In Mumbai

Landed in Mumbai a couple of days ago. Sahar airport has improved quite a bit in the last 2 years that I have been flying into Mumbai. It is far from the kind of airport that one would expect the financial center of India to have, but I think the airport authorities are doing a good job with what they have. The immigration lines are now well managed. Baggage claim has more capacity and the baggage carts are new and improved.

The line for customs in the green channel, used to be a big problem. It was long of course, but it was the third long wait after immigration and baggage claim. One  of the reasons was that everybody carrying a laptop would be pulled out. You’d have to produce a letter from your employer that I guess certified that you weren’t smuggling laptops into the country. All that is history. All this would slow down the lines further. But this no longer happens – either the rules have been changed or the duties are too low and there isn’t any opportunity to make money by smuggling them in.

That’s one reason. The other one is more interesting. Next to the customs check line – which is basically a line to a giant X-Ray machine which screens all your bags – an official is pulling people out of the line and letting them past the X-Ray machine without screening. To a casual observer, it is very clear that in picking the lucky people who don’t have to get their bags screened some serious racial profiling is going on. Anyone who does not look Indian, is unlikely to be smuggling anything into India, so they let them go without screening. Sometimes they will also let through Indians who look prosperous enough to not need any side income by smuggling contraband (I guess you’d call this social class profiling). I am never mistaken for one of these. After a 36 hour journey I typically look like something the cat brought in.

I don’t know what you feel about it, but I’m cool with this racial profiling thing. Checking everyone’s passport to determine nationality is too cumbersome and anyway formalizes a procedure based upon an assumption that only Indian looking people will smuggle contraband into the country. Which will create opportunities for smugglers (do they still exist? What do they smuggle, I wonder?) to hire foreign nationals as couriers. Some randomness in the profiling procedure increases the risk of getting caught which I suppose would be a deterrent. On the other hand by being racially biased in their selection, the customs officials are following the best Indian traditions of atithi satkar. Plus they are reducing the wait times for the unwashed brown-skinned masses. I can live with that.

After clearing customs I go to the SBI forex counter to get some rupees. I think the guy tried to short change me. Here’s what happened. I give him the dollars I wanted converted. He hands me the rupees. I count. They come up short per my calculations. I look around and see his monitor which is angled away from me and has a whole bunch of numbers on it. The total is there but without any highlighting (unlike say how it would be shown in a grocery store in the US). I tell the cashier that it’s short Rs. 30. He counts the money again and adds the Rs. 30 to it. Then, and only then, does he ask for my passport and print the receipt.

It could have been a mistake, but I think if I had taken the money the first time and walked, he wouldn’t have given me the receipt at all. The receipt is an easy way for someone to verify the money they have received.

I’m here in the middle of the monsoon which in Mumbai is awesome to behold. There was a rain storm the night I landed. I’d forgotten what it can be like. Long commutes to work in Mumbai get longer in the monsoon. I am glad that we are in Malad. Many of our employees live close by – close enough to go home for lunch. It makes for a better quality of life.


  1. Shefaly says:

    And when you come out of international arrivals in Bombay, there is only ONE cash machine, an ICICI Bank machine. If that is out of order, and if you happen to carry Scottish or Irish notes, which SBI in all its underinformed glory does not exchange, you can walk to domestic or wherever else you are going, because the only cash machine is rubbished out.

    Not good enough I am afraid.

    If this is Bombay airport, what does any small town airport, say Lucknow or Patna, will look like? Any wonder then the trickle rate of investment to B- and C-towns is so slow?


  2. I think they need to have a suggestion box out there and your inputs such as these need to be provided to the concerned officials. Else, things wouldn’t improve.

    BTW,as you are in India, do check out a book called
    Games Indians Play: Why We Are the Way We Are by V. Raghunathan ( IIM Prof). Beautifully explains a lot of things happening in India through some neat concepts of microeconomics. You’ll like it!
    Here is a link:


  3. Shefaly says:

    That will be the day when I understand anything that Professor Raghunathan says… he used to teach us at IIMA 😎


  4. Mohan says:

    “But this no longer happens – either the rules have been changed or the duties are too low and there isn’t any opportunity to make money by smuggling them in.”

    Rules have changed. Every traveler is allowed to bring one lap top, duty free.

    “an official is pulling people out of the line and letting them past the X-Ray machine without screening.”

    I don’t know how it is done in Mumbai, but in Bangalore someone makes a mark with a piece of chalk before it comes on baggage belt. I guess they put it through a scanner and look for commonly “smuggled” goods like camcorder etc. When you walk past the customs, the officer looks for this mark on your bag (in a discrete way) and lets those with no mark go without screening. So it is the bags that are racially profiled, not the passengers 🙂


  5. Siddharth says:

    And at Delhi airport, the chalk mark has been replaced with another profiler. The luggage sticker put by the airline is removed by the airport staff. I guess people might have started erasing the chalk, but it is not as easy to replace the sticker!


  6. Basab says:

    I haven’t flown into Bangalore airport in the last 2 years, but before that in-coming cabin baggage was being X-Rayed separately. As you point out, Mohan, the checked bags would emerge with a white chalk mark on them (or not). I assume there were separate X-Ray machines for checked bags and carry-on because there wasn’t enough room for a large machine for both in the green channel area.

    Since carry on bags being X-Rayed is closely associated with security checks, the casual observer might wonder as to why the Indian authorities were worried about what passengers were carrying OFF the plane. Not knowing that this was not security but customs check and was important because it impacted both the nation’s customs earnings as well as the airport customs officials’.


  7. Shefaly says:

    “..the casual observer might wonder as to why the Indian authorities were worried about what passengers were carrying OFF the plane.”

    Oh you mean the casual observer who may not have visited the US and therefore not known what beasts they can be about what you bring OFF the plane? 🙂


  8. Saumitri says:

    Potshots against India is common, but there are good sides too.

    Atleast Indian airport security doesn’t strip you till your shoes (and yet make you go through scanners) everytime you need to board an aircraft, domestic or otherwise, as the American airports do.

    And then, everytime I have landed in Baltimore, all my Indian sub-continent co-passengers and I have been retained for over 15 mins (some for 45 mins) and asked the same questions over and over again, while all the others were allowed to go through in less than a min, irrespective of the country they had a passport from. So paranoid is America of immigration and terrorism.

    On the other hand, people have immigrated to India for ages and still do from our neighboring countries. Terrorism is something we deal with everyday. Yet, we still deal with it without paranoia, and don’t discriminate as blatantly as they do in the US.

    And as far as shortchanging is concerned, if we were willing to pay the services industry their due commission in India, I guess the motivation to short-change would have been missing. But then, while the Japanese taxi driver in San Francisco decided to “voluntarily” keep $7 as a tip for a $40 ride and smile at me to inform me that I shouldn’t object to it (which i did), I see no reason why this basic human instinct of “cheating” should be so indignantly opposed by Indians in India, just because its not called a “tip” or “commission” and therefore not made sufficiently dignified.

    My experience has been that human instincts are same everywhere – just that our economic situation is yet not as dignified where we can cook up dignified methods of cheating. Once we become sufficiently dignified economically, we will obviously adopt the more dignified cheating methods employed in the US and other places.


  9. Basab says:

    US airport security is now so tedious that I’d rather visit the dentist. NYC to Boston, which I do often, the train is a more pleasant experience and door-to-door about the same. What we need is faster trains and video-conferencing.

    Saumitri, I try to be even-handed in my evaluation, when I do it. The first part of my post is actually complimentary to what Mumbai airport has done. But since this post wasn’t an examination of honesty around the world, just a description of my experience at the airport, I can’t be faulted for not looking at dishonesty around the world.


  10. ravi says:

    Adding fuel to the fire, what about american corporations ripping you off by sending you unwanted subscriptions and then billing you, if you don’t opt out ..and then sending a collection agency to threaten you with messing up your credit history?

    Or mysteriously jacking up ypur credit card rates ?

    As Saumitri says, US corporations are master’s at putting a spin on something which is patently unethical and unfair..

    So just blaming Indians isn’t fair. Its the same all over the world !


  11. Shefaly says:

    Actually as far as I can see, only *I* said anything which can be considered remotely ‘derogatory’ (by thin-skinned folks I may add) about Bombay airport. If one were to arrive at a time, when the counters were not open and were to be stuck without any money, I do not think any love for India could be elicited from that person in such a situation.

    As for comparisons with other airports, my ‘home’ airport is Heathrow. Enough said! To me, it does not matter what others do. ‘My neighbour beats my wife’ is never an excuse for beating your own wife!

    Striving for excellence – whether as an individual or as a country – is a solitary journey where one must only compare with oneself, and where one must, to follow that old adage, ‘charaiveti, charaiveti’…

    And yes, infrastructurally, India still has a long way to go. Airports are just one part of the story.


  12. Saumitri says:

    Basab, my comment isn’t intended to negate your experience. It was intended as a counterpoint, since I know a lot of people read this blog. So both impressions have their place, which is why I like the medium of a blog.

    Shefaly, your articulation is contradictory. You talk about “the casual observer who may not have visited the US and therefore not known” and then talk about “striving for excellence…a solitary journey where one must only compare with oneself…”. Ofcourse, I wholeheartedly agree with your latter articulation of comparison with oneself while striving for excellence.

    We must realize that though India’s move towards excellence in areas such as infrastructure may not be as fast as, for example, China’s, the reason is that things happen in democracy rather slowly and by consensus. This is the price you have to pay for democracy. The question is whether we want to give up on our democratic institutions and STABLE growth – be the turtle or the hare.

    Ofcourse, if you have got used to good service, the service at Mumbai airport may seem cumbersome right now. But the service culture is catching on in India and soon you will not have to wait at the counters – the only question then will be whether you are willing to shell out the commission money for the same. As of now, we don’t get good service in India because we don’t value service and often assume it to come for free – a carryover from our enslaved past where the British and their babus got free service from their slaves.


  13. Shefaly says:

    Saumitri, the remark about the casual observer was made in jest and hence the smiley emoticon. Humour, especially irony, clearly does not transmit well on the Internet…


  14. Shefaly says:

    And for a moment of schadenfreude, here for your reading pleasure is a scathing post of woes at Heathrow:


  15. Anuradha says:

    Train travel, wherever possible is definitely a more welcome experience than Air travel. I recently wrote a piece on Rail Vs Air travel in India



  16. Shefaly says:

    The caveat being ‘where possible’. In small countries trains are a viable option; in India, less so. Bangalore-Delhi by train is between 36-42 hours, by flight just 3 hours incl time to and fro airports. I once had the good fortune of taking the train from Bangalore to Delhi. Needless to say the return journey was made my flight, forfeting the train ticket monies…


  17. raj says:

    Basab, in mumbai, if you are travelling with only 1 bag and 1 carry on – you dont even need to put it through the scanner.. you walk right through. Only if you carry more than one bag, you put it through the scanner – go figure..


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