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.