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