Ter­mi­nal ve­loc­ity

Ge­off His­cock tests the ef­fi­cient new Ban­ga­lore air­port, en­try point to In­dia’s Sil­i­con Val­ley

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

SIXTY years ago, In­dia’s first prime min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru called Ban­ga­lore the city of the fu­ture’’. Cer­tainly its meta­mor­pho­sis from sleepy South In­dia gar­ri­son town to a piv­otal role as the world’s back of­fice has been one of the defin­ing sto­ries in In­dia’s tran­si­tion to moder­nity.

But there has been a cost. The leafy pen­sion­ers’ par­adise of old, blessed with a cool cli­mate cour­tesy of its 900m alti­tude, has given way to a ram­bunc­tious, high­speed, high-priced city of seven mil­lion, its in­fra­struc­ture groan­ing at the seams.

Un­til the mid­dle of this year, nowhere was Ban­ga­lore’s short­com­ings more ob­vi­ous than the face it showed to vis­i­tors arriving at the old HAL (Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Ltd) air­port. What might have worked for a city of 1.5 mil­lion in 1970 failed dis­mally for the 21st cen­tury. A dodgy ter­mi­nal and long de­lays through im­mi­gra­tion and bag­gage col­lec­tion were topped off by a traf­fic melee out­side. HAL’s only sav­ing grace was a lo­ca­tion just 10km east of the city cen­tre.

That’s why the open­ing of a new in­ter­na­tional air­port at the end of May car­ried great ex­pec­ta­tions, even though its lo­ca­tion 40km north of Ban­ga­lore and 70km from the hi-tech action around Elec­tron­ics City, well to the south, brought grum­bles about a long com­mute.

Still, Ban­ga­lore’s new air­port de­liv­ers a bet­ter than ex­pected wel­come. It’s clean, com­pact, the aer­o­bridges work and there’s a hint of Hong Kong’s ter­mi­nal in its use of glass walk­ways. Arriving from Sin­ga­pore at 9.45 on a week­night, I breeze through im­mi­gra­tion, pick up my bag­gage and am in the back of a taxi within 45 min­utes. That’s a big step for­ward from the old HAL, when just get­ting out of its jam-packed car park could eas­ily take that much time.

One of the best things the new air­port au­thor­i­ties have done is to call tenders for a taxi ser­vice to and from the city. The two win­ners are Easy Cab and Meruh Cabs, which pro­vide an iden­ti­cal and trou­ble-free ser­vice: new air­con­di­tioned ve­hi­cles — Mahin­dra-Re­nault Lo­gans, which make a comfortable change from the over­worked Maruti, Tata, Am­bas­sador or Premier ve­hi­cles that con­sti­tute much of In­dia’s taxi fleet — lined up at the front of the ter­mi­nal plaza.

And th­ese driv­ers, new to the taxi game, don’t seem hell-bent on self-de­struc­tion. Their me­ters work, tick­ing over at 60 ru­pees ($1.65) for the first 4km, then 15 ru­pees a kilo­me­tre af­ter that. It’s still a lengthy com­mute, of course: 50 min­utes to my north­side ho­tel at night and about an hour each for two day­time trips. No such luck for south­side users: they are looking at 75-120 min­utes, de­pend­ing on traf­fic con­ges­tion.

The new air­port comes with a new name: Ben­galuru, which is closer to how the city’s Kan­nada-speak­ing cit­i­zens pro­nounce what the world has long known as Ban­ga­lore. Even­tu­ally, the switch will be of­fi­cial: the city voted to use Ben­galuru in 2005 but is await­ing fi­nal clear­ance from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Delhi. Mean­while, apart from the main English lan­guage news­pa­per, The Dec­can Chron­i­cle , every­one still uses Ban­ga­lore.

By 2012, Ban­ga­lore may well have a func­tion­ing rapid tran­sit sys­tem. But for now it’s just an an­noy­ing workin-progress. The chief ev­i­dence of the Namma Metro (‘‘our metro’’) is the noisy, dusty dis­lo­ca­tion to the city’s main thor­ough­fare and shop­ping street, Ma­hatma Gandhi Road, where construction is un­der way. There are some sub­ur­ban rail lines but most peo­ple use buses, pri­vate cars, taxis and auto-rick­shaws.

On a 2007 trip to Ban­ga­lore, my flight in from Delhi was full of soft­ware en­gi­neers and busi­ness con­sul­tants com­plain­ing about the high cost of vis­it­ing In­dia’s Sil­i­con Val­ley. The top Ban­ga­lore ho­tels were rou­tinely charg­ing more than $500 a night and even the very mod­est two-star place I stayed in was close to $200. Since then, a slow­ing global econ­omy and a sharp share mar­ket down­turn have taken the zing out of rack rates and a room at the deluxe Taj West End or the Leila Palace can be had for a more rea­son­able $220 to $270.

This time I take the ad­vice of Chris­tine McCabe, who wrote in Travel & In­dul­gence (July 5-6) about Villa Pot­ti­pati. It’s a 19th-cen­tury Ban­ga­lore man­sion that has been re­stored and con­verted into an eight-room inn by the Neem­rana Group. It makes a pleas­ant change from the usual ho­tel room; the am­bi­ence is homely, the food is good, the lo­ca­tion suits my busi­ness needs, there’s in­ter­net ac­cess and the tar­iff comes in at a pock­et­pleas­ing $80 a night. Note for the fu­ture: the Oberoi Group will open a 320-room ho­tel at the air­port by late 2009. Work on a high-speed rail link from the city cen­tre may start next year. Ge­off His­cock is the au­thor of In­dia’sS­toreWars: Re­tailRevo­lu­tio­n­andtheBat­tle­fortheNext500 Mil­lionShop­pers (John Wi­ley & Sons, $29.95). www.ben­galu­ru­air­port.com www.in­cred­i­blein­dia.org www.neem­ranaho­tels.com

Smooth en­try: Ar­rival hall of the new Ban­ga­lore air­port

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