Monday, June 21, 2010
Back to chaos
I returned yesterday after a week spent in Zurich, which, for good reason, is regularly ranked as one of the world's best cities in quality of life surveys. I was rushing about from morning to night each day, but never felt as exhausted as I did within half an hour of stepping back in Bombay. That was partly because of the hometown's hot embrace, its noise and crowds. Mostly, though, it was because of its dysfunctional systems. In the past, obstacles to progress used to make themselves apparent right after one stepped out of the plane. Now, immigration and customs are painless, but the nasty stuff starts outside the airport.
To begin with, there's no public transport option. The taximen's union will ensure it stays that way. To prevent taxis from cheating customers, the administration has set up a system of pre-paying the fare, which means you end up shelling out in advance the amount the driver would have extracted from you on top of the meter fare.
There's a long line for booking a cab, after which you go out and hunt for the vehicle carrying the license plate number listed on your bill. Quite often, you don't find it, because the driver's left or the cab's hiding in some inaccessible corner, in which case you have to go back and stand in line again for another number.
Luckily I found my guy easily, but two minutes into the ride he stopped and crossed the road to stand in another line, some kind of police verification procedure. Beggars have found this an opportune spot to harry passengers. Soon after the driver returned, we encountered that other Bombay specialty, the 11pm traffic jam.
I can see the objections starting to form. Switzerland has fewer people than Bombay. Its banks use secrecy laws to make money from corrupt government officials in nations like India. Oh, and it gave women the vote after we did. None of this alters the shock of going from one of the world's most livable cities to one of its least habitable.
Update, 22 June: Today, taxis are on strike. Will be fun for tourists flying in to Bombay late at night: no train, no bus, no cab, no rickshaw.