New Delhi residents cheer arrival of new Metro system

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

NEW DELHI -- Public transportation in this congested capital long meant riding buses so stuffed that they tilted as passengers precariously hung out of the doors. Then came the Metro, and this city's tryst with destiny and destination began.

"The Metro is beautiful! It is clean and air-conditioned. Nobody pushes into you," Surendra Jha, a 65-year-old turbaned Hindu priest, said outside a station on a hot day. "And the doors open automatically, like the gates of heaven!"

Many in the capital have been embarrassed by their city's lack of a clean and safe public transportation system, especially as the economy boomed and India's prominence grew. Now, as the project nears completion, residents say their city is finally on the fast track to becoming modern and world-class.

The gleaming new Metro has gradually seduced residents since the first section opened in 2002. By September, it will carry 2 million people daily along 118 miles of track, just in time for India's first turn hosting the Commonwealth Games. The sporting event will bring athletes from 71 former British colonies to New Delhi, and the Metro features into plans to showcase the city.

"With the arrival of the Metro, many people in Delhi now say, 'We are like other big cities of the world now. We have an advanced, super-high-tech Metro.' It is an important marker of the direction of development of the city," said Rashmi Sadana, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and is writing a book on the Metro.

But the rail system is also helping people see past the traditional divisions in a country with a rigid social structure.

"It has a mix of different classes of people from different geographies like no other space in the city," Sadana said. "People are looking beyond their communities in a new way and going to places they did not go to before. They look at the Metro map, and it has created a new way of looking and thinking about the city."

In a city where spitting and litter abound, the trains and stations are clean, a sign that the Metro is transforming public behavior -- at least during the ride.

"It is a different world inside the Metro," said Anuj Dayal, chief spokesman for the Delhi Metro Rail Corp. "In some places, the contrast is too stark. You come out of the First World environment of the Metro into a street that is chaotic, crowded, noisy, filthy . . . It's like a time machine."

On a recent weekday on the train, sari-clad working women looked worriedly at their watches, and young executives jabbed impatiently at their BlackBerrys. Oil-haired, betel-chewing men cut deals on cellphones. A group of nervous-looking first-timers read all the instructions, staring intensely at the Metro map.

At the escalators in a station, a middle-aged woman was close to tears as she tried to step into the rhythm of the moving stairs as other commuters urged her on.

When the Metro rolls into poorer neighborhoods, teens in jeans and tunics enact street plays to give lessons on keeping the train clean, on using the escalators -- and on not throwing stones at the trains. "The Metro will bring you honor, this is your city's pride," a group sang on a street teeming with people, honking scooters, cows, goats and garbage.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company