For all the excitement about getting a ‘world-class’ metro in Delhi, its debut in December 2002 was not smooth.
After the inauguration by then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on December 24, the 8.3km stretch between Shahdara and Tis Hazari opened for public use the next day. Almost a million people turned up. The curious ones fiddled with automated doors, scratched the metallic seats to check if they were indeed scratch-proof and took home ticket tokens and overhead handles from the trains as souvenirs.
By the end of the day, train windows had been smashed and the stations had been stained with betel juice spittle. There were reports of drunken behaviour, pick-pocketing and smoking inside the stations.
Many wondered if the Metro corporation was wrong in starting the service from working class neighbourhoods and if more affluent commuters would have been more appreciative of the swanky, air-conditioned mass-transit network.
But the authorities showed no such apprehensions and persisted with the simple message of “handle your Metro with pride”. And for a bunch who had only known the rickety Redline and Blueline buses as public transport, Delhi residents did not take long to love their new mass transit.
Over the years, the network reached wealthier neighbourhoods and also connected a number of poor and middle-income ones. Today, the Metro is a great leveller in this class-divided city. It is also the cleanest and the best preserved public space in the National Capital.
But Delhi riders can do much better. Last week, HT reported how in the last five years, at least 100,000 passengers were fined for breaking Metro rules. There are 13 offences — including travelling drunk, squatting on the floor of the coach, misusing alarm, walking on tracks, men entering coaches reserved for women and obstructing train doors — that are punishable by fines. Between July 2011 and March 2016, the DMRC had collected `2.47 crore from offenders.
Apart from this recorded misbehaviour, Delhi riders also fare poorly on transit etiquettes, something the Metro authorities are yet to quantify.
Since its launch 14 years ago, Delhi Metro has got its own version of what the Americans call “seat hogs” — those who do not get their fare’s worth if they don’t sit and travel. Even on short journeys, they insist on “thoda adjustment”, squeezing uncomfortably into a seat designed only for a single adult. For longer journeys, they even travel back to the station where the train originates from and grab seats as a coach empties.
The same aggression is at work while boarding or getting off the trains. Etiquette demands you let people get off before you board. On an escalator, an average Delhi commuter doesn’t care that one is supposed to stand on the right side or walk on the left. In the same spirit, playing music without headphones, peering into other rider’s mobile phones, shoving one’s backpack in other’s face, blocking the door or aisle is rarely considered rude.
Most mass-transits across the world have launched campaigns to tame their riders. The London tube started “Poetiquette”, using poetry to give lessons in travel etiquettes. Through a social media campaign and a series of public service ads on “manspreading”, the New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority went after male passengers who sprawled on seats, occupying more than one and leaving no room for others. Last year, it even arrested two men for the same.
In Delhi, many would not even consider this bad behaviour, let alone criminalise it. Anyway, coercion cannot make people respect social norms or fellow citizens. Such considerations are instinctive.
Last year, Delhi Metro launched a series of animations and puppet shows to inculcate good commuting habits among schoolchildren. Hopefully, these kids will grow up to be more considerate riders and good brand ambassadors for the Delhi mass-transit.
By 2017, Delhi Metro will roll out 140km of new lines, add more interchanges and pack its state-of-the-art stations with facilities that go way beyond the existing “world-class infrastructure”. But infrastructure alone cannot ensure a good commuting experience. Your chances of having a good ride are the best when you care if your fellow riders are also having one.