A winter day at Delhi's Indira Gandhi Airport
by Hirsh Sawhney
Outlook City Limits, February 15, 2006
outlookindia.com, April 7, 2006
Khaki-clad men flagged us down as we pulled into Delhi's Indira Gandhi airport on a chilly December morning. But noticing Anjali next to me, they waved us on. Her good looks and modern garb assuaged the threat posed by my beard, nose and skin.
Two days earlier, our flight to Kolkata on Air Deccan, a low-cost private Indian carrier, had been cancelled. Delhi was powerless against the aeronautical mayhem wreaked upon it by fog, the holiday rush and a lack of preparedness for both.
Standing at the end of a check-in line inside the airport, the sea of people surrounding us seemed manageable and calm. But within minutes, scruffy queues swelled into a mass of frustrated travellers. Perspiration began to trickle from the pores of impatient passengers, and the airport was rendered a Darwinian laboratory.
Those afflicted by delusions of grandeur began pushing forward, casting aside the weak with imperious gestures and loaded trolleys. We proceeded to the swarming waiting area and squeezed ourselves onto a solitary leather chair. A plasma television aired a 24-hour Hindi news channel. As breaking news items and stock values streamed across the screen, a crackling PA system announced a slew of additional delays.
Donning a blue blazer, a Sikh man loomed nearby and occasionally stared at us. The sheath of his kirpan gleamed under the tube lights. Next to us, a large-rumped woman wearing a shawl shifted to the edge of her chair, so close to us that we could smell her breath. Seemingly oblivious to our presence, Rump's jean-clad thigh engulfed Anjali's smaller one. What audacity! Several minutes later, I heard a loud thump. An exhausted elderly woman in a sari had thrown herself down on the vacant half of Rump's seat. Although Rump didn't know Sari, she wasn't perturbed by her presence at all. How sublime.
After more delays, we finally ascended the metal staircase to our Airbus, on which the cable network Zee Television's logo was plastered. NDTV, a 24 hour Indian news channel, had sponsored a couple of overhead compartments inside the cabin. "Always rest your case," quipped their slogan. The media was apparently invested in corporate aviation. Could it be relied upon to provide a critical discussion of plans to privatise the Indian Capital's airport?
Indira Gandhi Airport clearly needed a makeover. But as Delhi had experienced with electricity, putting public entities in the hands of private businesses does not guarantee efficiency or forthrightness. Anyway, debates of public versus private could be rendered trivial by ethics and effective regulation.
After sitting at the gate another 20 minutes, we took off. Hungry passengers asked to purchase food; but none was available, for there had been no time to restock. As Captain Escobar welcomed us aboard with a Spanish accent, I thumbed through the airline magazine. An Air Deccan executive wrote effusively about his company's rapid expansion. "This is not just our story," he mused. "It's the story of new, vibrant India."