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Life on a Metro

columns Updated: Oct 06, 2009 14:06 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times
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I am not a fan of the grimy Mumbai taxi, despite the poetic lament on its dashboard stickers, which ask of their migrant drivers: Ghar kab aaoge (When will you come home)? They take too long — at least an hour — to battle traffic and wheeze the 20-odd km from my office in Mahim to my home near downtown Marine Lines.

In contrast, there’s nothing quite like hanging out of the open door of a train that’s doing 100 kmph and deposits you to the same destination in 25 minutes (add 10 minutes for walks to and from the station). I am not a Mumbaikar, so hanging on by the fingertips to a narrow groove above the door is not something I dare do.

The steel pillars supporting the overhead electric lines flash by my face; I am always aware that about 11 people die on these rail lines every day. So, I drape myself firmly around the steel bar affixed amid the open door of the mauve-and-silver new local train and enjoy the wind in my face, the clattering of steel wheels against the rail joints.

There is much to ruminate: the squalor of the shanties; the smiles of the people within; the harshness of their lives; the unmistakable imprint of super-architect Hafeez Contractor on the towering apartment blocks rising above the ruins of 19th century textile mills; silent graveyards; a sudden row of rain trees; tennis courts; cricket on the rows of maidans on Marine Drive; suddenly, as the evening superfast drops speed ahead of its terminus, Churchgate, the sea breeze; and the glimpse of the Arabian Sea. I do enjoy my daily commute in Mumbai, where I spend about a week every month. I have a quarterly first-class pass; it costs me Rs 900.

Things are quite different when I make my forays on the Delhi Metro. There is no metro station near my home in Nizamuddin, so I commute in my Fiat. I feel sealed from the city outside, but on a bad day it takes me 20 minutes to get to my office in Connaught Place. I cannot complain.

Yet, the city calls. So, when I have time, I use my pass to explore Delhi’s airconditioned Metro. I’ve been been to the end of one line in Rithala, to another end in Dwarka. Obviously, I don’t hang from the doors, but Delhi’s ultramodern, Korean-built (with some German and a couple of India-made coaches) railcars — they do not race along at the frenetic 100 kmph of the Mumbai superfast — do offer ruminations through their large, glass windows: the blackness of the underground line; the sudden light when the metro emerges on Panchkuian Road; a giant statue of Hanuman, maybe four floors high; malls; former refugee colonies that are now hives of the hardworking middle-class, tenements piled scarily upon tenements with no regard for the laws of physics; the metro’s please-mind-the-gap chant; squalid slums of those who haven’t yet made it; buffaloes and junkyards; colonial churches; miles upon miles of illegal colonies; and the broad, empty boulevards and sprawling parks of the outer suburbs they call ‘sub cities’.

There is nothing quite like public transport to know your city and feel its pulse. There is also nothing quite like public transport to let a city expand and live out its true potential. Mumbai’s locals are enthralling to a visitor like me, but they are deadly, steel tubes that kill about 4,000 people every year and sap the energy of those who make sweaty, soul-crushing commutes that can exceed two hours each way. Sure, there are those new local trains but the main commuter lines were essentially built before the British left our shores.

Yet, whenever I have watched and talked to commuters on Mumbai’s previous-gen locals and Delhi’s gen-next Metro, I’ve seen and heard the same emotions: ambition and a craving to create a better life. The trains in both cities let those aspirations travel and grow. You will see disappointment, heartbreak and exhaustion too, but it is clear the trains let a people fly where once they crawled, in a way that buses and autos cannot.

Delhi is delighted with its superb Metro but despite its hectic expansion — 74 km are ready, 193 km will be ready by next year — it struggles to keep pace with an exploding city. Delhi believes its Metro czar, E Sreedharan, has created something that is rare in India: a system that would not be out of place anywhere in the world. And he has.

Yet, there is no option but to plan an even more ambitious expansion. As this paper showed yesterday, China’s capital, Bejing, plans to have 300 km of metro lines running by next year, more than London and New York. Both Delhi and Bejing are similar supercities with about 17 million people each (that’s a conservative estimate, really).

We heard two days ago that the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is preparing to spend Rs 50,000 crore to transform India: Some of that money will be set aside for urban infrastructure. It couldn’t be more urgently needed than it is today.