‘Managing completely flawless operations is a major challenge,’ said a Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) official after a train derailed on Sunday. A major challenge, yes, but the running of the showpiece Delhi Metro is one in which the bar must be set exceedingly high. The derailment comes in the wake of the collapse of a viaduct, one reason why people are beginning to question the infallibility of the Metro operations. It is a sign of how desperate we are for any institution of excellence that we have almost unrealistic expectations of the Metro and more so of its iconic chief E. Sreedharan.
By our somewhat low standards, the Metro’s record has been fairly competent in the seven years of its functioning. But the latest mishap should be taken with utmost seriousness and the problems ironed out without delay. Internal inquiries, that is the norm with the DMRC, will not do much to assuage public fears. Lakhs of people travel by this cheap, clean and convenient mode of transport. When things go wrong, the public has a right to know what it is and what the authorities propose to do to rectify the situation. So, it is not a very good idea to have inquiry reports available only to select insiders. The need to set things right is all the more pressing as work on the Metro is on full tilt to wrap things up by the time the Commonwealth Games begin next year. The theory that haste could cause slip-ups is unacceptable. In mass transport systems, there should be minimal margin for error. Unfortunately, given that it is such a prestigious project, the Metro has often been used by various political parties to score points against each other. This is one reason why both its merits and de-merits are blown out of proportion.
The need for course correction is all the more urgent for two main reasons. One is that given the massive overcrowding on Delhi’s roads, the Metro is the one lifeline that could prevent the city from descending into total bedlam. The other is that this project will serve as a model for other cities looking for ways to ease the traffic pressure on inadequate and poorly-maintained roads. Yes, of course, national prestige will be at stake come the Games. But the primary concern must be the safety of passengers. Standards must be constantly reviewed and course correction instituted as soon as a flaw is detected. This is the only way to ensure that ambitious projects like the Metro do not get derailed.