Of Airport Cops & Aviation Safety

The most disgusting experience I have ever had with a policeman was at the Calcutta airport in 1988. After checking in, I was at the security area where the policeman frisked me, and then grinned at me with his stained teeth. “It is festival time, saar,” he said. I cringed at his subliminal suggestion. “So?” I asked in a curt manner. In Bengali, he whined: “Well, you know, no food has been eaten since morning.” The language lent itself to poetic handling of an otherwise base intent. I glared at the man and just walked past him.

Having been a frequent traveller, I have come across straightforward to circumspect begging by the police at Indian airports. Though the poetic policeman of Calcutta was my only direct experience, I have been a witness to other similar cases. In Delhi and Chennai, I have seen how Indian workers going abroad are often asked by frisking policemen to “leave some of their Indian currency behind”.

Everything changed when the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) took over airport security. From the time one enters the passenger terminal to the frisking zone, one now looks forward to the experience. These are men and women who look good in their uniform and seem to like their work. They greet you professionally, thank you for cooperating and wish you a good flight, all the while doing their task with precision and speed. I have seen them in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai.

I feel more secure because they are at work and each time I see them, I thank God for withdrawing a bunch of state policemen, who were putting people at risk with their unprofessional behaviour. They were not only soliciting tips, but were exposing the underbelly of aviation security. While one cannot condone the complicity of Pan Parag tin-yielding businessmen and small-time khadi brigade who obliged the begging cop, the bhaiya headed for the Middle East for a trucking job and the lungi-clad anna of Chennai going to Singapore to seek work were victims of petty extortion. So when the CISF personnel changed all that, I felt relieved that there is one less moment of truth in a society where pervasive corruption affects ordinary citizens.

Last month, I was taking a flight from Hyderabad. After a long day, I looked forward to the return flight to Bangalore and walked into the security area. A CISF poster engaged my attention for a brief moment. It seemed to promise prizes for something, but I didn’t care much and continued pushing my bag into the X-ray machine. I just wanted to board the plane and reach Bangalore. Then something happened.

A smartly-attired, pretty constable walked up to me and handed me an inland letter form. For a moment, I was foxed. “Sir, if you can take two minutes to fill this customer satisfaction form, please,” she said. Coming from the private sector, I did not take time to realise what the form was all about. The poster announcing the prizes now made sense. But this was the first time I had come across any security person, anywhere in the world, asking me to fill up a satisfaction survey form! Now, I was awake. Having learnt about quality and having done some work in that area, I am trained to make out a customer satisfaction survey which is a sham and one which has been thought through. A quick look at the form told me that these people know what they are doing and that they are serious in their intent. But an airport cop and a customer satisfaction form? I clung onto the form and promised her that I would mail it because my flight was getting to board. Rather than mail the form, here is my report to her:

Professionalism, the way you present yourselves, courtesy, and attitude: 5 on 5. Stay the way you are. We know you do a tough job. Except in times of avoidable excitement, much of it is routine for you. Your name-tags tell me that most of you live far away from home. You run a 24X7 operation. Yet, when I see a CISF man or woman in uniform at 2 a.m. in an Indian airport, I feel safe. I also feel good that the poetic cop of Bengal has now become a memory.

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