Planning in the air

India has added two more swanky symbols to bolster its first-world ambitions: the Rajiv Gandhi international airport in Hyderabad and the gleaming Bengaluru international airport in our software capital. But look beneath this glitzy façade and you will find another instance of development on the cheap. We refuse to admit that our dream of world-class infrastructure is not grounded on the hard reality that we are a rich and poor country at the same time. As a result, we do not think differently and plan for solutions that suit our needs.

Our distaste (rightly) for crowded airports, lack of facilities and reported inefficiency leads us towards massive investment in refurbishing or building new facilities by the private sector.

Nothing wrong. But we never considered the cost of building and maintaining these facilities and how they would be paid for. In the meantime, air travel has become cheaper, driven by the surge of new and low-cost airlines, competition and public incentives.

New airport new private owners say they require passengers to pay a hefty user development fee—up to Rs 1,000 per head to cover their investment; require airlines to pay higher ground handling charges to maintain the new facilities we craved for; and of course, we would have to pay higher rates for cars to be parked in the new multilevel facility. These costs, if accounted for, would make the attractive air travel option less desirable. So, naturally airlines don’t want this to happen.

What then is the option? The developer—private and poorly regulated—wants to make money. Government can’t risk taking sides: with the articulate air passenger lobby on the one side and the powerful development company on the other. The answer is to find another short-cut: developers are asked not to charge passengers (air travel is subsidized) but instead make more money from “extra-curricular” revenue options: open more malls and build more real estate and take larger shares of the profits of these publicly held assets.

We can call this public-private partnership and live with it. But this is still not the entire story. We forget public investments, which are required to be made so that private investments can work. In our quest to make private profitable and to keep costs low, we end up short-changing these basic requirements and believe that glitzy exteriors will make our nightmares go away.

Take the case of Gurgaon, Delhi’s mall-infested suburb and the creation of private developers. It has glass exterior building, which boast of international looks. But it has no provision for water supply, it has no facility for collection or treatment of sewage, it has no garbage site and certainly has never invested a penny in building public transport services. Who will invest in the public services? Who can invest in the services that we have never planned for?

Similarly, in our fancy new airports ask how much (or little) attention has been paid to air traffic control. Bengaluru airport is reported to have traffic of 500 aircraft each day; it needs a minimum of 80 air traffic controllers. But it has only 25 on staff. While air travel has boomed in the country, personnel, essential for air traffic control, have not been trained or recruited.

Aviation experts say that if we improved our radar reach and connectivity and had more skilled air traffic controllers we could greatly increase the number of flights. This would call for public investment in surveillance equipment and in training institutes. We build swanky airports instead, which we cannot pay for. So we subsidize them at the cost of developmental work.

Similarly, we want cheap air travel so we do not pay for its cost of fuel, even go as far as argue that it is an essential service for the aam admi. On the basis of strident lobbying by the airline industry, the minister for civil aviation has reportedly asked state governments to reduce the value added tax on aviation fuel. Already, much to the glee of industry Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and now Maharashtra have brought down taxes from 25 per cent to 4 per cent. This is the diesel-car phenomenon in the air—we want high class mobility but we will run our expensive cars on cheap fuel, we will not pay for parking, forget about costs of pollution or congestion.

We have also increased air travel to such an extent that there are crippling congestion problems in air. Much like our solution to road congestion, we believe that we can build our way out of this mess. It is estimated that between Delhi and Mumbai, congested airways lead planes to circle for half-hour each way during peak hours. This means that the plane consumes extra fuel and emits extra pollutants—all this while it is estimated that every month six new aircraft are added to the skies. Congestion increases and we wait for the infrastructure to be geared for this growth.

But we never learn that unless we plan differently, the pace of infrastructure development will never keep pace with growth. Take the now famous Delhi-Gurgaon highway, which was planned for everyday traffic of 160,000 vehicles in 2016, but opened with 130,000 vehicles earlier this year—daily vehicle numbers have already crossed 150,000. The result is even longer waits at the many-gated toll plaza and even longer time to get past jammed city roads. The car-lobby answer is to build even broader roads—even double-decker flyovers. The answer is certainly not to provide dedicated bus services or have rail connectivity between the two cities. That would require planning to suit our needs and pockets.

But no, that would be a travesty. Even if we get grounded—in air and on the road—we are after all stuck in swank and have not even paid for the costs of our travel. How much better can it get?

—Sunita Narain