Frontline, Vol:27 Issue:15, July 17, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

THE ecstatic, breathless manner in which the inauguration of the new terminal (T-3) of Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport was reported and commented on fits a worrisome pattern. This involves the media's slavish adherence to elitism and its fetish for gigantic monuments and projects. Sections of the press now routinely describe huge infrastructure projects as “modern-day cathedrals” and “beacons of progress”.

Anything that gleams – thanks to energy-intensive materials such as chrome, glass and aluminium – and seems sleekly and consciously over-designed and over-automated is celebrated, no matter its economic and environmental costs. The more exotic an object is – from absurdly long flyovers to bus-unfriendly road links across the sea, and from costly metro rail to unproven monorail – the greater and more uncritical the praise for it.

This monument worship seemingly reproduces the “temples of modern India” fetishisation of large dams and steel mills, by Jawaharlal Nehru, no less, in the 1950s. But Nehru understood that the temples could turn into tombs and warned passionately against destructive development. His successors have no such self-doubts. Naive faith in technology in the 1950s and the 1960s could be condoned to some extent because the social and ecological costs of industrialisation and “modernisation” were not known. However, after our deeply ambivalent, and often painful, experience with “development” and the global understanding of dangerous climate change caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we should know better.

So when we build a nine-level structure that is 80 per cent glass supported by steel, spread over 6.4 million square feet, and with 92 automatic walkways, 78 aerobridges and parking for 43,000 cars, and then celebrate it as an achievement, we show a pathological obsession with excess, gigantism and profligacy.

Yet, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said T-3 “would be a window to India, the first impression of the country when one arrives here”. The visitor would only have to step out of T-3 to be hounded by touts, and travel only a few kilometres to see the more important, enduring, face of India, with its poverty, squalor and inequalities.

Manmohan Singh said: “The commissioning of this terminal will be a significant step forward in developing Delhi as a vital aviation hub.” He held out T-3 as proof of the “arrival of a new India, committed to join the ranks of modern, industrialised nations …” and of “the success of the public-private partnership PPP model in the execution of a large infrastructure project”.

The Prime Minister is wrong. The PPP model has not worked to the advantage of the Indian public or given the exchequer a respectable return on its investment. It has fattened the profits of private partners through sweetheart deals while raising costs. Look at the rising tolls on PPP-built highways and high development fees levied at certain airports, which typically exceed Rs.100 for domestic passengers and Rs.1,000 for international passengers.

The all-new PPP airports in Hyderabad and Bangalore have increased the public's inconvenience, necessitating travel by an additional 30-plus km in expensive taxis. They also entailed the closure of the better-located old airports. This not only violates the principle of competition but also ignores the utility of more than one airport in big cities.

Manmohan Singh bemoans the fall in Delhi airport's performance in terms of global air service quality; it ranked 101 in 2007. But what about India's falling performance in the Human Development Index, where it ranks an abysmal 134, compared with 121 before the country embraced neoliberalism. One wishes the government would pay social programmes at least a fraction of the attention it lavishes on aviation.

The T-3 project has very poor justification in the first place. In Delhi, thousands of crores have been spent on airport “modernisation”, including a new domestic terminal (1-D) for private airlines, and on expanding the international terminal. According to independent aviation experts, this expansion should have created enough capacity to handle 30 million passengers annually. It seems unwise to create a greenfield facility for 34 million people, and that too bigger than Heathrow's Terminal 5 or Singapore's Changi.

Even for future expansion, it would be preferable to use the existing infrastructure to building anew – although more must be done to improve passage through immigration and customs. The T-3 building plan assumes that Delhi's traffic will triple in 16 years. This is questionable.

It is doubtful if the T-3 plan takes into account the existing air traffic congestion, which ensures that 80 per cent of all domestic flights are delayed significantly. Combating this needs more runways, better instruments handling and air traffic control systems. Such investment has been ignored in favour of T-3's glamour and money-making quotient. The excessive use of glass, a far poorer insulator than other common building materials, is downright criminal.

Three major issues

T-3, which is sure to be replicated in major metropolises, raises three other major issues. First, it assumes that civil aviation is a public good, which deserves state support/subsidy. Second, aviation has only limited spin-off effects beneficial to the economy in relation to, say, the railways. Finally, T-3's opportunity costs, at Rs.12,700 crore, are unconscionably high.

Globally, civil aviation has expanded greatly in recent years, including through casual/holiday travel. Aviation has become a growing social liability, eroding the gains it yielded through time savings. It is a major contributor of GHG emissions within the transportation sector. Exhausts from airplanes, containing several potent GHGs, are 2.7 times more harmful at the altitude at which they occur than on the ground. Since air travellers are generally affluent people, their aviation emissions add significantly to global GHG disparities as well as absolute emissions.

Many countries are trying to discourage aviation's growth through taxes and levies even as they invest in super-fast trains. Aviation levies are widely accepted as part of the solution to the climate crisis. Even the Conservative-led British government has cancelled plans to build a third runway at Heathrow airport.

In India, aviation policy must take into account the limitations placed by poverty, ecology and scope for expanding surface transport. Aviation in India has expanded rapidly in the past two decades, with the number of aircraft quadrupling. But no more than 3 per cent of Indians are estimated to have flown even at the peak of the low-fare boom. It would be downright unwise for India to encourage aviation by investing in its infrastructure.

Civil aviation is not, and cannot be, for the 21st century's economy what the railways were for the 19th century. It simply does not have the railways' forward or backward linkages, networking scope, cost advantage per kilometre, employment effects and economies of scale. There are two major airplane manufacturers and a handful of small ones in the world. Planes burn dirty fuel. And turbine technology has not improved to the extent high-speed rail has.

Better options

Finally, the opportunity cost. The Rs.12,700 crore could have been spent on aviation safety – 40 Indian airports, including Chennai, Kolkata, Pune and Ahmedabad, do not have safety licences – and even better, on improving the railway network. The railways consume only one-fourth as much energy as aviation per passenger-kilometre and are far more climate friendly. They can use a variety of energy sources, including electricity.

India's fastest trains run only at 110 kmph. Some, like the Deccan Queen, run slower than they did 50 years ago. Achievable speeds of 350 kmph can reduce transit time and make it comparable with flying, taking into account local transportation, advance check-in, and so on – barely three-and-a-half hours between Delhi and Mumbai. The benefits, already immense, would be further enhanced if cities, work centres and communications were reorganised to minimise the need for long-distance travel.

What we need is a climate-friendly transportation policy, which can be achieved with such reorganisation, and with sensible urban planning and intelligent use of energy- and time-saving transportation modes. This clearly means promoting surface transport, such as water, rail and road, in ways appropriate to Indian conditions, including purchasing power.

What we have in the T-3 paradigm is the opposite: exorbitantly expensive, ecologically unsound, and socially inappropriate projects that promote consumerist gloss and gaudy aesthetics at high public expense.