A quiet revolution in service delivery ?

As my final post for the month of July, I reproduce a touching example of the revolutionary change occurring within the aviation sector in India. Indian Airlines is 100% government owned, and has mended its ways thanks to the competition from private sector airlines. A similar revolution has already occurred at the state owned BSNL, who is competing head on with the private telecom providers, and all the state owned banks, who are competing with their private counterparts.

It is time the mandarins at Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan free NACIL (Air India and Indian Airlines) and the Airport Authority of India from their clutches. They will compete and effectively.

A quiet revolution in service delivery ?

31 Jul, 2008,
Arvind Panagariya,

The events preceding the recent trust vote in the Parliament — the chanting, the shouting, the waving of wads of cash, and the display of total contempt for the country’s highest office expressed in the hissing and heckling that forced the prime minister to table rather than deliver his speech — point to virtual chaos in governance. Daily reports of rapidly deteriorating law and order situation in our major cities reinforce this picture.

Yet, within the complex democracy that is India, this image masks some dramatic improvements under way. The entry of multiple private-sector players into areas that were previously monopolised or dominated by the government is bringing a quiet revolution in service delivery.

Traditionally, Indians seeking service have approached the man behind the desk with great apprehension: Should they plead with him? Should they consider bribing him? Perhaps an aggressive approach involving a physical threat would do the trick? Or may be they should find a “connection” to bring pressure from the top?

But thanks to freer private-sector entry, this tyranny of the man behind the desk is beginning to give way to a culture of service with smile. This realisation came to me during a recent visit to India that involved a lecture tour in four cities in as many days.

My first two stops — Hyderabad and Bangalore — brought me to dazzling new airports built to international standards. I had read much about the woes of the journey between each of these airports and the city they served. But less than one hour between Rajiv Gandhi International Airport and the heart of Hyderabad and approximately one hour and fifteen minutes between Bengaluru International Airport and the city centre of Bangalore seemed no worse to me than the time taken going from the JFK Airport to Manhattan or from Narita Airport to Tokyo.

My third stop was Chennai, which too was smooth. But my luck seemed to turn for the worse as I began my journey to Jaipur via Mumbai. Upon arrival at Chennai airport, I learned that my Jet Air flight to Mumbai had been discontinued a week earlier. With no contact number at hand, the airline had been unable to inform me of the change.

So I suddenly found myself at the mercy of the “man behind the (Jet Air) desk.” But much to my surprise and comfort, he booked me on an Indian Airlines flight that would bring me to Mumbai well in time to make the connection to my Jet Air flight to Jaipur. He got me the Indian Airlines boarding pass and also issued the boarding pass for Jet Air flight from Mumbai to Jaipur. All I had to do was wait.

As luck would have it, the Indian Airlines flight also got delayed. By the time I arrived in Mumbai, I was left with only 35 minutes to catch the flight to Jaipur. It looked hopeless: my checked bag was yet to come and I also needed to transfer from Terminal 1A to Terminal 1B. In desperation, I caught hold of the first ground staff I could spot. He turned out to be from Kingfisher.

The young man nevertheless walked me to the nearest Indian Airlines office. That office was meant to deal with lost baggage and not flight connections. Yet, the woman in charge immediately called Jet Air to alert them that I was on my way. Sadly, Jet Air responded in the negative: I was too late to make the connection.

But the woman urged me to pick up my luggage and rush to Terminal 1B anyway since flights can experience last minute delay. Thanks to the efficiency of luggage handlers at the airport, by the time I walked back to the luggage area, my bag had arrived. I loaded it on a cart and rushed to Terminal 1B. With multiple counters open, I could walk straight to one of them and display the boarding pass issued in Chennai. “The woman behind the desk” immediately called the staff at the gate and successfully persuaded it to let me in. Alongside, she had me run and get the luggage scanned, checked it in and asked an employee to rush me through the security and thence to the gate. To my sheer pleasure, I (and my luggage) arrived in Jaipur as planned.

It is unlikely that this episode could have occurred in the pre-liberalisation era. The happy outcome required swift movement of luggage from the plane to the arrival area and assistance of employees of an airline and a department that had no direct responsibility to me.

Sceptics would undoubtedly say that this episode relates to an industry in which only the well off benefit, with the common man continuing to suffer the same old fate. There are three responses to this argument. First, the process of improved service delivery must begin somewhere. We should not let the best be the enemy of good.

Second, ordinary folks are not as untouched from the pleasures of superior delivery as sceptics would have us believe. In Jaipur, my brother-in-law, a middle-class Indian, could scarcely stop talking about the excellent service he was experiencing at a new private-sector bank. In turn, his wife had stories of great service combined with low prices of fruits and vegetables at a recently opened supermarket. To these, I may add the dramatic benefits of improved and expanded telecommunications service benefiting virtually all.

Finally, it is only through demonstration in some sectors that we will bring pressure on service providers in other sectors (including public sector) to mend their ways. Already, public sector providers in banking, telecommunications and airlines have had to adjust their attitudes under competition from their private sector rivals. Under the able leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav, even railways, a public monopoly, has become customer friendly. And the day may not be far when providers of electricity, water, education, health and even law and order will feel the heat.

(The author is a professor at Columbia and Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.)

Source : The Economic Times

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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