Class act: 2 decades of Delhi Metro, the great leveller | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times
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Class act: 2 decades of Delhi Metro, the great leveller

By, New Delhi
Dec 24, 2022 04:50 AM IST

The first Delhi Metro train rumbled out of the Shahdara station on this day two decades ago. Since then, the service has become the city’s transport backbone, being used by millions a day and bringing nearly every corner of the Capital together.

New Delhi: It is 9am on a Tuesday and Rajesh Singh, 30, is travelling by the Metro to Gurugram on the Yellow Line. Singh, who lives in Seelampur in a rented room and works as a carpenter in Gurugram, takes the red and the yellow line almost every day.

The first Delhi Metro train, at Seelampur station, on December 24, 2002. (HC Tiwari/HT Archive)
The first Delhi Metro train, at Seelampur station, on December 24, 2002. (HC Tiwari/HT Archive)

Sitting next to him is Piyush Arora, a senior executive with an IT company; the two are talking about Singh’s ailing 7-year-old daughter, who was admitted in Chacha Nehru Bal Chikitsalaya, a government hospital in Geeta Colony in east Delhi, for a week. “It was through his contact that my daughter got a bed in the hospital,” says Singh, pointing to Arora, who travels between Green Park, where he lives, and Gurugram, where he works.

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The two first got talking two months ago inside a Metro compartment when Arora saw a visibly distressed Singh talking to his wife on the phone. “He was on the verge of tears, and I could not help asking what was wrong. That is when I got to know about his unwell daughter,” says Arora, who made the switch from his car to the Metro four months ago. “The traffic is so terrible, so I tried the Metro and now I take it quite often.”

That triggered an interaction that may have otherwise never happened.

“Until the Metro arrived, people from different classes and backgrounds didn’t mix or interact on public transport, the way they do now inside the Metro system; Metro diffuses social identities and bridges the class divide, ” says Binod Mairta, deputy director in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, who frequently travels on the Metro and has written a novel, A Rose on the Platform, set in the Delhi Metro.

Mairta, who is working on his second book set in the Delhi Metro, adds that people’s experience of the Metro may vary on different lines. “I have seen younger and tech-savvy people travelling on the Yellow Line, quite a lot of them working in MNCs in Gurugram, who are more open, less status-conscious and inclusive.”

Snapping boundaries

Sunita Mahato, 48, who lives in Jehagirpuri, sells fruits in Connaught Place on the footpath and often takes the Metro, could not agree more.

“I have pain in my knees and when I do not get a seat, I sit on the floor in the Metro compartment, and immediately someone offers me their seat and even strikes a conversation,” she says.

Arun Anand, who lives in Dwarka and has written Love in Metro, a novel set in Metro, says the Blue Line, which runs between Dwarka Sector 21 to Noida Electronic City/Vaishali, better represents the city’s demographic composition.

“If you start in Dwarka, you see a lot of professionals in the compartment, by the time the train reaches Uttam Nagar, you have lots of people from lower income groups from Poorvanchal, and near Karol Bagh, you will see a lot of rich Punjabi businessmen,” says Anand. “Blue Line is truly a melting pot.”

Professor Vivek Kumar, who teaches sociology at JNU, says the Metro has led to what he terms “forced interactions” between people from different strata of society.

In a 2017 interview with HT, Ratika Kapur, the author of “The Private Life of Mrs Sharma”, parts of which are set in Delhi Metro, had this to say about how the Metro upset rules of engagement between different classes of people in the Capital: “Delhi is a highly stratified city with relationships between different strata very clearly defined: you live in a kothi, or in a Janta colony, or in government housing, or in a housing society/DDA flat or in a slum, and accordingly you hold some sort of status and navigate the city according to that status, interacting with people from other classes according to a fixed set of rules. The Metro unsettled that equation when it came. People like me, my relatives, have not been in a DTC for twenty years, but we got on to the Metro and there we could watch and overhear the kind of people whose neighbourhoods we wouldn’t otherwise visit. That’s the opportunity the Metro provides a writer like me, an opportunity to cross class boundaries without drawing attention, an opportunity to attend to the lives of those whose lives are not easily accessible to me.”

Reinventing the public space

So, does the interaction between people from different strata of society in a Metro compartment have any positive impact on the city’s social dynamics? “I’m a big believer in public spaces, and I think that the point of living in a city is to meet people who are different from you. That’s how you get exposed to new ideas and also get new opportunities in life. So, all the mixing up of people on the Metro is a good thing,” says Rashmi Sadana, an associate professor of Anthropology at George Mason University in the US, whose book on Delhi Metro, Metronama, an ethnographic study of Metro and how it has shaped the city, was released earlier this year. “If you interact with people from different backgrounds, you gain trust, and this is a vital part of the social contract.”

Mairta believes that the swanky, air-conditioned Metro, which was launched in Shahdara, a working-class neighbourhood in east Delhi, has done well to resist all calls for exclusivity.

“I think attitudes are changing and it is a misconception that people who take public transport are the ones who can’t afford cars. Just go to a Metro parking and you may see both a BMW and a bicycle parked in the same space. The owners of both travel together on Metro,” says Mairta.

It is 8pm on a Friday, and Prakash Gupta, who has a spices business in the Walled City, is going home to Hauz Khas on the Yellow Line.

“I have three cars at home, but I cannot drive them to my office in the Walled City, because of congestion and parking problem, so have to use the Metro every day. You can find millionaires from south Delhi and the Civil Lines, who have business in the Walled City and their workers travelling on the Metro together.”

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