I am writing this column from my family home in Surat, one of India’s oldest and largest cities. Unlike some of the other big cities, like Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and even New Delhi, Surat was not built by the British. It was built by Indians and it has a recorded history going back centuries. It was already a city in the period of the Delhi sultanate and it was the largest provider of tax revenue in the subcontinent in the Mughal period. In 1608, the British first landed here, when it was famous as a big and successful port and trading centre under emperor Jahangir. Three centuries later, though the port shifted to Mumbai, it was still large and famous enough across the world for Leo Tolstoy to write a short story called “The coffee house of Surat”. Today Surat is the world’s largest diamond polishing centre (about two-thirds of all diamonds found anywhere in the world have passed through Surat).
And it is one of the world’s largest textile centres. It has a population roughly the size of London and it has the highest per capita income of any city in India. I am saying all this because it has become almost impossible for me to visit my hometown. From Bengaluru, where I now live, there is no flight to Surat. This is because Surat has an airport that is dysfunctional. No private airline flies to the city. Shortly after this government took over, a buffalo walked into the Surat airport and an airplane crashed into it, damaging its jet engine. This flight, the only private one connecting Surat to Mumbai and Bengaluru, was discontinued. Narendra Modi’s minister for civil aviation Ashok Gajapathi Raju said the beast had come in through a gap in the fence, which he ordered would be walled up. But this has not inspired any confidence from the airlines and so they have avoided Surat for the last two years. To get here, I had to first fly to Mumbai and then drive for five hours.
The distance is 300 km and the road is part of India’s best highway network, the golden quadrilateral, which connects Mumbai to Delhi. So why does it take five hours to cover this distance? Because just outside Mumbai there is a broken or cracked flyover near a place called Fountain Hotel. It is unsafe to have traffic from both sides go over it together and so automobiles from one side are made to wait, often for over an hour, while the other side is let through. This is a heavily used highway, perhaps the busiest in India, and so the halted cars and trucks form a line many kilometres long.
I asked the man driving the taxi how long this had been the case and he said at least four months, and work on repairing the flyover had not yet begun. When I reached Surat I noticed that another flyover which had collapsed the last time I was visiting, killing 11 people, had still not been rebuilt. It was a brand new structure and two years ago one section of it fell down after the supporting scaffolding was removed. For two years this single piece had not been fixed rendering the flyover, on Surat’s most important road, Athwalines, unusable. This, to at last get to the point I am trying to make, is the same route that India’s bullet train is taking. The high-speed rail network starts at Ahmedabad and comes to Surat, which is about mid way, and then to Mumbai.
There is no demand from Gujaratis for a bullet train. What they want is airports that are functional. Where animals are not permitted to walk around. They want national highways, which have flyovers, which are strong enough to carry normal traffic. They want city infrastructure that does not break down before it is built and which is not left unfixed for two years. What is required is boring leadership that ensures that the basics are right and not genius leadership that dreams of bullet trains. It is remarkable to me that there is such a casual attitude to the development of a historical city that is, as I said earlier, the size of London. A successful city with India’s highest per capita income (over Rs 4.5 lakh per household in 2008). A city with such poor connectivity, that it is more difficult for me to reach it from Bengaluru than it is to fly to London.