Monday, June 09, 2008

Secession of the Indian elite

Gated housing enclaves, private guards, exclusive clubs, private aircraft.... the Indian elite has known how to insulate itself from the masses. But when industrial barons decide to hope from their helipads to private airports they propose to build for themselves, they have taken a truly gigantic leap.

Ronald deSousa, director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, has interesting thoughts on the subject in an article in ET:

Three basic arguments have been forwarded for private airports. The first concerns simple pragmatics. It will reduce congestion at a time when our airports are getting overcrowded and since private planes take longer to land, by moving them out we will save landing time of the other aircraft. The second relates to safety. The aviation authorities will ensure that these airports will maintain the highest safety standards and so, for the flying public, there is no cause for anxiety. The third is a version of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. As long as they pay for it they can have it.

......When seen from a host of other perspectives the policy seems perverse. Take the secessionist argument which holds that the policy encourages the super-elite to live life in a bubble. From the helipad at the top of the corporate headquarters, to another helipad in the factory complex, to perhaps a private airport for a journey to Delhi, the captains of industry can journey across the country without having to meet, or rub shoulders with, or even see the ordinary Indian, let alone experience the minimal existential reflections on the lives of those who live in the slums they have to drive through on their way to the airport
Those people, in many cases, might be their own workers. They will thus never know the possible causes that have reduced to a life of indignity those who beg at red-light crossings, or the conditions of the villagers who have to walk for miles for water, or the anxieties of our rural youth as they search for a space between the rural and urban

There is more to private airports than elitism or snobbery. At a time of soaring oil prices, we would like to encourage public transport as a substitute for private cars. Private aircraft as a substitute for public ones seems the ultimate obscenity. Finally, as always, there is always the issue of land, as deSousa points out:

There is another important concern. Private airports will require a lot of land. The country has just witnessed political movements on the SEZ policy requiring the government to take corrective measures and in some cases reverse its decisions. Again the poor farmer will have to give up prime land with the Land Acquisition Act being used to get (let me get it right) private land for a public purpose for a private airport.

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