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Tunnel to tomorrow

As you read this, a German-built mechanical worm nearly eight times the length of a city bus — and six times as powerful — has broken through the soft soil beneath the Defence Colony flyover, creating the final tunnel for the next phase of the Delhi Metro. See graphics

delhi Updated: Oct 13, 2009 00:05 IST
Atul Mathur

As you read this, a German-built mechanical worm nearly eight times the length of a city bus — and six times as powerful — has broken through the soft soil beneath the Defence Colony flyover, creating the final tunnel for the next phase of the Delhi Metro.

A tunnel-boring machine (see graphic) emerged on Monday night through a tunnel alongside the eastern side of the Defence Colony flyover, a landmark in the push to get the trains running to 72 new stations on six new lines strung along 125 km by next September.

Over the last 24 months, unseen by the public eye, 35 km of tunnels have been bored under the lush sprawl of central and south Delhi, as the Metro’s new lines snake out towards the capital’s far suburbs of Gurgaon in Haryana and Noida in Uttar Pradesh.

“Such a massive tunnelling operation in such a short span with minimum inconvenience has never taken place in Asia before,” said E.Sreedharan (77), managing director, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. “It is the result of great commitment from the Delhi Metro engineers.”

Climbing down a dusty concrete staircase leading into a humid, cavernous underground hall that will become the Jangpura metro station, Chief Project Manager B.K. Mishra (45) talked of his 12-hour days and working up to a month without a break.

“We work like soldiers,” said Mishra, a bustling, moustachioed engineer who works 13 hours a day and sometimes for a month without a holiday during his 12 years with the Delhi Metro.

Yet he believes his last job — building the 760-km Konkan railway through the formidable Western Ghats — was tougher.

“It rained every day three months of the year, and unlike Delhi, we had no roads to bring in equipment,” said Mishra. He pointed to the grey roof of the station. “That is the Jangpura nullah (drain), and we are under it.”

A 20-year veteran of the Indian Railways, Mishra oversees engineering work across the Metro network, one of many unseen stars in a public-sector organisation trying to shrug off a set of mishaps to regain the prowess its known for in India’s richest city.

Building the new New Delhi

Many say the Metro represents the emergence of Delhi’s 10th avataar over the centuries: A 21st century city with world-class engineering and facilities — layered easily over third-world Delhi and its growing civic problems.

Half a km from Jangpura station, down a 8.36-km tunnel, the final leg of an underground stretch from Khan Market to Lajpat Nagar, almost 100 workers and engineers in yellow hard hats were at work. They lined the tunnels with concrete slabs, checked a host of parameters and worked on the mechanical worm as its squirmed towards the surface at a daily crawl of 18 m.

The subcontractor for this stretch is a Thai company — formerly Italian owned — and that explains the presence of many Thai and Japanese engineers. Experts from more than a dozen countries have worked on the Delhi Metro, but it is quintessentially Indian.

“To my son and daughter, anything that says Delhi Metro has been built by papa,” said Salim Ahmed with a smile. Ahmed (40), a former Bombay Port Trust engineer who is now the Metro’s deputy chief engineer, grew up in Delhi, and he’s happy to lend a hand to reconstruct the city of his childhood.

For Delhi, the last tunnel is merely a technical landmark in the race to finish phase two in time for the Commonwealth Games of October 2010, but for the 35,000 men and women of the Delhi Metro it is boost to their battered self-belief.

It is along this line (Central Secretariat-Badarpur) that six construction workers died and 20 were injured in July when a concrete pier collapsed near Lady Sri Ram College, less than 3 km from Jangpura metro station.

The accident set the metro back by three months on this section (the target date was June 2010), but more damaging was the loss of confidence.

From darkness to light

Some in the Delhi Metro even whispered that the Metro Bhawan — an eight-storied building with glass-fronted offices overlooking a soaring, airy foyer of capsule lifts — was inauspicious. A total of 10 workers died since in site accidents since the new building was inaugurated on Barakhamba Lane in central Delhi in October 2008.

The building, which won an energy efficiency award, now has an idol of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of good luck in the sun-dappled foyer.

More than 35,000 workers and 300 cranes have been employed on the 190 km of phase 1 and 2 network, and till date, 102 people, mostly construction workers, have died since the Delhi Metro started construction 12 years ago.

For an organisation that set benchmarks in safety, efficiency and meeting deadlines, the Jangpura worm’s breakthrough is a salve.

“The entire metro team was demoralised the way the organisation was painted after the accidents,” said Delhi Metro spokesman Anuj Dayal (47).

“For metro engineers, who have been working hard from day one, it is a great morale booster,” said Dayal.

“We have left behind the criticism and moved on.”