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Mumbai airport's Botox job

By Sunil Sethi in New Delhi
September 22, 2007 13:11 IST
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Mumbai's long-overdue and embattled new domestic airport is partly ready. I found myself suffering culture shock this week while being ushered into an arrival terminal with acres of gleaming granite and an overdose of stainless steel railings. There were water bodies and newly-planted waving palms (for that Singapore feeling) and more external awnings and multi-coloured banners than trade fairs in Frankfurt, Osaka and Montreal put together. My taxi driver was in shock too. "Wait!" he said, waving his arms frantically, "It's so new I don't know where I've parked the car."

Reality checks soon set in. It took him close to half an hour to produce his vehicle, an opportunity for a closer survey. The pick-up and drop-off traffic was so chaotic that passengers were trying to jump or squeeze past the shiny steel railings. In bemusement I watched a large and ornate Mumbai memsahib's struggle to push through bits and boobs. First her handbag kept getting stuck, followed by her hips.

This bathetic scene of Bollywood slapstick was compounded by airport graphic design and logos straight out of a Farah Khan- or a Karan Johar-type dance number. Swirling paisleys and Mughal flower silouhettes entwined with digital symbols denoting 21st century India's industrial powerhouse image -- utterly discordant and fake. Mumbai airport's new logo has so many colours and curlicues that a cursory glance could give you a squint.

In matters of public utilities, including signage, it is advisable to adhere to the fundamental principle of Bauhaus design: Form follows function. If a high-usage utility -- a toilet, taxi rank, parking, traffic, dividing rail or logo -- doesn't work in an airport, said to be the busiest in South Asia handling13.56 million domestic passengers a year, then what price the Rs 2,400 crore modernisation scheme? It's plainly a design malfunction.

Many of the familiar scabs of an Indian airport were thriving leech-like at Mumbai's departure terminal 10 hours later: Trolley touts badgering passengers, paan-chewing cleaning ladies in dirty saris indolently pushing garbage, and an escalator under repair so dangerously unprotected that it brought back the horror story of a child at Delhi airport some years ago who fell down an escalator hole and perished.

Teething troubles? If so, Mumbai International Airport Ltd, the consortium of GVK and South African Airports, which won the project through an international tender, must question every planner, architect, designer, HR manager and traffic controller: Why isn't it working? Or working as well as it should?

There is more than one answer. A bustling metropolitan airport is not an island -- it is merely a point of arrival or departure. The city itself doesn't work -- or works only spasmodically. Ten minutes outside the airport terminal and there are endless jams. My day coincided with preparations for Ganesh Chaturthi, which grow more protracted and elaborate each year (three immersions a week, I was told), so everyone's commuting time from point A to B is doubled. Panicked professionals start planning their movements days in advance; life becomes a relay race; and two to three people are required to accomplish the job of one. Catching a flight is an obstacle race that passengers pray they will win.

In its edgy, manic way, Mumbai prided itself on being the more organised of Indian cities, devoted to the work ethic, the go-getting glamour capital of the country. This is no longer true. It is now more ramshackle than Kolkata, more inefficient than Delhi and, probably, neither as rich nor as inventive as Bangalore or Hyderabad. Its cosmopolitan ethos and egalitarian energy has been hobbled by provincial-minded politicians, sectarian ideology and pick-pocket capitalism. Every monsoon the city shudders and shuts down and its inhabitants hope it won't be as awful as last year.

One of these days the tidal waves will wash past the creeks of Bandra and Mahim and enter the 1,400-acre Santa Cruz-Sahar complex. Who would mind? Mumbai airport's makeover looks like a cosmetic job anyway.

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Sunil Sethi in New Delhi

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