China to build forty new airports! "Improving India's famously decrepit infrastructure-- crumbling roads, shabby airports, ramshackle railways and ports and erratic power supply-- is critical to accelerating growth, economists say... But infrastructure bottlenecks are seen as the main barrier to propelling growth to the double-digit levels the government says are a pre-requisite for dragging hundreds of millions of Indians out of poverty. The airport terminal 'highlights our country's resolve to bridge the infrastructure deficiencies in our country,' Singh said." I sincerely doubt it.