Friday, May 14, 2010

Delhi Metro Love Revisited

I can't tell you how excited I was to see on the New York Times homepage this story by Lydia Polgreen about the Delhi Metro: In India, Hitching Hopes on a Subway. And not only that, there's a slide show, which includes a shot of the volunteer Metro monitor trying to convince some young men to stand rather than squat by the door. As anyone who read this blog during last year's blogathon knows, I adore the Delhi Metro with a passion not usually expressed for a public transportation system. If you read the article, you will see that clearly I am not the only one.

I was really bummed about not being able to go to India in January because of my stupid Lyme disease, but there's one small saving grace: according to the article, the Delhi Metro is due to be completed on time, this fall, in time for the Commonwealth Games, which will take place in Delhi in October. Which means that when I arrive in the winter, the Metro to south Delhi (not to mention to the airport!) will no longer just be a messy construction zone but a reality. And if I want to ride on it all day, from Green Park or Jor Bagh or the stop across from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (Delhi Branch) where I stayed the first time I was in Delhi in 1989-90, up to Connaught Place, or the New Delhi Railway Station or even Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi, I can. After the countless hours I've spent in auto-rickshaws and buses over the years, I can't think of a better way to spend a day of appreciation of the wonder that is the Delhi Metro.

And partly because it's a Friday, but mostly because I feel slightly prescient for having declared my love for the Delhi Metro exactly one year before the New York Times wrote about it, I'm going to re-post an edited version of my post on Delhi Metro Love, originally posted on May 14, 2009.

Delhi Metro Love: One Year Later and Still Unabated

Early on during my first stay in India in 1989-90, my friend Rasil gave me a public safety tip. She pointed to a red line bus roaring down the road and said, "If one of those buses is coming toward you, get out of the way. It won't stop." And sure enough, in the news every week or two was the news of a red line bus that hadn't stopped and had run someone down. It was, as you might imagine, rather terrifying. Eventually, despite that, I started taking the bus anyway; partly, I figured that I'd rather be on the biggest vehicle possible on those roads. And when I came back to live in Delhi on my Fulbright a few years later, I kept taking the bus. Not everywhere or every day, but often enough.

But there is no way you can describe a bus in Delhi as a pleasant experience--they're mostly crowded and dirty and crowded and hot and crowded. If you're lucky enough to have a seat (and there is a small section of seats that are officially "ladies seats"), you will often have other people's parcels and bags and occasionally babies handed to you to hold onto while you are sitting. And if you are a lady, you may also have some overly friendly fellow pressing against you, and sometimes, the the bus will be so crowded that there is not even room to elbow him in the groin as he deserves.

Despite all of that, I do still occasionally take the bus when I'm in Delhi, for old time's sake (or because I don't feel like haggling with a rickshaw-wallah). And basically, over the past 20 years, nothing has changed about them except for the fares have gone up slightly--a ride that might have cost 2 rupees 15 years ago now costs 8 rupees. But the key thing to remember about the buses is that, until the Metro, they were the only public transportation in Delhi at all. Mumbai and Chennai, at least, have viable commuter trains, and even Calcutta has a Metro, but in Delhi the only options were bus, auto-rickshaw or taxi. (There are bicycle rickshaws as well, but they're only allowed in Old Delhi.)

Contrast this with the Metro, the lovely, lovely Delhi Metro, which has been in existence in its partially completed state for just over 6 years. Apparently, the person in charge of the Metro project would only take it on under the condition that it would not be business as usual--meaning, no patronage, no bribery, no baksheesh, no giving of contracts to a second minister's brother's company sort of thing. The result of this was that the first phase was completed within the budget and 3 years ahead of schedule. Imagine that.

The thing about the Metro is that, despite having been operating for more than 6 years, it still looks new. The stations and trains are clean. There is not that seemingly inevitable sense of collapse as there often is in India. It's shiny and easy to use and supremely functional. It's kind of amazing.

I have 2 brief stories to tell from when I was in Delhi in January. I only went on the Metro between a few stations, but I went through the Connaught Place station (where the terminal is called "Rajiv Chowk," after assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi) a number of times. It's the busiest station I saw, and as the train doors opened there, I was prepared for chaos. (On the buses--and other places--people just shove their way in without much consideration for anyone--really out of necessity.) Instead, the people getting on the Metro stood to either side and filed in that way, leaving a wide open space in the middle for people to leave the train. I was amazed. The one time I saw someone attempt to buck this and barge in through the middle, another passenger pulled him back. The next time I was waiting for a train, I happened to look down at the floor and found that, at the place where each car would stop, there were arrows painted on the floor for where entering passengers should stand so as not to get in the way of exiting passengers. And it worked.

The other Metro story also takes place at Rajiv Chowk. It was one of my last days in Delhi, and I had (of course) been shopping. I had multiple bulky bags with me, including a large bag containing more than 3 kgs of Assam tea. I was meeting Sunil and Navtej at a dance performance, and I had planned my itinerary such that I could hop on the Metro in Connaught Place and get off at Mandi House, close to where many of the auditoriums where performances are held are located. I hadn't really thought about rush hour, but it was about 6:30 by then, high rush hour. The line for the Metro trailed up the stairs and nearly into the street. I debated trying to find a rickshaw but thought I'd see how fast the line was moving first. I had only been in line for a minute when the man in front of me looked at me and gestured to me to go ahead. I wasn't sure what he said, and then I heard the magic words: "Ladies Line." And it was true, that everyone in the very, very, very long line was a man. Who was I to reject a ladies line that was offered to me? I walked down the stairs and through the corridor, past several hundred men, and got into the line that had approximately 5 women in front of me. It turned out to be the line for the security check rather than a ticket line. The young female army person checking the bags seemed startled to see me and all of my bundles. (She was even more startled that I could talk to her in Hindi.) I began to open them up so she could see what was inside--some shawls, some clothes, some fabric and multiple gold foil bags of tea. She looked at me quizzically when she saw all the tea. I shrugged. "I like tea," I told her in Hindi, and she laughed. The rest of my trip was quick, and although I wasn't exactly early for the performance, I wasn't late either.

But that very, very long line of men was like every other line I saw in every Metro station--mellow, patient, polite. The Metro, as far as I can tell, demands politeness of its riders, and the riders oblige.

It would be easy to go on about why it took so long for there to be a viable public transportation system in such a huge city, but really, I'm just happy that it's there now. And I will be even happier in September 2010, when the next phase (which goes down to south Delhi) is finished. I never thought I'd be so excited about a train system in a city I don't even live in, but what can I say--all of that time in Delhi has indelibly printed on me the challenges of getting around there, and every Metro ride (which means one bus or rickshaw ride that doesn't have to happen) still feels like a blessing.

And although my Delhi Metro bag has a broken handle, alas, I will immortalize it here one more time:


Sheryl Kraft said...

I read the article in today's Times and frankly, was very surprised to read about such an efficient and clean subway system like this operating in Delhi. It should serve as a model for subway systems everywhere. I hope NYC can learn from what they're doing in India.

Kristen said...

I've always wanted to visit India. I'm also surprised by their efficient subway system.

Alexandra Grabbe said...

I used to take the express subway in Paris to work. I imagine the Delhi subway is somewhat similar as I recognized certain details, and, since my ex computerized the RER, I remember hearing a lot about subways in the 1970s. Paris had one of the earliest subway systems in the world and exported its know-how on creating express lines. I always appreciated the sign in the original Metro that ordered passengers to give up seats to the handicapped or to pregnant women. It carried over to the express trains. I wonder if it will apply in Delhi, too?

Babette said...

I saw that headline in th NYT--love that you have this connection, too...Your story about the lack of pushing and shoving is sweet--almost "Well, someone just told us this is the way the metro is done.." and they did the idea of the arrows...

Can't wait to get to India myself!


Sue Dickman said...

When I was in Delhi last January, I was with a friend who'd also spent a lot of time in India over the years, and he'd never been on the Metro. At first, he didn't know why I was so insistent that we go, but once we headed down into the station, he understood. The Metro really is unlike anything else in Delhi--basically, nothing else works like that, really, which makes it even more amazing.

I wonder if part of what makes it possible is that it's entirely new, built from scratch where there was nothing like it before. That it's such a revelation (and so infinitely better than the other options, even if it doesn't have the reach of the buses) may be what's keeping it from sliding back into something less than ideal.

Donna Hull said...

A lovely blog post about a country that I've never visited. I would appreciate the lack of pushing and shoving. I'll be looking forward to a post from you after experiencing the metro on your next visit to India.

kerry dexter said...

I really liked your description of your interaction with the security person. I can just picture the expressions on both your faces.

Jennifer Margulis said...

I think it's great that they've built a metro in Delhi. I can totally relate to your love of that country -- though my love is for Niger, West Africa.