Escape from India

So, that’s almost it for my India travel blogging. I got back to Delhi, visited a few more tombs, the Ashokan Rock Edict and the second Ashokan Pillar, did a bit of gift shopping and accidentally ran into a demonstration for the establishment of Gorkhaland state. They don’t want an independent country. They just want part of West Bengal to be detached into a separate state within India. Can you imagine getting this worked up about local administration boundaries in the UK?

Gorkhaland protest in Delhi

At Indira Gandhi Airport, I thought I’d made it, and the insanity was over. Until I got held up by the most absurd piece of airport security nonsense I’ve ever encountered.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to whine about losing a jar of honey. The ‘no liquids’ rule is annoying, but at least it’s based on credible intelligence about liquid-based explosive plots, and is an effective hurdle to potential liquid-bombers. I challenge anyone to explain what the following achieves.

At Delhi airport, the outer entrances to the terminal building are guarded by armed CISF soldiers who will not let you in unless you can prove you are catching a plane by showing them a ticket. If, like 99% of travellers today, you have an e-ticket, you have to prove it by showing them a printout.

Open letter to the Head of Security at Delhi airport: You don’t have to take my word for it, to realise you’re an utter fucking imbecile. Why not arrange a meeting with representatives of the airlines operating out of your airport? Ask them to explain what an e-ticket is, and how it works. Ask them if passengers are required to bring printouts with them to check in to their flights. Ask them what they think of your moronicĀ  security plan.

If you haven’t got a printout of your e-ticket, it’s no use showing the guards your passport and quoting your flight details and booking reference at them, because they don’t have access to the database which is the only way to check the validity of an e-ticket. Instead, you have to go to the passenger waiting lounge information desk where you will be charged 30 rupees for a printout.

It may sound like the whole system is a way of swindling extra money out of the passengers, but what stops me concluding that is how shambolic the e-ticket printout desk was. Because it wasn’t an e-ticket printout desk. It was the passenger waiting lounge information desk. The five guys who manned it (because in India, a service will never be provided by one man when it can be provided by one man, and four more crowding around him watching) seemed totally unprepared for, and flustered by, the queue of people asking them to print out e-tickets. Even though this system has presumably been in place for years.

The girl in front of me was having issues. The staff had apparently found her e-ticket on the system, using her booking reference, but were telling her, “Sorry madam, your e-ticket doesn’t have your name on it,” and asking her to come around the counter to see for herself. She was starting to panic, her annoyance at a minor bureaucratic hurdle turning into fear that her entire flight booking was invalid.

I’d had enough experience of India by this point to know that the best way to navigate the jungle of incomprehensible Indian systems is to steam-roller straight through them.

“How do you know it’s her booking if it doesn’t have her name on it?” I asked them.

“Her name is on another page.”

“Can you print both pages?”

“Yes, but that’s another 30 rupees.”

“SO PRINT BOTH PAGES! SHE DOESN’T CARE ABOUT ANOTHER 30 RUPEES. SHE JUST NEEDS A PRINTOUT WITH HER NAME ON IT SO SHE CAN GO INTO THE TERMINAL! PRINT. BOTH. FUCKING. PAGES.”

They printed both pages, and when it was my turn, they stood back to let me use the computer myself, find my e-ticket and print it, without interference.

Now armed with a meaningless slip of paper, I was able to get through the outer security cordon into the airport terminal building, where I would have been free to commit terrorist atrocities if I’d been so inclined.

So, Indira Gandhi Airport security, tell me, what is the purpose of checking e-ticket printouts outside the terminal building? What are you checking? That someone can type their name, today’s date and a valid flight number into a word processor? Have your guards really memorised all the flight numbers departing that day? Even if they have, you do realise they’re listed on your own website? Do you realise how trivially easy it would be to fake an e-ticket printout? Without comparing it against a database – which is what the airlines are doing inside the terminal building which you’re blocking access to – a piece of printed paper tells you nothing.

Since passengers go through the full normal set of security checks and scans between the check-in area and the gates, this whole rigmarole isn’t necessary for protecting either the gate area or the flights, so you must be imagining it protects the check-in area itself from attack. But in what way does it possibly do that? There’s no patting down or checking of bags. If someone wanted to blow up the check-in area, you’re not stopping them: they’d simply need to remember, as part of their basic terrorist preparations, to book themselves on a flight, print out the e-ticket and bring it with them, along with their rucksack full of explosives which you’ll allow, unexamined, into the building. Except, if you’ll allow me to refer to the previous point, a wannabe terrorist wouldn’t even have to do that. They’d just mock up a fake e-ticket.

Most museums and archaeological sites, and even some shops, have more effective bag-checking security procedures than this.

My flight – Swiss air via Zurich – was delayed, but eventually I was in my seat, on the tarmac, waiting to take off. I wasn’t listening to the announcements properly, but one thing caught my ear which didn’t sound like the usual safety instructions. “Did they just say something about disinfecting the cabin,” I thought, “and covering my mouth and nose?” While I was still trying to work out if I had actually heard what I thought I had, the cabin staff appeared, and marched down the aisles, spraying disinfectant all over the plane and passengers.

Amazing. That’s what happens when the cleanest nation on Earth, the Swiss, encounter probably the dirtiest: India. “Yes, we’ll let you enter Switzerland, but only after you’ve been hosed down and deloused.” I’m surprised there wasn’t a giant antiseptic fountain outside, for the plane to fly through as it lifted off.

And that’s it. India trip over. Next: tallying up the final score.

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