Bleak times for an ecosystem amid Delhi Metro's stop-start Covid journey

Many Delhi Metro stations such as Barakhamba Road, which, before the pandemic witnessed swarms of people, today look jarringly empty
A near vacant fast food joint in Kashmere Gate Metro station. (HT)
A near vacant fast food joint in Kashmere Gate Metro station. (HT)
Updated on Jan 24, 2022 02:10 AM IST
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By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

In 2020, Binod Mairta, was working on his second novel Last Train to Huda City Centre —part of a three-book series set in Delhi Metro-- when the pandemic struck and Metro services were halted for over five months. “I had to stop writing the book because Metro is my muse I and drew inspiration for every scene in my book from my daily travel on it,” says Marta, whose first book, A Rose on the Platform, a story of love and betrayal was set in Delhi Metro.

“Over the years, Metro had also become a kind of social engine of the city, the hottest venue for socialising and dating. Today, it is a gloomy place. I can only resume my book when Metro returns to its pre-pandemic self,” adds Mairta, who works as a deputy director, editorial and translation services, in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, and travels between Dilshad Garden and Central Secretariat in Metro.

Indeed, many Delhi Metro stations such as Barakhamba Road, which, before the pandemic witnessed swarms of people, today look jarringly empty. Even some of the busiest interchange stations such as Rajiv Chowk and Kashmere Gate, whose restaurants and cafes were hot spots for social and business meetings and dating, continue to be the pale shadows of their former selves two years after the pandemic struck.

With footfalls down sharply, most retail outlets and restaurants have witnessed a debilitating drop in business, with some shutting shop. According to Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), average passenger journeys have come down from 6 million to 6.5 million a day before the pandemic to about 1.5 million to 2 million a day.

It is 11 am on a Friday morning, and Café Coffee Day at Rajiv Chowk station is empty. “Before the pandemic, our sales were 65, 000 a day, but by Diwali last year it dropped to about 30,000. Now, with only takeaway allowed sales have come down to 3, 000 a day,” says Shiv Rathore, an assistant manager at the outlet.

“Earlier, our restaurant was always packed. People celebrated birthdays here and also held business meetings. But most of our customers were young couples,” adds Rathore.

One of the customers was Nidhi Khanna, who recently came to the café after one and a half years on her way to Noida—but was dismayed by the change she witnessed in how Metro ‘felt and functioned’.

“Underground Metro stations have a charm and energy of their own. I loved spending time with my friends at CCD at Rajiv Chowk and watching people waiting, meeting, rushing in and out of the trains. Indeed a lot happened over coffee here ” says Nidhi Khanna, 26, a Noida-based IT professional.

“But Metro is not the same now. The temperature checks at the entry and Covid-related stickers on the seats inside the compartments keep reminding you of the dangers of infection. Ironically, earlier people fought to grab the seats, now they prefer to stand as it allows more social standing, though standing is currently prohibited. Finding a seat in the Metro has never been so easy,” adds Khanna.

Jatin Arora, who lives in north Delhi’s Adarsh Nagar and works in Gurugram, says that Kashmere Gate was the station where he often met his girlfriend, now his wife. “What made Metro so attractive for dating is that two young people could travel in close proximity in air-conditioned comfort without attracting too much attention. But now that anonymity is gone in the relatively empty compartments and stations, and that feeling of comfort and cosiness inside Metro has given way to fear, ” says Arora, a marketing professional.

Like Shiv Rathore of Café Coffee Day, Shubham Goyal, manager at Namaste Delhi, a fast food outlet at Kashmere Gate station, says couples constituted a large part of his clients, but with most offices and colleges closed, his business is down by around 80%. “If you allow hundred per cent seating in the trains, sitting in the station’s cafes can also be allowed. After all, we are inside the Metro and unlike those outside, we cannot even do home deliveries,” says Goyal.

Under the curbs imposed by Delhi Disaster Management Authority in the wake of surge in Covid cases, restaurants have only been allowed takeaways and deliveries.

Prakash Joshi, who works at Sahitya Akademi bookshop at Kashmere Gate station, says that before the pandemic struck most of his customers were either elderly people or Delhi University students interested in Hindi literature. “Often, a lot of commuters would walk in and turn our shop into a literary saloon, discussing Munshi Premchand. But now hardly anyone comes. Even before the third wave began on December 15, our sales were down by 50%. Now, we have very few customers,” says Joshi, sitting at the counter of the bookshop whose walls have black and white pictures of Indian literary greats such as Toru Dutt, Devaki Nandan Khatri and Nagarjun. The teakwood shelves are stacked with hundreds of titles in over two dozen Indian languages.

It is afternoon and Vishwavidyalaya station, which once buzzed with chitter-chatter of DU students, is eerily silent. Balbir Singh, who works at the NBT book store at the station, said with the universities and colleges closed there are no customers and it is hard to pass time. “ Before the pandemic, we sold books worth 7,000 a day. Now, we are lucky if our daily sale exceeds even 1,000,” he says as he watches 1966 ‎Dharmendra‎ and Meena Kumari starrer, Phool Aur Patthar, on YouTube. “This is the only way to pass time,” says Singh.

Back at Rajiv Chowk station, Ravi Kumar, a sales associate with an eyewear retail chain, is worried that his store might close by February. “In October-November, our monthly sales were about 12 lakh a month. But this month it is barely 2 lakh so far. The rent for the shop is about 3.5 lakh, and the company has told us we might exit the station by February. We were 10 people here before the pandemic, but now we are only four. Our business is directly related to footfall at the station,” he says.

The DMRC said it has taken several measures to help businesses running from the Metro premises. “We have taken a number of measures such as rent waivers, moratorium and lease period extensions to retain various retail and food outlets at stations. We are continuously interacting with the vendors to understand their requirements and challenges and necessary measures are being taken. A very small number of retailers have shut shops,” says Anuj Dayal, executive director, corporate communications, Delhi Metro.

It is 5.30 in the evening, and the corridors of the Barakhamba Road station are pitch dark as most doors of the station are closed. The station which used to witness a maddening rush of commuters at this hour has a small queue of commuters today. Rajiv Arora, who works at a private bank on Barakhamba Road, says not just the atmosphere of the station, even the profile of the commuters have changed. “This is an office heavy area and earlier most commuters were office goers headed home in the evening, and I recognized a lot of them. Now, I do not see any familiar face,” says Arora.

As we talk, there is an announcement on the public address system ‘wearing the face mask is mandatory’, Arora pushes his mask up to his mouth and gets into the almost empty train going to Dwarka.


    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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