Life in a Metro

Jan 21 2013, 11:58 IST
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In 10 years, the Delhi Metro has altered landscapes and fortunes. In 10 years, the Delhi Metro has altered landscapes and fortunes.
SummaryIn 10 years, the Delhi Metro has altered landscapes and fortunes.

In 10 years, the Delhi Metro has altered landscapes and fortunes.

Dekho beta, M for metro, bolo, M for metro,” says a mother to her excitable son, trying to restrain him from swirling around the poles inside a crowded Metro coach. And just like that, the Metro has made it to the alphabet. Just as it has become the way the city moves, and just as it has become difficult to remember what Delhi looked like before the metallic contours of the Metro took over it.

On December 24, 2012, the Delhi Metro turned 10. Celebrations were muted – the city was mourning the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman. But this important milestone did not go unnoticed. Since its inception, the Metro has ferried more than a billion commuters over 190 km, 139 stations and six lines.

The Metro has reduced the city, and its overwhelming vastness, to a friendlier size and shape — straight lines replacing radials and ring roads. Even as the city expands in size and population, the Metro contracts it. It’s no wonder then that other cities in the country are adopting the Delhi Metro’s model.

Through its underground, at-grade and elevated routes, the Metro has become a permanent lens through which we see the city. Metro stations have become reliable and well-known physical markers of the city. Rashmi Sadana, in her excellent essays on the Delhi Metro, writes that the service hasn’t just facilitated movement; it has given us new eyes to see the city with. Yet, people are still discovering the Metro. At Seelampur, on the 25-km-long Red Line, which was the inaugural route of the service, a family fumbles with tokens and automated card readers, as others breeze through in what has become their routine.

The Metro has become a necessary navigating tool for those new to the city. Priyanka, an engineering student from Andhra Pradesh, who moved to Delhi three years ago, only uses the Metro to get around in the city, doing away with the tantrums of autowallahs or complicated bus routes. “It’s safe and easy,” she tells us, as she shows her brother, who is visiting Delhi for the first time, around the Metro Museum, which was inaugurated in 2008 and documents the Metro’s history through display panels. For him, it’s a must-visit along with the Qutab Minar and Red Fort.

Also at the Museum, housed in the Patel Chowk station, is Pooja, who has come from Badarpur to catch up with a friend and go shopping at Lajpat Nagar — all through the Metro lines. Pooja, who travels by the Metro to Nehru Place, where she works as a receptionist, says the service has transformed the landscape of Badarpur. “It was filthy, unsafe and had infrequent bus services. But now, its roads are better, and we even have a McDonald’s.” For Pooja, the Metro has brought with it familiar markers of urbanisation — a PVR, a McDonald’s and a mall.

For Shweta, who lives in Mayur Vihar in east Delhi and works in Noida, the Metro has brought places she had not heard of within reach. “I didn’t know about Shahdara, but I’m going there today for an engagement party,” she says. She’s travelling in the general coach, where she doesn’t feel unsafe but where she has ruled out conversation with strangers – which the automated playback keeps announcing in between stations. The Metro has made accessible places on the outer rims of Delhi. It has turned the likes of Dwarka, once considered an almost-hinterland, into a real estate developer’s dream.

We decide to take the underground Yellow Line from Rajiv Chowk in central Delhi to Kashmere Gate in north Delhi. From the stifled heat of Rajiv Chowk, the crowded train winds its way to Kashmere Gate. At Kashmere Gate, when we emerge from the bowels of the underground train to take the elevated Red Line, the minarets of Old Delhi are visible in the distance. The Metro has taken care to preserve Delhi’s heritage (the construction of Chawri Bazaar station is an engineering marvel). The familiar semi-circular domes of the Metro open on to narrow, busy streets of Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk. Traders, shoppers, residents and tourists alight from the controlled environment of the stations and blend into the chaos of the street. Within the chrome, glass and steel interiors, people move cautiously, taking care to form lines, offer seats, submitting to checks but once outside, the street takes over.

The train traverses through densely populated residential areas, cutting across streets filled with illuminated gyms, bakeries, and shops selling electronic devices and apparel. The track is festive — Netaji Subhash Place is buzzing, Pitampura is noisy, Rohini is cloaked in chatter, but Rithala, the terminal station, wears an empty look, with little advertising on the walls. Outside the station in northwest Delhi, a large, lonely mall greets us. Directions to Adventure Island and Metro Walk Mall dot the place. Rickshaws wait to transport families to Adventure Island, which has an amusement park, malls, an Italian eatery, a McDonald’s and a video game arcade. Shop owners from Karol Bagh have set up temporary stalls here to find new customers. For the rickshaw-wallahs, inhabitants of Rithala, though, there is nothing. “Ek samosa Rs 60 ka hai, kaise khayenge,” asks Hemraj. With the Metro and now the electric autos, business has also dwindled for them, he says. But for those inside, business is booming. Vijay, who works at the video game arcade, says, “The Metro has brought so many people here. We started this gaming zone five years ago, and we’re doing well. The place is packed every day.”

The Metro has spelt business opportunity for many. Like Jitendra, who runs Metro Corner, a snack stall outside the Pitampura Metro station. He quit his job as a salesman to open this joint. “With the Metro, I have guaranteed business,” he says. Even the rickshaw-wallahs here have a steady business. Some say they worked with the Metro before taking up driving rickshaws.

On the other end of the Red Line, across the Yamuna, Seelampur tells a story similar to Rithala. It’s a huge, barren station, with no advertising, opening out to an equally large, empty public space. The neon pink sign of the Metro Walk mall calls attention to itself, and Carrefour, the hypermarket giant, ducks in the background. Outside these splendid edifices is a narrow street selling chowmein, popcorn, chana, and clothes at throwaway prices. The enormous station square is deserted, so is the mall, but that narrow street’s packed.

The Metro has made Delhi easier to navigate, brought down pollution levels, made travelling safer for women, and maybe even civilised us a bit (thanks to announcements that tell us to wait for those coming out of the train before walking in, not to talk to strangers, not to play loud music). But this symbol of progress and connectivity has also brought in less perceptible changes. From turning commuters inside the train to consumers outside it, the Metro, it would seem, has facilitated business, and development of outer parts of the city. It is not a leveller of society, nor can it be —but it is a space where the city loses its rough edges, and becomes, in the time that it takes to travel from Green Park to Rithala, a more welcoming place. It has made us more anonymous, yet more open in our interactions. And while it has had its share of mishaps (100 deaths, including workers and commuters), the Delhi Metro has become a lifeline for the city, a stage where its transformation unfolds every day.

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