Symbol of Progress [Metro Rail of New Delhi]

Dinesh Wagle
Walge Street Journal
[This article originally appeared on today’s Kathmandu Post. Nepali version appeared in today’s Kantipur. Click here to read as it appeared on the page of Kathmandu Post and click here to see as it appeared on Kantipur page.]

Metro rail of new delhi
Inside the Metro rail of New Delhi. Pic by DW

Two reasons prompted me to take a ride on New Delhi’s Metro train this month. First, it was one of the easiest means of transportation from Dwarka to Central Secretariat from where I could take a bus to Jangpura Extension where I live. Second, I wanted to see the famed Metro that has been widely described as one of the world’s best city transportation facilities. No doubt, the coolest train system of Delhi is also one of the top tourist attractions in the Indian capital. While travelling about 30 kilometres of distance I not only enjoyed the aura of the fancy compartments but also got to see the city from the height of a three-storey building. The elevated train track runs over the road where ever growing number of vehicles fight for the road space and get stuck in red signals. Up in the air-conditioned metro compartments passengers don’t face traffic jams. Instead they are treated with a good view of the cityscape.

A train arrives at the station every four minutes which means people can actually believe the time on their watches. There is no infamous India Stretchable Time (or IST, the Indian counterpart of ‘Nepali Time’ according to which everything is late by at least half an hour) in the Metro. The ticket system is largely automated. Pay the fare at the counter for your destination, get a token, swipe it at the Ticket Gate to open the doors, go to the platform and wait for the train. When it comes, enter. The whole process seemed so easy and orderly that I was urged to compare it with Microsoft Windows. Just as dummies with no real knowledge of computer can open MS Word files and type a letter (unlike during the DOS days), people with no prior experience of trains can board into Metros and travel.

It was not really like that when the Metro was inaugurated six years ago in Delhi. While naming Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, the man behind the Delhi Metro, one of its Asian Heroes, Time Magazine in 2003 described the first day of operation for the sleek rail service in December 2002 as ‘chaotic’. More than a million people showed up to ride the South Korean-made trains, and they urinated on platforms, pushed emergency-stop buttons for a lark and filched 30,000 train tokens. That prompted the Metro authorities to run local-radio ads laying out the rules. “No drunkenness,” they intoned, “no abusive language, no milk cans and pets allowed. No tampering with switches and gadgets.”

Today, as I mentioned earlier, all that feels like the story of another era. The order has been restored though there are still problems and an initiation was announced earlier this month to instil civic sense in the Metro. Citizen’s Volunteer Forum was created to tame undisciplined commuters and check nuisances. “The volunteers would be self-driven, there is no financial incentive — they will act as wardens and look into various issues such as providing seats to women and the elderly, prevent squatting and playing loud music — basically ensure more discipline and curb nuisance,” said Anuj Dayal, spokesperson of the Metro. The Metro invited applications from interested citizens and the response was overwhelming. It seemed everyone wanted to volunteer.

“[Metro] has changed the lifestyle of the people, how they travel,” said Sreedharan in an interview. “It is changing the social attitude, people have become more disciplined. They have started respecting a public asset.”

For many in Nepal who haven’t been exposed to a Western-style city transportation system, the Metro in Delhi offers a huge culture shock. We don’t have trains in Nepal except a relic that snails between our Janakpur and India’s Jaynagar. Even in India, which has the world’s largest rail network, Metro is an entirely new and cool concept. Not only is it beautiful and clean but the whole travelling experience is efficient, easy, cheap and to a large extent quick. The beautiful appearance of the trains, lavish stations with organized information system and the track that goes under and above the ground makes the Metro one of the most prominent landmarks of Delhi.

The Metro runs in three routes covering the combined distance of 68 kilometres and goes through places like Central Secretariat, our equivalent of Singha Durbar where India’s key governmental offices are located, Chandani Chowk, the heart of Old Delhi, Delhi University and Dwarka, a city within the city of Delhi that is divided into several sectors. The Metro completed six years of operations Wednesday and the average number of commuters now stands at 729,000 every day according to Dayal. It recorded its highest single-day ridership of 951,000 on November 24, 2008. The first 8.5 km section of the Metro between Shahdara and Tis Hazari was inaugurated on 24 December 2002. The project that is mostly financed by the Japanese soft loan is jointly run by India’s central and Delhi government.

The current distance covered by the Metro doesn’t really sound impressive given the mammoth size and population of Delhi. That is why the Metro is in expansion drive all over Delhi. One can see almost everywhere signboards put up by the Metro that read “Work in Progress”. Targets have been set and they have been met impressively. All the credit goes to E. Sreedharan who in turn gives credit to the team. Not just the city of Delhi but the whole of India will show the world its sleek metro system when the Indian capital hosts the Commonwealth Games in 2010. After all, the Metro has become the pride of India and every major city wants to copy it.

“More than anything else,” said Sreedharan in an interview, “the Delhi Metro has become the symbol of India’s progress today to the whole world. It has brought so much attention to our country and our economic and technological leap forward.”

With prestige comes the threat to its existence. In these times when India is facing terrorist assaults every now and then, this marvellous train operation has become one of the possible targets. Which terrorist wouldn’t want to hit the Metro that has become the symbol of Indian prosperity? Thus, stringent security measures have been put in place. Everyone must go through frisking and metal detectors before entering the compartments.

(The writer is the New Delhi bureau chief of The Kathmandu Post.)