Friday, May 16, 2008

Bangalore’s new airport: help or hindrance?

Bangalore’s new airport: help or hindrance?

On May 23, Bangalore’s new international airport will be open for business. It’ll be swish and modern, for sure. Built by a consortium that also built the Zurich airport, plus Siemens and India’s best infrastructure project company Larsen & Toubro. Cost $625 million.

Flights from all over the world will no longer land at the crowded, shabby old HAL airport, in Bangalore city. They’ll come into this swanky new facility on the outskirts of the city.

Those who are rejoicing should take pause.
For the commuter’s pain is about to be exacerbated, not relieved.

First, the drive into Bangalore from the new airport will be 35-km long and last over an hour. That’s nothing compared to cities like Bombay, where it could take an hour and a half. But Bangalore’s existing airport is five minutes from the city and that helps enormously in alleviating the pain of investors and businessmen already fed up with Bangalore’s infrastructure constraints and maddening traffic jams. An extra commuting hour is extreme torture. Add that high-priced ride to your high-priced hotel room.

Second, the road from the airport to the city isn’t a good one. The politicians were so busy making money buying the land around the new airport they all forgot to build a proper road. So may be the commute in will take two hours instead of one, once the traffic and chaos get under way.

Third, it’ll cost you more to land at the new airport - about $17 more for domestic passengers, and $25 more for international. That’s priced into your ticket. It’s not much, you’ll say. But for Indians - and most of the traffic in Bangalore comes from within India - $17 is a lot. Especially because air traffic has increased due to the emergence of low-cost airlines. Lots of young entrepreneurs and their families flying those airlines into Bangalore, will chaff at the $17 - especially if their air ticket cost $62. And that taxi ride into Bangalore - that’ll cost upwards of $25. Some new buses are being introduced with cheaper fares - but it’ll take two hours to Bangalore.

Fourth, let’s talk about congestion. When the airport was planned several years ago, it was to accomodate the 12 million passengers who will fly into Bangalore by 2012.
Chuck that number out. Bangalore already has 12 million passengers flying into its local HAL airport. And it’s growing by 42% a year. By 2012, it’ll be 22 million.

Okay, you’re saying, that’s 12 mil for the new airport and 10 mil for HAL airport. Great, it’ll be comfy.

Nope. Because HAL airport is being shut down.

The investors will want their money back.
Even if it’s at the cost of other foreign investors and ordinary Bangaloreans.

That's one of the terms under which the new airport was built. No other airport, just this one. A nice little monopoly for investors including the Karnataka government.

So all those expecting a reprieve from the congestion, well, don't.

Citizens groups went to court, seeking a stay order to stop HAL airport from being shut down, so that the city can have greater capacity, and citizens needn't be harassed by a monopoly. Isn't that what reform is all about? Breaking down those monopolies, bringing in competition?

The high court agreed, and asked the state government and the ministry of aviation to renegotiate terms with the investors of the new Bangalore airport. But who's to negotiate? Karnataka is in the throes of an election, there's a vaccum in the state till then, and the new Bangalore airport folks say all's well, in fact they're inaugurating early, on May 23, instead of the planned May 28.

Ramesh Ramanathan, who runs a highly credible civic forum called Janaagraha, and who sits on the Prime Minister's Urban Renewal Mission, says concerned citizens can't even move the courts to look into the matter because the Karnataka High Court is in recess - summer vacation - till May 26. By then the new airport will have begun business, HAL will have shut down, and the increased constraints on passengers to Bangalore will have begun. He worries terribly that Bangalore's citizens will suffer, and that "business will simply be diverted to other Indian cities because Bangalore will have become a nightmare."


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