Getting In Line

Over 200 years of colonial rule in India ensured that, even today, more than 90% of our citizens will show exceptional regard for “the white man”. A local daily recently carried an interesting article on this subject, outlining how almost every sphere of our lives demonstrates this peculiar behaviour. The doorman will stiff his back a wee bit straighter for a fair-skinned guest… the waiter will first serve the table with the whites… no matter where you go or what you do, you will see “unfair” treatment meted out to those who look like the British that ruled us for years. It’s in our genes, now. As I read that article, I am reminded of another peculiar trait of almost all Indians : Queueing Up!

Over 200 years of colonial rule in India ensured that, even today, more than 90% of our citizens will show exceptional regard for "the white man".  A local daily recently carried an interesting article on this subject, outlining how almost every sphere of our lives demonstrates this peculiar behaviour.  The doorman will stiff his back a wee bit straighter for a fair-skinned guest… the waiter will first serve the table with the whites… no matter where you go or what you do, you will see "unfair" treatment meted out to those who look like the British that ruled us for years.  It’s in our genes, now.

As I read that article, I am reminded of another peculiar trait of almost all Indians : Queueing Up!

You go to a rock show, and you see a long queue that no one has asked for.  You see people at the railway station, and they will form a straight line at the drop of a hat.  If you find yourself on a flight, you’ll see us in a queue formation, waiting to de-plane, even before the aircraft has stopped taxiing. 

Those below the poverty line queue up to get their daily supply of water (for the 1 hour that running water reaches their settlement!)  Those just above (the poverty line) will queue up several times a month for access to the public distribution system.  Middle class citizens will queue up to pay their utility bills.  Bank account holders will queue up simply to update their bank account statements.  Even the more affluent will queue up outside ATMs, to withdraw their own money!

Every where we go, we Indians simply *love* to stand in a line. 

No one minds.  No one objects.  No one insists that the system be improved or made more accessible.  It’s in our genes, now.

I don’t know if it is the result of a 200-year-old British rule or a 50-year-old, post-Independence, government that has resulted in this oddity.  But, it sure lends new meaning to the term : Queueing Theory!

Good for Nothing

As it turned out, I was slated to travel from Bombay to Hyderabad just one day after the commencement of an impromptu strike by the employees of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) which threatened to bring major Indian airports to a standstill, unless their demands were met.  Their demands?  Basically, they were opposing the move by the Government (pending for two decades!) to privatize the airports of Mumbai and Delhi!

My day job is with a large enterprise that can afford, among other things, a Travel Desk.  One of the benefits of having one in-house is that the Travel Desk notifies you of important developments pertaining to your travel.  Now, as it turned out, I was slated to travel from Bombay to Hyderabad just one day after the commencement of an impromptu strike by the employees of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) which threatened to bring major Indian airports to a standstill, unless their demands were met.  Their demands?  Basically, they were opposing the move by the Government (pending for two decades!) to privatize the airports of Mumbai and Delhi!

If you’ve ever flown (from almost any where in the world) to Mumbai, you will agree that our pride and joy – Mumbai International Airport – is just a notch better than an airconditioned toilet!  Yes, over the years, there have been some improvements.  But, by and large, it’s still decades behind some of the more progressive airports of the world.  When, finally, our able Government did decide to do something about it, the stakeholders felt threatened and opposed the move vehemently.  But, I digress.  That’s the subject of another post.

I was saying that one of the benefits of a travel desk is that you get notified of important developments.  The evening before my flight was due, I got this email :

The situation at the airport is chaotic. Passengers are not able to take their cars to the terminals and due to this they have to walk a long distance. The baggage trolleys are not available. The hygiene factor is completely missing at the airports. Passengers are advised to carry hand luggage and shall also reach well in time. All the flights are leaving on time. There could also be traffic jam on the way to the airport therefore we advice you all to leave early for the airport. The situation is almost the same at Mumbai and Delhi Airport.

Not that there was an information blackout or any thing like that.  Newspapers were full of coverage on the rapidly deteriorating situation at Mumbai and Delhi airports.  Thanks to advancements in modern technology, news channels were actually showing live footage of the terminals, every half hour or so.  So much so that families of travellers started to panic, like all sensible families in India do:  It’s better to avoid travelling in such times… You never know how long you’ll be stranded… etc. etc.

Me? I decided to venture out any way.  I was eager to see the reality for myself.  And, I had an important meeting planned several days in advance.

Imagine my surprise when I landed at Mumbai airport at 8.30 that morning, it looked like a perfectly normal day, with no sign of any thing wrong except that the electronic signboards were not working. 

Announcements were being made on the intercom, periodically.  A couple of flights (during morning rush hour) got delayed by half an hour, and then again, by half an hour, my own flight included.  For want of adequate personnel to man the check-in traffic, Indian Airlines decided to route all traffic of their morning flights through one gate.  Naturally, the waiting hall at this gate had more-than-the-usual crowd and more-than-the-usual noise levels. 

Yes, a few dustbins were overflowing with trash and there were some unclean toilets to contend with.  But volunteers were shouting themselves hoarse trying to make sure no one was left behind on account of not hearing the periodic announcements.  And, those who had reported to work, were making sure they did more than their fair share of work to ensure that things run smoothly at their terminal.

The point I’m trying to make is that, sometimes, we tend to make a mountain out of a molehill.  And, nowhere is its impact felt more severely than when the media indulges in irresponsible journalism. 

Even two days after that, I could hardly find a mention of the good samaritans who made sure that things stayed under control.  And, a nation full of educated and literated folks fed on the frenzy that was served to them on a platter – compounding the belief that India is a good-for-nothing nation, with a bleak future. 

It’s sad to think about the efforts made by those nameless, faceless, airport employees.  Sometimes, one ends up doing a lot of good… for nothing.

If Only I Could

As I settled onto the sunken seat of a 15-year-old taxi cab, my eye caught a colourful dangler hanging from its rear view mirror : It was entitled “Atithi Devo Bhavah”…

As I settled onto the sunken seat of a 15-year-old taxi cab, my eye caught a colourful dangler hanging from its rear view mirror : It was entitled "Atithi Devo Bhavah".

It’s a high-power (read BIG spends) multimedia campaign, credited to a young and enthusiastic Minister of Tourism, in an effort to improve the "tourist-orientation" of all Indians.  Translated from Sanskrit to English, it means : A guest is like a God, and should be treated as such. 

Here’s an excerpt from the official website of the Government of India :

A pioneer initiative by Ministry of Tourism, Government of India that will help tap into the full potential of tourism in India. Ministry of Tourism, Government of India has introduced “Atithi Devo Bhavah Program” – A nation wide campaign that aims at sensitising key stakeholders towards tourists, through a process of training and orientation. The endeavour is to boost tourism in India, which in turn would act as a catalyst for India’s economic growth. To launch a national level initiative that works at many levels to address all the above issues.

Atithi Devo Bhava aims at creating awareness about the effects of tourism and sensitizing people about preservation of our rich heritage & culture, cleanliness and warm hospitality. It also re-instills a sense of responsibility towards tourists and re-enforces the confidence of foreign tourist towards India as a preferred holiday destination.

Let’s cut back to the 15-year-old cab, for a minute.  If you’re not familiar with the scene in Bombay, let me describe it for you a bit… 

An overwhelming majority of the taxis are well over 10 years old.  Many of them are driven by people who "rent" them for the day from owners (of multiple taxis), and pay a princely sum for a day’s running.   After deducting petrol expenses (and any bribes they might have to offer to traffic policemen during the day), they are not left with much to take home.  Meanwhile, the owner usually spends his time in some other business, and is only bothered about the fact that his vehicles earn him his daily rent and don’t get involved in any accidents.

There are some owners who only have one vehicle, and drive it themselves.  Many of these are still paying off a 20-year loan on the vehicle, and can barely meet their daily needs, living as they do in some of the costliest real estate in the world!  This is partly because, every few months, their families back home (in villages) face some emergency or the other, forcing them to approach a loan shark (who charges them interest on a per-day basis), and they’re back to square one on the loan repayments!

As a result, almost any cab you hail in this "Shanghai of India" will be a 12-15 year old Fiat model with sunken bug-ridden seats, tattered cushion covers, worn out flooring (with no rubber mats), no AC, inadequate ventilation and an overheated groaning, noisy engines.  Suffice it to say that sprucing up the interiors (or mechanics) of the car is not very high on priority for any cab owner.

Today, as I settled down in the plush environs of my 15-year-old taxi, and noticed the colourful dangler, I was tempted to strike up a conversation with the driver.  Did he know what it meant.  Yes, he did!  (One side of the message was printed in English while the other side was printed in Hindi).  I brought his attention to the concluding para :

I am my country’s goodwill ambassador and will adhere to the highest code of conduct. I will not allow anything or anyone to tarnish the image of my country in any manner.

I asked him if he agreed with the message printed on the dangler.  He did!  Why then, hadn’t he taken the trouble to dust the seats off, put a new seat cover, clean it up a little?  Simple.  Because he couldn’t afford to!

Sometimes, it’s difficult to argue with the Truth, isn’t it?