February 18, 2005

Like a ST bus stand

He said it some years ago, but for some odd reason I remember it very well today. Possibly because it could easily have been said today; possibly too because, yet again, we hear a lot of talk about "beautifying" our airports.

"He" was Sharad Pawar, then Chief Minister of Maharashtra. On a Ministerial visit to Bombay's airport, he looked around him, wrinkled his Ministerial nose and exclaimed in some Ministerial disgust: "The airport looks like a ST bus stand!" (ST, often pronounced esh-tee, is of course "State Transport", referring to Maharashtra's beloved dusty-red inter-city buses).

Apparently Pawar's wrinkled nose caused some consternation among airport officials, at least to the extent that they instantly announced plans to beautify the airport. I could be wrong, but I doubt the plans mutated into action. For though the airport certainly saw some changes, it retained the familiar seedy, untidy look it had had forever. Besides, as already noted, whoever's in charge of our airports is, yet again, right now, beautifying the airport.

Be that as it may. Given what Sharad Pawar said, we must assume that he has actually visited a ST bus stand. How else would he have known that our airport resembles one? Go to any of these bus stands -- around Maharashtra or indeed, anywhere in the country. Dirt, excreta, cattle, fruit, buses and people are what you'll find, and all jostling for space. The noise and dust get overwhelming. The toilets are unmentionable. The buses look like they should have been condemned to the scrap heap sometime before 1900.

Surprise! A ST bus stand looks like ... well, like a ST bus stand.

Yet, this little fact has never occasioned any nose-wrinkling disgust from Mr Pawar. You see, it is unacceptable for an airport to look like a ST bus stand. But it is perfectly acceptable for ST bus stands themselves to look like ST bus stands.

We need do nothing to "beautify" the places throughout the country that millions of ordinary Indians spend hours in every day -- our bus stations. But we must be exercised about the state of our airports, which serve far fewer Indians. There's something to think about.

Actually, I don't mean at all to disparage ST bus stands. Dirty and chaotic they may be, but they work. Buses come and go and people get to where they must, all with a general reliability that make such bus services some of the more efficient institutions in the country. Examples to the rest of the country.

But Pawar's pronouncement has always seemed to me to exemplify a certain attitude in this country.

What our airports do is serve our elite, and in particular, they serve that special breed among our elites, the VIPs. That's the real reason Sharad Pawar wanted the Bombay airport improved -- because he and fellow VIPs use it frequently. We can't let delicate VIP senses be offended by squalor, can we?

No we can't. But while we protect those senses, I want to share this thought that strikes me: as long as ST bus stands look like ST bus stands, so will our airports.

12 comments:

Zainab Bawa said...

I would like to meet with you sometime in connection with some of the work I have been doing.
Regards,
Zainab Bawa

Dilip D'Souza said...

Zainab, send me a note at ddd AT rediff DOT co DOT in.

Anirudh Karnick said...

Lovely post D-Mama.

Crenshaw said...

Lets not forget that airports serve the business community and tourists too in addition to the Indian ‘ruling elite’. Unfortunately the average Indian who uses an ST bus barely cares about the excrement near his foot as he boards his bus – not the case with an international traveller.

Quizman said...

Dilip,

I agree with you that the Airport and the ST bus stand should be clean and modern.

But I think Sharad Pawar's angst was probably a way of doing a cost-benefit analysis. For instance, if you walked into the Taj, you would expect to pay more, but in return for good service/food. At a local pav-bhaji wallah, you would expect to pay less, and not complain if the cart did not have five-star ambience. In other words, Pawar is saying, "Hey, people paying so much money (airport tax etc) are getting shafted."

Dilip D'Souza said...

Crenshaw, I use those ST buses, and I care if there's excrement near my foot as I board. As, I'm sure, do most others who get on those buses.

Quizman, you have a point. But even when I visit the pav-bhaji-wallah on the street, while I don't expect 5-* ambience, I certainly expect a minimum cleanliness and order. PB-wallahs who cannot maintain that don't get my business. Again, I'm sure that's the case with most others who eat PB.

The users of ST buses are also getting shafted. That's the point.

amit varma said...

Dilip, when it comes to pav-bhaji-wallahs, you have abundant choice, and if you don't like one you can go to another. That's because they're not run by the government, and you, the consumer, are the boss. Their standards, and their service, have to be good enough to satisfy you if they are to stay in business.

Another clear example of why the government isn't competent to run anything, whether airports or ST stands.

Srinadh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Srinadh said...

Well said indeed! Isn't it ironic that parties like the NCP reply largely on the very people who travel these ST buses. But it is quite likely that the people who fund him are those who hobnob at the ST like, unbeautified Mumbai Airport.

Tanuj said...

dilip,

i agree with amit on the govt being incompetent in running these companies.

that said, i would not blame the govt entirely. i have used ST buses several times, and for the fare i pay i get fair service (including feet in crap). millions travel on ST buses on subsidized fares everyday. i wouldn't be surprised if all ST corporations (who run busses and bus-stands) were raking up losses of crores a month. one way to improve quality of buses and bus-stands is to double or quadruple fares overnight. dilip, would you agree with that course of action? i wouldn't. for now, i think the incompetent govt is doing a fair job of transporting people cheaply.

on the other hand, air fares are not subsidized, for sure. airports are separate entities that get paid by airlines for every flight that lands/takes off. airports actually have a strong, stable cash flow. i would therefore be really pissed if my feet landed in crap at airports.

Just a comparison – air fares on Jet airways for del-bombay are 50% MORE expensive in $ terms than the same distance (NY-chicago) in US. However, bus fares on the most expensive UP ST bus are 7 times LESS expensive than fares for the same distance on the pathetic greyhound service.

are you fair in expecting more from ST bus stands? should you expect same standards at airports and ST bus stands? I think not.

t

Dilip D'Souza said...

Tanuj,

But I already agreed with you: the ST services are some of our better institutions, transporting people efficiently and (as you said) cheaply).

That's not the point.

I was really trying to tease out the irony in Pawar's remark. And therefore, to suggest that it is not unreasonable for a ST passenger to expect, for what he pays, at least minimal cleanliness in a ST bus stand. After all, for what he pays, he gets a reasonable bus service, doesn't he?

I think there's a little more than money at work here. That's all.

wise donkey said...

i agree. i think basic maintenance is different from luxury. but somehow people get suprised when we expect basic cleanliness and maintainence in a bus terminus or railway stations.
in chennai koyambedu, which was built some years, for the muffosil buses, people were suprised that bus terminus could be well maintained. well i am not in Chennai now so not sure how its stil maintained, but even i was suprised then at the attitude.

and this attitude exists even in govt hospitals where even cleanliness is thought of as a luxury