Opinion Op Ed 13 Apr 2019 Cabbages & Kings: Wh ...
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Cabbages & Kings: Why are India’s airports so strict?

Published Apr 13, 2019, 7:43 am IST
Updated Apr 13, 2019, 7:43 am IST
The immigration officer performs some mysterious manoeuvres with one’s passport on the counter beneath eye-level.
After security at the boarding gates there are more hurdles. Before the airline officials tear your boarding card, two persons look at your passport and demand your boarding card.
 After security at the boarding gates there are more hurdles. Before the airline officials tear your boarding card, two persons look at your passport and demand your boarding card.

“Compassion: The woman
With dog collars draped
From wrist to elbow
Tying them 
round the necks
Of stray dogs. A pretence
That they are owned and not
To be shot
In the cull.”

From Pashta Ka Nashta by Bachchoo

When I first left for Britain from Bombay (not yet rechristened) airport in the mid-1960s, my first trip abroad, a throng of family and friends gathered to see me off. They came right up to the departure gates after I had checked in my single suitcase, carried to the check-in desk by friends who wanted to make a gesture of friendship. There were no security checks at the time as the terror of maniacs blowing up planes hadn’t set in, so the dozen or so of the farewell party waved me through the gate behind which my passport was checked and I went my trepid way to the gate.

 

That was then. The airport was not a great architectural treasure as are the airports of Mumbai and Bengaluru today, both of which I have arrived and left at in the last few weeks. Grand and imposing though they are, the procedures within are a bit of a puzzle.

Two people in khaki uniforms demand to see your ticket or boarding pass and check it to see whether the name on these is the same as that on some document of self-identity. I proffer my passport and after a few seconds of checking, as with other passengers, pass through onto the airport concourse.
This makes sense. If the entourage that accompanied me on my first departure were allowed today, even the contemporary spacious concourses would be overcrowded and would certainly add to the strain of travel.

In this past month, after the Pakistani terror attack in Kashmir and the Indian Air Force’s retaliation, I was warned that the security check would be more thorough and could possibly take twice the time that it would normally take. It did. One was asked to remove belts, the watch and shoes. The queues were three times as long as in normal times. How a terror attack on an Army camp in Kashmir translated into extra alerts on passengers travelling by plane remains a mystery.
It’s universally accepted that these security checks deter people with bombs passing through them. At the other end, after explaining to the examining officer that one’s left knee has metal in it from a patella-tightening operation, one’s boarding card is stamped. Fair enough, but then another bod in uniform checks the stamp. Why? If I was a potential terrorist and had found some devious way of avoiding the security checks, I would make sure I had one of these stamps on my boarding card as well.

And then the major test on leaving the country: the immigration check. On the way into India, this is fair enough. The state wants to be sure that you have a legitimate visa — that you are not a person who is in some way undesirable or a danger to the country. The immigration officer performs some mysterious manoeuvres with one’s passport on the counter beneath eye-level. His camera checks the identity to compare it to features of known terrorists or wanted criminals on a national computer. Again, fair enough.

The mystery is why this procedure is repeated by immigration officials on leaving the country. What are they checking for? Absconding criminals or wanted persons? I suppose that’s sensible enough. If these checks were not in place Lalit Modi, Vijay Mallya and even Nirav Modi might have left the country.

In the UK, whose airports I use to escape, there are no such checks. It’s probably the British state’s policy of “good riddance to undesirable rubbish”. Even if they are criminals on the run, letting them leave saves the exchequer the cost of prosecuting them and keeping them in a jail at Her Majesty’s expense. Perhaps India has a stricter sense of earthly karma. Or perhaps it has to find ways of keeping large numbers of immigration officers passing their working days looking out for the likes of Vijay Mallya and Lalit and Nirav Modi.

Apart from the frustration of useless procedures, there is a linguistic quirk which Indian security has adopted. Above the conveyor belt taking your goods through the purdah of the security X-rays is a notice which says “Keep Your Laptop, etc in a Tray”. It should say “Put” instead of “Keep”. Okay, that’s no big deal — one understands. But it gets me thinking that the Hindi verb “rakhna” can translate as “keep” or as “put”. So “put the phone down” is translated in scripts that I read as “keep the phone down” and “put your plate in the sink” becomes “keep your plate in the sink”. Oh well.

After security at the boarding gates there are more hurdles. Before the airline officials tear your boarding card, two persons look at your passport and demand your boarding card. Why? More useless jobs for the boys and girls? Can the department which deploys these checkers tell me what they are doing and whether they have ever detected one person doing what they ought not to be doing?

Then you queue up to get onto the plane.

As the queue goes tediously through there are two more bods in some sort of soldierly uniform asking for your boarding pass just before you get to where the air hostess tells you which aisle to go down to take your seat. What are these bods doing? Ensuring for the eleventh time that you are boarding the right aircraft?

One knows that the security checks at the malls, hotels and railway stations of India are never in any sense thorough or remotely functional. A person passes a baton cursorily along your body and even when your left knee causes a squeak, they let you through.

They may as well perform a Punch and Judy show for entrants. Employment is all.

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