The social engine

A new lifeline Next year marks 10 years of the Delhi Metro. We look at how it has changed lives and bridged distances not just between places but also people.

delhi Updated: Oct 01, 2011 22:56 IST

This week, the United Nations certified the Delhi Metro as the world's first rail-based system to get carbon credits for helping cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Nine years after it was launched on December 25, 2002, the reliable, cleaner mode of transport is taking more than 90,000 polluting vehicles off the roads of Delhi. Beyond the obvious environmental benefits, the Metro is also changing lives.

The Social Leveller
Travelling 13 metres below the ground at 80 kilometres an hour, the Delhi Metro's trains crisscross across the national capital region on the yellow, red, blue and violet lines, creating the city's new socio-economic rainbow.

By bringing together people from disparate walks of life, they are also cutting across class divisions, says sociologist Dipankar Gupta. "Providing a world class public service - whether it is transport or education - is the best way to bring citizens together. When the Indian Railways began, it compartmentalised people in the first, second, third and Inter classes, bringing out economic divisions. The Metro, on the other hand, acts as a leveller by providing uniformly excellent quality services to all citizens,'' says Gupta.

It is in the air-conditioned Bombardier coaches that the BMW crowd meets labourers, Chawri Bazaar traders discuss property prices with IT consultants and doctors quarrel with babus over standing room. The commuters' queue is where the trappings of wealth or influence cease to matter. Uniformed marshals can only watch helplessly as elbows plunge into shoulders, laptops clang with tiffin-carriers and the throng of humanity crushes you during rush hour.

Referring to commuting in a local train in Mumbai during rush hour, Suketu Mehta once wrote, "A lover's embrace was never so close.'' In the Metro, trying to board the train to Gurgaon from Rajiv Chowk comes close.

One reason for the packed trains could be that a large number of commuters are leaving their personal vehicles home. In a 2009 study, the Central Road Research Institute interviewed 12,000 commuters between the Shahdara and Tis Hazari corridor. Two thirds of the car owners interviewed had switched to the Metro.

Earphones plugged in, jacket folded under his arms, hotelier Ketan Dewan is one of these. Boarding the train to Jahangir Puri from HUDA City Centre, Dewan says getting home to West Delhi is now a breeze. He doesn't have much in common with the dishevelled youth standing next to him on the platform. Dinesh Mandal, 22, who works in an export house near IFFCO Chowk, vouches by the Metro for the money it helps him save, coming from New Delhi Railway Station.

The Metro has democratised Delhi, says author Jerry Pinto. "Earlier, when I travelled to Delhi, I felt Delhi was a city built to exclude everyone expect those who owned cars - run only on the basis of power and pelf,'' he says. "The Metro has changed Delhi from a series of villagers to being a city.'' Social anthropologist Rashmi Sadana of IIT-Delhi, writing a book on the Metro, says the cultural geography of the city is changing. She cites the 50-minute journey from Dwarka to Connaught Place as an example.

"From the sparse last station beyond the T3 terminal, the neighbourhoods keep getting congested. After the first 10 stations, at Uttam Nagar, everything begins getting built next to the Metro.''

Before the Metro was launched, the NCR was infamous for lack of public transport. Eating out after hours was a luxury for car owners. Now, says Pankaj Chaturvedi, 28, manager with an internet service provider, things have improved. "Getting back home to Badarpur after dining at Khan Market was earlier difficult. Now, twice a month, my family and I head to Khan Market for an outing.''

Commuters complain about the Metro's low connectivity with other modes of transport. The quibbles are many, but the Metro has managed to convince one famous critic. As Sadana says in her paper titled On the Delhi Metro: An Ethnographic View: "A documentary on VS Naipaul features footage from his recent trip to Delhi.

What does the man… infamous for having expounded on the filth and disorder of Indian cities, have to say? "Very nice, very nice,'' he can be heard muttering as he passes through the electronic gates.

Social engine that is bringing the city closer

The Ladies Coupe
Most women have their own fable about the women's compartment in the Metro - some say it stands for Freedom from Fear, even Women's Empowerment - and they change or confirm it based on their daily experiences.

"From what I see in the Metro, I feel young women look more ready to take on the world than men,'' says Meenal Jain, a graphic designer catching a train from Rajiv Chowk, clearly unaware she has dropped a bomb. The comment may seem terribly off the cuff, but it goes to show the extent to which women have put their faith in their compartment.

The NGO, Jagori, conducted a research about women facing sexual harassment most on public transport; the first compartment of every Metro train under DMRC was made a women's-only compartment on October 2, 2010.

The Safe Cities Baseline Survey-Delhi 2010 looking at issues of women's safety, highlighted concerns relating to public spaces. Cases of "maximum harassment' were reported in the marketplace followed closely by metro stations. India ranks as the fourth most dangerous place for women according to a recent global poll by the Thomas Reuters Foundation. Delhi is notorious as the 'rape capital' and the city with one of the worst reputations in civic sense and roadside manners. The Metro has made women more confident about running their businesses, keeping late-night appointments and managing their own leisure.

According to DMRC, female ridership in 2010 was 3.5 lakh a day; it is likely to touch 4.5 lakh this year. Asha Kandpal now does, as she says, the "unthinkable…I shop, I catch a train from Arjan Garh and go all the way to Chandni Chowk to source textiles for her shop.'' The biggest plus, most women say that unlike in the general compartment, "no one
assesses us from top to toe…''

Travel in the ladies' coupe is a passage of silence. "Chup chap aao, chup chap jao, (It's about coming and going in silence)'', says Pushp Dhama who takes the 9 am metro everyday from Dwarka to Saket. Piyali Biswas, a counsellor, says she's happy to escape the "push and pull culture'' of the general compartments but wishes the coupe was provided with a guard. "Men do come in at times, when we say this coach is for women only, they ask 'where is it written?'''

An all-women compartment has also made possible the meeting of women of the two Indias. No, there's no re-arrangement of class just because a banker is sitting next to a nurse, but there are possibilities - of a two-minute exchange, passing of information, a noting of difference in diction, diet, a peep into the other's life - and the chance to ask other questions, even thought it usually begins with this one. "'I am Meena. Aap kya job kartein hain?…''

Elderly but Mobile
Whether it was riding on horse-drawn tongas and trams in the 1950s, cycle rickshaws in the 70s, DTC buses in the 80s, Bluelines in the 90s and now the Metro, the more than 16 lakh senior citizens of the Delhi have witnessed modes of travel evolve to keep up with the transport needs of the national capital region.

The city is full of government offices and retired bureaucrats. Therefore, says Himanshu Rath of Agewell Foundation, Delhi's elderly number more than the average 9% proportion of national population in other metropolises. There are more than 1.67 crore senior citizens in the country.

In the winter of their lives, many elders prefer to ride its most modern avatar to visit Old Delhi, where they once jumped off trams at the sight of a friend, romanced in the slow lane on a rickshaw or watched their first matinee show.

So when 78-year-old Mahesh Gupta, a former manager with Indian Airlines, says the Metro has given fresh wings to his social life, one is interested. "Let me put it this way: Without the Metro, I wouldn't have imagined travelling to Old Delhi to binge on chaat-pakori with my walking club friends. I could have never done it in my Honda City for sure.''

A worldwide WHO study on Age-friendly Cities affirms Delhi is going the extra yard to make the lives of its senior citizens easier. "Facilities such as the Metro and better-designed low-floor buses were identified as age friendly,'' says Sonali Sharma, joint director communications, HelpAge India.

Journey Friends
Even as the recording on the Delhi Metro booms out the cautionary message - 'please do not befriend any unknown person' - first year commerce student Karan Singh is busy making what he calls his 'journey friendships'.

The 45-minute metro ride from his home in Hauz Khas to Delhi University gives Singh time to strike up conversations with a range of commuters - swapping campus notes with students or chatting up older professionals to learn about working life. "I do it to gain knowledge and pass my time,'' he says.

While this extrovert Khalsa College student has no qualms chatting up random strangers, most others prefer a book or their mobiles - to chat or listen to music. "Delhi is not a friendly city. I'd be wary of talking to people we don't know,'' says a teacher travelling on the Rajiv Chowk-Jahangirpuri line.

Given that nearly 16 lakh commuters travel by the Delhi Metro on an average working day, friendships, if not as common as one would imagine, aren't rare either.

Take the case of 24-year-old Akanksha Sharma's unlikely friendship with a married woman 12 years her senior. Ironically, it was the mobile - that keeps most people cocooned in their worlds - that brought the two commuters together. Sharma - a media planner with an electronic goods company in Gurgaon and resident of Laxmi Nagar - idly glanced into a lady's phone one day. It happened to be her favourite song and a transfer request led to bonding.

In January this year, Sameer Suri, 24, and his brother Harsh, 18, formed, a Delhi Metro networking site. It offers commuters a chance to share their travel schedule online and find a 'Metro Mate' to travel with - all for free. "I've noticed people looking at each other but not having the courage to talk. There was a strong case to kill the monotony of the long travel,'' says Sameer, who quit a software job to pursue an MBA.

Tales from Suburbia
Today the Metro has six lines running across the city. It has bridged distances and made lives easier, especially for people living on the outskirts of the city. Areas that were considered distant villages are now perceived as neighbours, thanks to the Metro.

In particular, the Metro saves daily long-haul commuters from a road trip each day. Pawan Kumar, 40, an accounts officer with the Central Pension Accounting Office, lives in Kundli across the Yamuna river. He was recently transferred to Delhi from West Bengal. "It is a convenient way to go up and down from work.'' Completing the journey one-way takes Kumar between 15 and 20 minutes.

On the other side of the city lives Anil Kumar, a 25-year-old constable with the Delhi Police. He works at the crime branch in Kamla Market. If not for the Metro, Kumar would have to spend more than three hours every day in the commute between work and his home in Sonepat. "Earlier I used to take the bus all the way to the thana, but things are better. It used to take me an hour and a half to get home from central Delhi. Now it only takes me 20 minutes to get back to my side of town.'' The only drawback Kumar sees with the Metro is that the network is not extensive enough.

First Published: Oct 01, 2011 22:49 IST