CHENNAI: Chithra Vijayakumar, travelling between Bengaluru and her hometown Chennai, would choose the flight over a train or a bus any day. It’s quicker, the prices often work out to be cheap, and there are clean toilets everywhere. There’s only one irritant: she does not know Hindi. While Hindi-speaking folks may not find anything amiss in their airport experience, security checks for Chithra at the Chennai airport (even the Bengaluru one, for that matter) often goes like this:
CISF personnel: Madam, ***** *** **** **** (patting her down)
Chithra: No, that’s just my lip balm in my pocket...see?
CISF personnel: **** ***** **** ***** (evidently angrily)
Chithra: Can I go? CISF personnel: ****** *** ***** **** (still irritated, gesturing for her to get out of the booth) Chithra is one of the lucky ones, her trouble having started only at the security check. Some don’t make it past the gate. For Janani D Rogger, getting into the airport without being questioned in Hindi has been a rarity. The last time she flew, it happened all over again.
“The photo in my ID is from a few years ago and I looked slightly different in-person. I was stopped by security personnel who spoke only Hindi. He asked me a question in Hindi; I still don’t know what it was. He seemed to understand English but refused to reply in the same language. Then, he made me stand aside and looked like he was going to call for somebody.
But after a few minutes of waiting, he just let me go in,” she narrates. Travelling alone for business to Delhi, it felt like a punishment, she says. This is the airport story of an average non-Hindi-speaking Indian. While English comes to the rescue of a section of travellers (even though its success is heavily dependent on how receptive the CISF personnel at hand is), not everyone comes from such privilege. The absence of local languages in on-ground processes and in-flight services severely limits the average Tamil person’s (or a Malayalee or a Kannadiga) ability to make it through the journey, let alone do it solo.
Minding their language
Nalini* has only ever had to travel with her husband and two sons. Yet, that does not save her from having to go through the security check alone. A process that always has her on the edge resulted in a full-blown breakdown one day. The Hindi-speaking guard at the desk only wanted her to put her handbag in a separate tray. Only, she did not understand that.
No personnel there could deign to explain it in a language she knew — Tamil or Malayalam. Then, there are people like Elangovan* who comes with just a smattering of English that is incomprehensible to almost everyone but with the kind of confidence that keeps him from ever realising that he isn’t communicating well. This can be a dangerous combination at an airport where constant vigilance and high alert — designed to keep trouble at bay — often works against the common man.
“He frequently gets into fights, unnecessarily, with the security guards. He wouldn’t understand what they ask of him; he’d assume something from the word or two he catches. He’d try to reply in English but would only confuse the guard further. After a couple of these exchanges, he’d get irritated and switch to full Tamil. Even with us, his tone is confrontational; it’s more so when he thinks the guard is ‘dumb’. Imagine a tall, dark man muttering angrily in Tamil when stopped for a security check....it’s not easy to get out of that. Once, he was almost stopped from boarding the plane.
I’m glad he will never have to travel alone,” shares Paari*, Elangovan’s son. This problem only gets worse for people with disabilities, says Rajiv Rajan, disability law, policy and accessibility consultant. “At the airport, officials expect people like me to get up from the wheelchair for security checks. If I can get up, why do I need a wheelchair?” he recounts, adding that not being able to communicate with them in a language he knows only adds to the problem. This means many people with disabilities need an escort. While this problem is prevalent everywhere, it gets a tad bit worse at the airport, he says.
An unequal lingo
This gap between the ones paying for a service and the ones facilitating it is almost never acknowledged; even when it’s so commonplace. You do not hear about a Janani or Nalini in the news. It takes more disturbing accounts — like a Lok Sabha MP being asked if she was even Indian if she didn’t know Hindi by a CISF official or a National Award-winning movie director being branded a ‘terrorist’ because he said Hindi was not his mother tongue — for the country and its leaders to wake up to the problem.
Even then, the discourse takes the very muddied path of nationalism and language pride instead of the pressing concerns of convenience, utility and, ultimately, the right to life. “There’s a person who doesn’t understand English or Hindi, doesn’t mean they have no right to travel. Frontline workers in any place should know the local language also. It’s not just a language issue; it’s much more than that. It’s a matter of security to life and right to life that we are talking about,” suggests Lok Sabha MP Kanimozhi. Looking past the concerns of security, the absence of local languages renders all communication related to in-flight safety meaningless, points out Thirumurugan Gandhi, human rights activist and founder of the May 17 Movement.
“In-flight announcements are all related to safety. It’s critical information that prepares the passenger for emergencies. This education should be made accessible for the consumer — the possible victim. Yet, if this information is relayed in a language I do not understand, it’s useless. Who is it for then? Here, then, language becomes a tool of discrimination.
There’s neither usability nor equality in bringing in a language of denying it. The question is, does a Tamil-speaking passenger have the space to prepare himself for an emergency? And who is responsible for the failure to educate him,” he questions. It’s common practice to ask the person seated by the emergency exit to move to a different seat if he/she does not know English or Hindi. Reports from the recent flight crash in Kozhikode, Kerala, suggest that had the passengers been instructed in the local language, it could have gone a long way in preparing them for such an emergency, says Kanimozhi. “When you look at the consumer rights point of view, I’m paying money equal to a consumer from the Hindi- speaking states.
Then, why should I be deprived of certain services? So you are depriving me of information that is critical to protect my life in an emergency, despite me paying the charges you prescribe. There is discrimination here right?” asks Thirumurugan. While many flights announce that they have onboard attendants who know languages other than English and Hindi, it hardly ever comes in handy, says Kanimozhi.
“I travel regularly and it’s a rare occasion where I hear someone say a flight attendant can speak a local language. Even then, I would never be able to communicate with them,” she explains. “The whole idea that everybody has to speak Hindi and ‘India is Hindi and Hindi is India’ — that is where this problem stems from. We have to understand that people speaking different languages are still a part of India and have a right to India. Just because Hindi is one of the official languages, it doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t address the problems that people face day-to-day,” she offers.
The answers seem pretty straightforward — making on-ground and inflight instructions available in at least two-three local languages. Several countries and airlines already have this practice in place, notes Kanimozhi. “If you take Singapore Airlines or Sri Lankan Airlines, they have announcements in Malay, Mandarin, English and Tamil. Why is it difficult for Indian flights to do that? You can include the language of the state the flight takes off in and the one it’s going to land in,” she says. Thirumurugan says this feature is made available even for hour-long flights in the European Union.
“If you take an airport on the German side of Switzerland, the announcements are available in German too. On the other side, they offer French as an additional language. A flight to Spain would include instructions in Spanish. Emirates even has the food menu in Tamil. Here, language is the user’s communication tool. So, what problem is there in offering Tamil in airports and flights in Tamil Nadu? All airlines have in-flight staff from across the country. It’s just a matter of appointing the staff in the regions they are recruited from (or whose language they are familiar with).
When such staff are not available, you can make instructions available in video format across the flight. The same would work for CISF personnel too,” he elaborates. When posting Hindi-speaking officials here, they can be trained in the local language. We don’t need them to be fluent in the language; it would suffice if they can manage the SOP (standard operating procedure) in the local language,” he suggests. At a time when you get American websites and Chinese apps in the language of your choice, this industry has failed to keep up with the modernisation, he adds. Rajiv points out that this also speaks of a lack of sensitivity and awareness.
This insensitivity is directed to the people in general, and more so to people with disabilities, he adds. Addressing this concern, Anil Pandey, chief public relations officer for the Central Industrial Security Force, says all staff get a 10-15 day training on behavioural aspects, local information and awareness, and communication basics; refresher courses are also available. All this is what they do to ensure their staff do their job well, he says. With the larger problem of availability of local language-speaking personnel, he assures that it is embedded in their policy.
“It is an all-India post and we have people from all corners of India. We try as much as possible to ensure that local people — with knowledge of the local language — are also deployed. But there are practical problems involved because we have to keep them on a rotation between our services. We can’t deploy 100 per cent of the staff as people who know the local language. We just try our best to meet out the requirements of the passengers and support their concerns,” he explains.
While what MP Kanimozhi faced was just one example from the entire country, CISF does its best to deal with passengers all over to the best of their abilities, promises Anil. “We offer the best possible care we can extend to passengers,” he adds. Placing the onus of reform on governments and airlines alike, Kanimozhi suggests that it is important to see this as a matter of inclusivity, acknowledge the diversity at hand and learn to accept it. This the least we can do to make a paying customer’s travel as pleasant as it’s touted to be.
Twitter erupted into a frenzy after MP Kanimozhi wrote about being asked if she was Indian after she asked the CISF personnel to speak in English. While all that rage died down a little after CISF announced an inquiry into the issue, it kicked up again when Vetrimaran’s interview, detailing his experience at the Delhi airport, came out. That these incidents surfaced even as many held mixed views about the National Education Policy’s insistence on a threelanguage system only escalated things further. Soon enough, this sentiment took the form of graphic T-shirts after music director Yuvan Sankar Raja and actor Shirish Saravanan released a picture of them sporting shirts that read I am a Tamil pesum Indian. This and the slogan Hindi theriyathu poda have been trending over the past few days.