Do India and U.S. have more in common than they think?

May 19, 2008

First impressions count. That’s true no less with airports, the gateway to a globalised world for any country.

Which is why the United States and India may have more in common than they like to think.

A passenger carries luggage as an airhostess waits outside a terminal at an airport in New Delhi March 12, 2008. REUTERS/Adnan AbidiI have been one of those thousands that have spent three hours in Delhi International Airport making it from check-in though to the boarding gate. Which is why I read with interest the recent spat between deputy planning chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and civil aviation minister Praful Patel over who is responsible for the chaos.

But this kind of controversy is not just confined to India. I read this piece in May from Thomas L. Friedman, the author who coined “The World is Flat”. The full article is here. But have a look at this paragraph.

“A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit.Air crews walk through an immigration hall in the newly opened Terminal 3 at Singapore’s Changi Airport January 9, 2008. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.”

Having lived in Washington DC before moving to India, I can sympathise with Mr. Friedman. Some of the worst queues outside India, I have seen at airports was at Dulles and JFK airports.

Are India and the United States two sides of the same coin?

I think one can draw up correlations between the state of a country’s main airports and its attitude to the globalised world. Travel to Chile and it capital has Latin America’s best airport, as befits a country that also leads Latin America in embracing globalisation.

Then look at Singapore, a country that depends on international trade for its survival. Or Beijing’s new airport, not surprising for a country dependent on export-led growth.

Which is why India’s airports, despite some improvements, show its ambivalent attitude towards globalisation. Whether its retail or financial services, India still feels it can shun the world. As my colleague Simon Denyer recently posted, look at how little media coverage was given to Myanmar’s tragedy. Perhaps U.S. airports, and the controversial immigration treatment that scares many travellers, also underscores how this country feels it does not need the rest of the world.

While there are improvements in India — Hyderabad, and perhaps Bangalore, it’s been late in coming. Some may be half-hearted. Bangalore’s new airport has no new access road, angering business leaders.

Rather like the United States, India still is a huge federal country that still looks into itself. Indeed, India has so many challenges for itself, from caste violence to separatist insurgencies, it may be understandable. For both countries, the outside world still isn’t top of the agenda.

Which is why global travellers here, like global business, may be in for a long haul.

4 comments

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I was really bugged by the never-ending India-China comparisions where we always were loosing the counts. Seems our image has improved we are competing with the US, though not a solid reason to be a gung-ho Indian. India believes in equitable growth so, there is not much difference when you look at our bus depots, train stations and airports. But there is some hope for our bus stands and rail stands, thanks to the budget airlines .. now every Indian middle class over 350 million can fly.

Posted by Sceptic Indian | Report as abusive

not just the pols. it is also the people who make it look awkward. once i was travelling thru bombay and had to take a bus ride from domestic to international. when i got down in the international terminal with all the luggage i had, i couldnt find where the entrance was. final i figured that a bunch of morons blocking the entrance and they were the ones who came to send off someone . it was a totally depressing situation to note that people even though they have money and education are still not decent enough.

Posted by vivek | Report as abusive

The Indian press loves to pump up any statistic which shows that India is doing better than China. It could be something meaningless as “more car horns are manufactured in India than china” but they’ll print it a whole story and make it seem like India is doing so much better than China. But the funny thing is china doesn’t even consider India a competitor because the Indians are so backwards

Posted by weary Indian | Report as abusive

Even though I am based in the US, I am a frequent traveler to Europe/Asia/South America. I completely agree with Tom Friedman that arriving into an American Airport today is like coming to a 3rd world country – long lines, confrontational immigration agents, arbitrary rules, decrepit infrastructure, everyone is a terrorist unless proven otherwise…

Posted by Marl Balou | Report as abusive