Passengers board a train at a metro station in Delhi. (HT Photo)
When a bunch of giggly girls crossed the Yellow Line at the edge of the platform at Vaishali Metro station last week, a woman guard dived in with the precision of a superhero to push them back. “Suicide karogi kya?” the guard shouted as she huddled them onto the pink floor markings where the women-only coaches stop.
The girls looked shaken as the guard blurted out instances of passengers jumping in front of moving trains. “There are people dying here every day,” she pointed to the tracks.
A suicide a day was an exaggeration. But in the past two years, there have been at least two suicide attempts every month at Delhi’s Metro stations. In 2012, of the 23 people who jumped on the tracks or off the overhead stations, seven were killed. Last year, 30 people attempted suicide and 13 did not survive.
Till it shut down in 1981 after a stampede, Qutab Minar was notorious for people jumping off the 72.5-meter tall medieval tower. Later, Vikas Minar at ITO and the Janakpuri District Centre in west Delhi became the hot spots for copycat suicides. Now, Delhi’s newest lifeline is also its biggest suicide magnet.
Across the world, suicides on mass transit networks are common. At least 50 people kill themselves in the London Underground every year. The New York City’s subway averages 26 suicides a year.
In Paris, 24 died on the tracks of the Metro according to the data compiled by Time magazine in 2008.
In London’s century-old network, the one-meter space below the tracks, colloquially known as “suicide pits” (originally built to prevent platforms from flooding), have helped reduce the chance of death or serious injury should someone jump in front of a train. Stations on the newer lines have protective screens along the platforms.
In Kolkata, mirrors, calming music and posters urging people to choose life over death appeared in the Metro stations when the suicide attempts went up in early 2000s.
Japan Railways has installed blue lights to calm down passengers. Many Metro networks have invested in toll-free helplines.
In Delhi, surveillance through CCTVs and deployment of guards has been increased at 19 stations identified as suicide-prone.
The height of walls at the overhead stations has been raised to prevent people from jumping off. Three of the busiest stations will soon have protective screen doors on platforms. The authorities have even pressed criminal charges against some survivors. Attempt to suicide is punishable by one-year jail term.
But suicides are more than an infrastructural problem. An analysis of the victims’ profile showed most of them were young and in the age group 20-40. The same trend reflected in Delhi’s overall suicide data. Of the 1,899 suicides reported in 2012, the highest number was of those who were unemployed (369). A majority of them were aged between 15 and 29 years. Students (266) were the other big group.
In a survey by Manas Foundation for the Planning Commission, 7.6% of the participants suffered from psychiatric morbidity. Only 12% of these patients knew professional help was available and less than 1 per cent ever sought that help. It was a mix of prejudice, ignorance, and fear that made them sit out.
Few Delhi hospitals offer decent psychiatric treatment. The atmosphere at most of these facilities is not different from the stereotypical pagalkhana. There is a serious shortage of trained psychiatrists. There are very few support groups or toll-free help lines. Even the ones available are poorly advertised.
Limiting access to tracks and increased surveillance may halt suicides in Metro stations, but those pushed to the edge will find another way and spot in a city that reports more than five suicides a day. Sending the survivors to jail is no solution. Maybe a signboard telling help is available could help the desperate change their mind.