By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; A09
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.
Analysts say that many blighted, low-income neighborhoods have been reborn with the arrival of the Metro. Anshuman Magazine, the South Asia chairman of the real estate consultancy CB Richard Ellis, calls the Metro "a game-changer," raising land prices and improving infrastructure.
Roads have been widened; delis, greeting-card shops and cellphone stores have mushroomed. Outside one station in a poor area, a new mall, an office complex and a cafe have replaced a sprawling vegetable bazaar and a warren of shacks that choked the street before.
"This place has changed beyond recognition. The chaos is gone; so have the poor people," said Sunil Kumar, a clerk at a school nearby.
Not everyone sees the urban development as a sign of progress.
"Rise in land prices is being touted as an achievement. It benefits only those who own property, not the whole society," said Dunu Roy, the director of Hazard Center, a city planning advocacy group. "Only the affluent can afford to live in places around the Metro lines now."
A big test will come this summer, when the Metro system arrives in the car-dependent, privileged southern areas of the city. New Delhi has more than 6 million vehicles and adds 1,000 every day.
"My car will stay. The Metro won't go everywhere, and I cannot be seen in auto-rickshaws at some places," said Gita Anand, a jewelry designer in south Delhi.
The Metro frequently appears in ads and movies, on billboards to highlight progress, and even in political-party manifestos. Visiting dignitaries use a quick Metro commute for a photo-op. Every time a new line is inaugurated, India's top politicians ride the Metro with a battery of security guards.
At the new Metro museum, a map shows the timeline of when the system will reach new neighborhoods. People crowd the map, running their fingers along the routes.
"The Metro is safe for women, even after dark," said Bhoomika Pathak, an 18-year-old biotechnology student. "I don't go to places that are not connected by the Metro anymore."