Change is for the obdurate

  • 14/05/2002

I never thought I would be writing an article about airports. But I am provoked to repeat what we know and to say what would not be said often in connection with the sorry state of our public spaces.

The Indian Express has published a series on - needless to say, deplorable - Indian airports. Express editor Shekhar Gupta has received an overwhelming response to his biting article on this subject, from readers across the country, annoyed, frustrated and indeed ashamed about the stink in toilets to the appalling lack of civic facilities.

I happened to be travelling and hoped to see some change. I did see change, but for the worse. This time, even getting through the doors of the airport - with a confirmed ticket - was a harrowing experience. Someone, possibly an exalted official in the bombastic government of India, had decided that for "security reasons" passengers could enter only through a "designated" door. It was, of course, a small matter that there are four doors and that all airlines that leave at the ridiculous witching hour had been designated only one door. The waiting time was one hour with everyone jostling and fighting just to enter the airport. As can be expected, touts were in service, escorting clients through the doors, for a price.

My first point is that government is getting more and more shameless. Some years ago, articles like those published in the Indian Express would have resulted in a few shocks, maybe a transfer and definitely an attempt at cover up. Not any more. Now criticism is like water off a duck's back. Government has become more, not less, complacent about the mess around us. The unflinching belief is that we are doing just fine, in spite of the horrendous problems of our huge population and all this cribbing is just nonsense from people who have no experience in "running" the country.

It is also a fact that administration has become so rigid, so entrenched and also at the same time so riddled with vested interests that what was possible to do earlier with a little pushing of the stroke of the pen, is virtually impossible now. It is for this reason, bringing about change - from cleaner toilets in airports to cleaner air and water in our cities - is a challenge even to the most obdurate.

A reflection of this shamelessness is that the reports prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General (cag) are treated with such disdain and contempt. I have seen at least a dozen reports in which cag has soundly criticised the working of the various environment and pollution control agencies of state governments. The verdict is unanimous that these agencies are failing to discharge their functions. Reports contain instances after instances of what you could call incompetence or corruption, which should make the most brazen cringe - from how industries are flouting every rule in the book under the watchful eyes of regulatory agencies to how equipment and funds remain unutilised year after year. The cag even found that ambulances for accident victims had been converted with sofas to use as staff cars in Delhi. In most cases, cag has not received a response from the department concerned and certainly no heads have rolled. Accountability is a game that we do not play in government.

My second point is what most readers of Indian Express seem to have missed. The reason why our public services are in this wretched state is because no public servant suffers these facilities. The finance minister was on the same flight as me but I can assure you that he did not wait in the hour-long queue to enter the airport. We can also safely bet that neither do his officials nor his officials' near and dear. It is only when they retire that they recognise, what all of us know as reality, but by then it is too late and they can only join the club of grumblers.

I remember we were so amazed, when a few years ago, the petroleum secretary quizzed us if there was indeed an air pollution problem in Delhi. But why should we have been surprised? Given his circumstances, it would be rare for him to roll down his car window to breathe the foul air out of his sylvan surroundings of Central Delhi - where his office and home are located. Their world is both seamless and efficient. Why then should they not be complacent?

On return, at the same "secure" airport, I found the usual visitors who had "permission" to cross the immigration barrier to receive relatives and friends. And it became clear to me that we really don't have a country any more. We have a huge brokerage agency. Before I end on this extremely pessimistic note, contrary to what I have said just now, change is still possible. But it requires more than just words or even kind-hearted action. It needs the cold anger, persistence and creativity of a Gandhi. We should all try it. The country needs our anger today. More than anything else.

- Sunita Narain

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