Sri Lanka’s infrastructure; a tale of two cities

May 18, 2010 (LBO) – Coming from Brasilia to waterlogged Colombo was a shock. Brazil is still not a developed economy, but its capital, Brasilia, definitely does not belong to the developing world. Fifty years ago, a visionary president and architect willed this planned city into being in the Brazilian interior.

It looks futuristic even now; must have been stunning back then.

It has faults. I am sure it is by far the least pedestrian friendly capital in the world. Cars zoom by on wide boulevards that dwarf human beings trying to get across them. Actually the entire design makes humans seem inconsequential. And the lack of commercial hoardings, to my surprise, made the place sterile and soulless. Never thought would come the day I would hanker for hoardings!

15 minutes to the airport

Brasilia’s international airport is a fair distance from the city, but with the optimized-for-cars highway system (clover leafs, overpasses, underpasses, no traffic lights), it took only 15 minutes to get to it from the city center in the afternoon. To cover the 30 km from Colombo to the airport takes 45 minutes even in the middle of the night.

When it rains, when VIPs travel, when a pig stands in the middle of the road much much longer (all these are true; have happened to me). Even on a good day, the Colombo Katunayake Road is a miserable introduction to a country that seeks to be the wonder of Asia; but on rainy days it ceases to be a road and emulates the Hamilton Canal.

The only Sri Lankan road that comes close to meeting Brasilia standards is Baseline Road, but that is beside the point.

So what does one talk about when crawling through traffic and reservoirs on a rainy day on the road from the airport? How terrible it is that it rains so much. How all the drains are clogged by polythene. How the people clog the drains and are thus to blame, or the authorities fail to clear them, and are thus bad. Same conversation, year after year. No improvement. Perhaps even a deterioration caused by more drains being clogged by polythene bags the government has prohibited.

One hour plus for bags

As a frequent user, I had come to appreciate our airport. The immigration officials are efficient if you can find the right line; the bags arrive more or less at the same time one makes one’s way downstairs; and there is now a green line for travelers with nothing to declare. Much better than anything on the subcontinent, except perhaps the new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad. That’s what I used to say.

But no longer. Not when it rains. Not when five flight land within minutes of each other. Not when the volumes increase. Not when VIPs go through.

On the way back from Brasilia, one hour plus had to be spent, listening to earnest statements about delays caused by “operational reasons” (what is a non-operational reason? “The staff have gone mad and dumped all the bags in the lagoon” or “we just don’t feel like it”?) and rain. According to one official, they were actually doing us a favor by preventing our bags from getting wet (except the rain had ceased before the plane landed). I used to hear this kind of talk in the bad old Air Lanka days, when the staff specialized in giving excuses in the most charming of ways.

Airport gridlock

Once upon a time, there used to be a taxi booth one could go to inside the arrivals hall. One could get an air-conditioned cab to get to Colombo, routinely, like in any civilized airport, including Indian airports. But that was discontinued at the behest of the late Mr Fernandopulle within whose fief the airport happened to be.

So those who do not wish to travel sweatily in a van designed to carry refrigerators to Kalmunai and driven by a driver complaining he has been deprived of a lucrative long-distance trip had only two options: pretend to be a tourist or get a car sent from Colombo. The former requires gumption and inside knowledge. The latter option causes serious traffic congestion at the terminal.

Also once upon a time, there used to be policemen who sought to keep traffic lanes clear and ensure that no one waited for passengers in the pickup zone. No more, alas. Why I do not know. So calling a car from the parking lot and actually getting out in less than 30 minutes has become a heroic exercise.

And so it goes. Slowly but surely, the airport experience in Sri Lanka is declining. VIPs do not experience this, going through special lounges and people falling over themselves to please. Tiran Alles, in whose watch the taxi counter was removed, was asked about the taxis. He said no problem existed.

Yes, there are coffee shops and there is an Odel, but what use are these if one needs one hour to check in and the bags take ages to be downloaded? Soon we’ll be comparing the Colombo airport with that of Dhaka. And finding it wanting.

Cause and effect

All the above problems are manifestations of failures of infrastructure: failures of building enough and failures of maintenance. They are avoidable, if one thinks ahead and acts.

The Mahinda Chintana Idiri Dekma envisages a quintupling of tourist arrivals a year, from less than half a million now to 2.5 million by 2016. Even if some of them come through Galle, the tourist port-to-be, and the Mattala Airport-to-be, it is not unreasonable to expect a doubling or even tripling of volumes through Colombo’s airport. And given the high rate of out-migration by citizens and the continuation of labor exports, it is also not unreasonable to expect heavier loads of locals through Colombo’s airport.

So, if the airport in its current form (last expanded in 2004) is running at capacity and unable to handle five incoming flights simultaneously, what would a government intent on achieving the 2.5 million target in six years do? Reform the management of the airport forthwith and start building the extra capacity and systems immediately.

It would conceptualize the process of getting a human being in and out of an aircraft as chain with multiple links, its efficacy being determined by the weakest link. It would analyze the links in the chain, such as security and immigration clearance to make sure peak-hour throughput can be maintained by dynamic allocation of human resources (i.e., increase the number of immigration counters when an A380 lands, as envisaged by the Chintana).

It would do simple things like creating city check-in counters whereby more passengers will use rapid transit (or at least buses), without clogging up the road and the airport premises with cars. It will do complex things like building a rapid transit line and completing the Colombo-Katunayake expressway.

It would set measurable performance targets and publish the targets and their achievements. It will invite respected international airport assessing bodies to rank Colombo, as Hyderabad has already done, building in assessment ranks into service contracts and tied to incentive payments.

While these grand things are being planned and executed, it would also do some short-term actions such as better managing the traffic at the arrival and departure areas and making sure enough staff are deployed to support the existing five baggage belts. And these staff will be trained not to spout inanities such as “operational reasons.” Taxi counters will be reinstated and the dysfunctional van monopoly will be broken.

These things have been done in places like Brasilia. They are being done in places like New Delhi, where the airport in now managed privately and the promise is that it will be possible to get from city center to airport in less than 30 minutes by year end 2010. If we can’t do that by 2016 at least, we might as well stop talking about tourism.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.