Once upon a time, G.R. Gopinath had a great idea. He felt that as the people of India got richer, many were looking beyond the next bus, watching the flying machines in the sky and dreaming of soaring. But their ideas of the right cost were still stuck in the railway age; they could not bring themselves to splurge over a mere two-hour picnic in the sky. So he cut out the food in flight, cut down bags to one each, and offered flights at costs comparable to the railways’. He got people queueing up to take his flights. He was in clover. But it did not last long. His rich neighbour saw his success, and made him an offer that he could not refuse. His airline was swallowed up by Vijay Mallya’s empire. Now the rise in the price of aviation turbine fuel has put a cat amongst the flying pigeons. It is not yet certain which of them will be eaten, but low-cost airlines’ profits are falling from low to below zero.
That is when Captain Gopinath had a new brainwave: he wants to start a freight airline. Freight is better behaved than a human. Freight will not earn him nearly as much per pound as the next fat man. On the other hand, fish will not mind being packed like sardines, and mangoes will not need to be fed. Mangoes may go bad; so do half of the Alfonsos sent in rickety trucks from Goa to Calcutta. That is where the Captain hopes to cash in: by bringing table-fresh Alfonsos to Calcuttans and taking fresh-from-Hooghly fish back to Goa — although the Goans would probably prefer their pomfrets. If it is a great business, it is worth asking why no one thought of it before. Part of the answer is that freight is being transported on passenger planes. All the long-distance mail is being carried on Indian planes — a cosy little monopoly the government airline has — and packages are being carried on other planes along with their couriers. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. So many things are carried on planes abroad which are securely ground-borne in this country. Airlines abroad refuse to give seats to dogs and cats, so all the pets have to travel as freight. The trouble is that in this country, no one keeps a pet, except a stray child nurturing a cockroach. They prefer to pet their Blueberries, and to fondle their walkmen.
It will be difficult for the Captain to persuade Indians to love live pets. But there must be many goods that get spoilt in the long and hot journeys across India, or whose cost is raised by the imposts at the innumerable checkposts and octroi barriers. If the Captain collects just half of the bribes being paid en route, he should be in clover.