India's overcrowded financial capital unveils its long-awaited $2 billion new airport terminal Friday, an ambitious, art-filled space that developers hope will be a showcase success in a country struggling to modernize inadequate infrastructure that is holding back economic growth.
Hemmed in by Mumbai's sprawling slums, the renovated Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport was delayed for nearly two years and overran its construction budget by 25 percent. The project was dogged by political disputes, regulatory snarls and difficulty reclaiming more than 300 acres of airport land near the runway occupied by tens of thousands of squatters.
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The Mumbai airport's developer and operator, a public-private venture led by India's GVK Group, is betting that passengers will find the result worth the wait for its sleek and airy design, abundant greenery and some 7,000 pieces of Indian art.
The art works make up the centerpiece of the terminal, embedded in a 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) -long internal wall that runs along the departure and arrival gates of the four-story building. The check-in facility has a gleaming white, 11-acre roof with dozens of skylights that resemble the plumage of a peacock, India's national bird. The 700,000-square-foot retail and gateway areas feature more than 1,000 lotus-flower-shaped chandeliers.
Aiming high, Mumbai International Airport has declared the facility will be "one of the best airports in the world that consistently delights the passengers."
For those accustomed to Mumbai's less-than-delightful current international terminal, where the main escalator to departures has been broken for months, the upgrade is likely to seem dramatic. The airport will shift all international carriers to the new terminal within a few weeks and hopes that most domestic airlines will operate from a lower level in the same building in about a year after it demolishes the current terminal and finishes the fourth leg of the new, X-shaped building.
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The difficulties of the project in India's largest city of 21 million people — an estimated 60 percent of whom live in its vast slums — have mirrored many of the problems the country faces in building the new roads, power plants and other projects necessary to ease chokepoints that have contributed to a sharp slowdown in economic growth.
"It's an absolute microcosm, representing practically every challenge facing development of Indian infrastructure," said Amber Dubey, an infrastructure expert for KPMG. Problems included a protracted political battle over moving a statue of the 17th-century Hindu warrior king after which the facility is named. The airport operator eventually agreed to install another statue and a museum to Shivaji nearby.