The subcontinent’s leaders never learn from mistakes—their own, or one another’s. Nawaz Sharif’s White Elephant M-2 expressway was one of the greatest scandals in global infrastructure development history. Now, India is about to produce its match—in aviation, by building a $4 billion (Rs12,700 crore) new terminal at Delhi airport. Terminal-3, to be opened soon, is claimed to be the world’s fifth-largest airport terminal, and bigger than Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and Singapore ’s Changi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh euphorically described T-3 as signifying the “arrival of a new India , committed to join the ranks of modern, industrialised nations …”.
T-3 is being commissioned just when the UK ’s Conservative-led ruling coalition has abandoned plans for a third runway at London ’s Heathrow airport, which Prime Minister David Cameron was keen on. T-3 will be seen by many as a manifestation of the global power shift: China , India and Brazil are ascending while the long-affluent Western economies decline. This over-reads the truth. The Heathrow runway wasn’t abandoned primarily because Britain cannot afford it, but because environmentalists opposed it. With such projects, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from aviation would exceed the UK ’s entire GHG ceiling for 2050.
India’s ruling elite favours gigantic projects in energy-intensive mining, industry, and high capital-cost infrastructure because it sees them as symbols of high modernity and prestige. For South Asia’s rulers, modernity doesn’t mean a society free of religious superstition and fanaticism, caste-ism and gender discrimination in which all citizens can equally develop their potential as free, rational human beings. Rather, their notion of modernity is gigantic, super-expensive buildings which bear no relationship to their function.
This notion is perverse. Saudi Arabia —despite its huge palaces and wide expressways—won’t be considered even remotely modern. Malaysia’s international prestige came from its firmness in resisting the International Monetary Fund’s pressure to open its financial markets during the 1997-98 East Asian crisis, not from the Kuala Lumpur-101, long the world’s tallest building.
Similarly, Beijing hosted the Olympics, and Shanghai built the world’s fastest airport-city link. But that only drew passing admiration. China is more respected for its manufacturing, and export successes, following land reforms and provision of social services which combated poverty. The halo over the Burj Dubai and Mumbai’s 117-storey WorldOne (planned to be the world’s tallest residential building) will soon fade.
So will Terminal-3’s—but only after enormously damaging India ’s transportation policies and its ability to combat climate change, which disproportionately affects underprivileged people. Clearance of the T-3 project was rushed just when Delhi airport’s modernisation-expansion was well advanced. This included a new runway, a brand-new domestic departure terminal for private airlines, and considerable expansion of both the domestic arrivals and the entire international terminal.
This Rs5,000-crore-plus modernisation is creating an annual passenger-handling capacity of 30 million. (Delhi currently only handles 26 million.) This can be modestly expanded to cope with increased future demand with better instruments landing, all-weather radars and air traffic-control systems, faster movement through immigration, and more gates and aerobridges.
All this could have been done incrementally, at low cost. But T-3, with an additional 34 million-passenger capacity, was promoted for prestige—and probably for huge payoffs and kickbacks from sweetheart deals totalling Rs12,000 crores. The contract was awarded to the GMR Group, which has no experience in airport construction. T-3 follows the public-private partnership (PPP) model, based on private profiteering at public expense. PPPs are leading to rising tolls and huge user fees even on rural roads, besides highways and airports.
Manmohan Singh is wrong about prestige. He said T-3 “would be a window to India , the first impression of the country …”. But the visitor’s lasting impression—of general squalor and stupendous rich-poor disparities, visible right outside the terminal—will prevail over the first impression.
T-3 is doubly obscene because 80 percent of the structure is glass. Glass loses 30 percent more warm or cooled air than insulated brick. Its production is expensive and emissions-intensive. It may have limited merit in a cold-climate airport which needs maximum sunlight—but not in Delhi . T-3’s designers mindlessly imitated the West. Similarly, the liberal use of energy-intensive materials like aluminium and marble belies the claim that T-3 is a “green” building.
T-3’s greatest absurdity is that it will add to Delhi ’s long-notorious airspace congestion. Few domestic flights take off or land in Delhi on time; most aircraft circle for 30-60 minutes. This is a tremendous waste of social time and costly fuel. A new terminal will worsen the congestion.
Projects like T-3 are being promoted in India on the specious plea that civil aviation is a public good and indicates social progress. But globally, aviation is increasingly seen as a social liability. Air travel is a major contributor of GHG emissions. Exhausts from airplanes, containing potent GHGs besides carbon dioxide, are 2.7 times more harmful at the altitude at which they occur than on the ground. Affluent air-travellers’ emissions significantly widen global GHG disparities.
Worldwide, sensible policymakers are seeking alternatives to planes, including trains, airships and waterways. The greatest alternative is reorganising cities to limit long-distance travel—and thus carbon footprints and travel bills. All of South Asia should join such efforts before addiction to air travel even for casual/holiday trips grows among their elites, and powerful private aviation lobbies capture policy-making.
India and Pakistan are poor countries where only a minuscule minority can afford to fly. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that aviation will become affordable for the millions who cannot even give their children enough nutrition. During the low-airfare peak, only three per cent of Indians flew.
We must develop climate-friendly alternatives to flying. Trains are an excellent example. Today, the Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani takes 16-17 hours to cover 1,400 km. If it can be accelerated to the global level of high-speed trains, it will cross the distance between the two city centres, the most convenient points, in about four hours. This is less than current flying time (2 hours), city-to-airport transit time, plus check-in margins. Most travellers would prefer trains to planes—as they do between Paris and Lyon, Madrid and Barcelona , and Tokyo and Kyoto. Similarly, there’s no reason why the Lahore-Islamabad distance (360 km) can’t be covered in one-and-a-half hours by rail.
Trains consume only about one-quarter as much energy as planes, and emit much less GHGs. Speeding up trains will need large emissions-relevant investments. But these would be only a fraction of what it costs to replicate White Elephants like T-3 and other emissions-intensive aviation infrastructure.
Singh was obviously delighted when he said Indian aviation can “absorb” up to $120 billion (Rs564,000 crores) of investment by 2020. India could do wonders with such money for its healthcare, education and social security. Alternatively, it could build a first-class surface transport network appropriate to its needs. The sum represents one-eighth of India ’s GDP. Should we blow up such colossal sums on socially low-priority aviation, and on super-expensive ecologically unsound projects like T-3?
It’s time to radically rethink our transportation and urban development policies in the light of equity, inclusiveness, energy efficiency and climate responsibility.