A. MADHAVAN

IF WE ARE SO GOOD AT IT, WHY ARE WE SO BAD AT BT?

Foreign travel stimulates the mind and the senses. We are constantly asking ourselves, how does this experience match with what we are used to at home?

Whether during the transit halt of three hours at Changi airport in Singapore or in the angst-inducing Hongkong airport or on arrival at San Francisco, my mind was busy making comparisons.

Take sanitation. I have seldom found functionally efficient sanitary fittings and facilities for the public India. Perhaps it is our hot climate or the humidity, but our pipes and taps begin to leak and the flush system goes dry after a short time.

Plumbing is an area of conspicuous technological backwardness in India. We may be wizards with software, but we neglect to maintain the hardware of elementary sanitation.

A drain will be aligned slightly up a gradient to the municipal drainage, or a public drain, laid under the ground, may be allowed to overflow into the street.

We need drain inspectors like Katherine Mayo and Sir Vidya Naipaul, caustically impolite though they were, to shame us into consciousness of better sanitation.

A park in Kuvempunagar was recently spruced up with paved tiling for the footpaths and plenty of water for the grass and the flowerbeds. Within a month some of the tiles tilted up as if to mock the Corporation, some stalks of grass ventured to peep between tiles, and tap dripped water continuously.

No gardeners were there to take stop the criminal waste of water, when women in some suburbs have to get up at 3 a.m. and fill their pots in a repeated ordeal of patience and pugnacity.

(When we complained to a stray attendant of a similar leakage in Cheluvamba park, he said we should go the Water Works department. When I reported to the Chescom office about street lights burning in the blazing day, I was asked to go to the Corporation.)

Yet our construction workers can put up stunning new buildings with granite and marble and plate glass glittering to glory. Go abroad east or west, and you find that the toilets not only work, but are kept functional and clean.

On planes in the economy class, one has to bear with the inevitable queue, the selfish passenger who hogs the facility and the uncouth one who leaves it unclean.

Even so, I found on the long Cathay Pacific flight that a stewardess would come and clean up the place and spray a deodorant for good measure.

And Changi’s toilets are kept sparkling clean by vigilant staff night and day. It is another matter that Singapore vigilance is particularly harsh on those who forget to pull the flush after use.

**

BANGALORE: WORLD’S WORST INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT?

I have read recent complaints about the Bangalore International Airport, but did not believe how bad it was until I went through it.

Trundling in our laden trolley through a narrow dirt path beside construction works, a uniformed porter led my wife and me into the international terminal.

Through a miasma of gritty dust and smelly smoke we saw two officials perched on a low ledge in the cavernous hall. They curtly asked us to go to the domestic terminal and sit on our trolley till the counters opened.

We had been vastly relieved to reach the airport from Mysore by 7.30 p.m. on April 12, with Bangalore still eerie from the destructive spree by the ‘mourners’ for Raj Kumar. Our Indian Airlines flight was scheduled for just past midnight.

In the domestic hall we found a milling crowd and a companion cloud of mosquitoes.

We grabbed two just-vacated seats and stayed put till 9 p.m. Our porter had gone, promising to return and see us into the departure lounge, even declining my proffered tip. He did not return.

We got another man to help us carry our luggage to the departure area upstairs. We joined a winding queue of trolleys and outward bound passengers.

One family had despaired of getting a taxi to the airport and had been saved by calling up an obliging friend to give them a lift. The security check for the luggage x-ray started half-an-hour late. There was no announcement and no apology by ‘Indian’ (which has shed ‘Airlines’ in its name).

Some passengers muscled in ahead, by prior ‘arrangement’ with the staff.

The check-in was another test of patience. The computer-savvy assistants were inexplicably slow to complete procedures, and push in the boxes with the right labels, slower than in any previous airport where I have checked in, slower than in the pre-computer era.

Then came the scramble for filling up the emigration forms and passport checks. Though relatively efficient, our government’s official surprisingly asked a young Indian to show his letter of invitation from abroad before letting him through, as if India should be solicitous on behalf of the foreign country which had issued a visa to him.

Perhaps there was an element of bureaucratic one-up-man-ship in it.

The next ordeal was the queue, a queue winding four lengths, to the security check for the hand baggage and frisking. One of the x-ray machines was out of order. So the wait was that much longer.

When we got through to the departure lounge, we had spent a good two hours on our feet.

Bangalore International must be among the worst in terms of facilities, airline ground-staff service and self-awareness of what it needs to do. It is no consolation to passengers going in or out to hear that the city is building a brand new airport.

It is not the grand buildings and the glittering shops with consumer goodies at fancy prices that count so much as the awareness of travellers’ needs by the administrators and the airlines that can make a real difference for the passenger, who, after all, has to pay a sizeable tax on the ticket to Abroad.

*

April 12, 2006 was not the best day to leave Mysore. My wife and I bent over our packing, check-lists and last-second searches (where is the telephone list? who has the house key?) before setting out at 3.30 p.m. on our long journey to San Francisco. The first lap was the drive by hired car to the Bangalore airport.

The broadened, asphalted highway felt wonderfully smooth, except when unmarked narrowing lanes checked the even tenor of our way.

We stopped for tea at a roadside canteen favoured by our driver; as we resumed the ride, he told us he had heard from a fellow driver coming down from Bangalore that the death of Raj Kumar about three hours earlier had stirred some fans to stop traffic here and there. We sped on regardless, hoping to beat any blockade or bypass it.

When we came to Kengeri, happy to have almost completed the course without incident, the driver got a call from his wife, who had seen some early TV pictures of mobs gathering in a mood for agitation.

Then we came to a hold-up of vehicles in front of us. On the opposite lane, a similar blockade was just forming, with a bus at the head of it and some mo-bikes hoping to squeeze through.

A few local youths had formed a line across the road; some were squatting on the road, facing the bus, daring it to pass. Small boys joined the fun, somersaulting and rolling on the road for the sheer joy of holding up the traffic both ways.

I did not see a single woman in the group, though Raj Kumar had many female fans.

The line of cars and trucks and buses grew longer behind us. We were trapped there, unable to move forward or backward.

Our driver kept lamenting that if only we had reached that spot two minutes earlier, we could have cruised on safely. Meanwhile, he got more frantic calls from his anxious wife who was relaying to him the latest riot scenes on TV from Bangalore.

We had no choice but to wait in patience. The police had turned up, but were clearly reluctant to push aside the supposed Raj Kumar fans who were protesting against any traffic movement as unbefitting the solemnity of the occasion.

I asked some young men clad in identical pants and shirts, evidently staff from the Kirloskar firm, what the chances were for moving on.

When I told them I was to catch a plane, these comforters assured me that I could forget it, since all flights out of Bangalore had been cancelled.

This was typical of some Indians who predict the worst with utter confidence.

Luckily, at that very moment we saw three or four two-wheelers racing off. Everyone rushed back to their vehicles.

The block had been lifted, through a judicious pact between the policemen and the protesters, when the latter had enjoyed the graduated sadism of delaying hundreds of people for half an hour.

In the dusk and the dark we passed through the strangely quiet streets of Bangalore, gained the flyover, joined the airport road and reached the international air terminal without further hindrance. But we saw that buses had stopped plying, that women were stranded with no means of getting home, and that shops had pulled down shutters.

After exiting India I learnt about the deaths, injuries and damage caused by hooligans and ‘rowdy-sheeters’ who had taken advantage of the death of the respected film actor’s death to indulge their destructive instincts at public and private expense.

The police were evidently unwilling or unable to use the means at their disposal to disperse the mobs or to arrest the culprits on the spot before the situation got out of hand. They could have apprehended the known trouble-makers in the city and other neighbourhoods. There was also a want of forethought in making orderly arrangements for the throngs of mourners to express their homage to the departed hero.

Some observers may consider that this kind of mob frenzy which slips out of control is at least partly due to the disenchantment of the jobless and the marginalised sections in the population.

Such malcontents are tempted to take out their frustrations by joining any group of wreckers when any opportunity presents itself for such a carnival of violence without risk of being caught by the authorities. But this extenuation or explanation of anarchic behaviour does not help the maintenance of law and order, which the government is obligated to ensure.

The malady lies in this that there is no consensus in India about civil society. When some people are marginalised, or believe they are unfairly marginalised, and when they lack the available, permitted means to redress their grievances (which they believe to be legitimate), they take to a collusive disregard of the law and become collectively violent, or indulge in terrorist acts, all at the expense of civil society as it is currently constituted.

Whether they are ‘subalterns’ or nut cases, this kind of outrage happens repeatedly, with the authorities unable or unwilling to enforce existing rules. Innocent people suffer loss and personal tragedies.

It is sophistry to hold all citizens complicit in the injustice of the prevailing system. Obviously, this repeated pattern of the law being flouted by mobs is due to the vote-bank politics of permissive chaos dignified in India as democracy.

Perhaps human societies are doomed to fluctuate between state imposed law and order on the Singapore model and the near anarchy of democracy as practiced in India.

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