The people of Delhi received an unusual ‘gift’ earlier this year. The new subway line – until then traversing only the edges of the city – finally made its way to the centre of town. And, in a development that would have been unusual anywhere in the world, it opened on time!

The Chief Minister announced the new metro with a flourish, offering it as her gift to fellow citizens. Nowhere in the world, she boasted, are massive projects like this completed in such a timely manner. Here was Delhi setting an example to the world.

Predictably, Delhiites were chuffed. At least now, they reasoned, no-one would be able to call Delhi just an ‘overgrown village’. With its own metro, it would take its place in the ranks of the major cities of the world. (And certainly it would surge past Mumbai, whose transport system had until then been its one point of superiority over Delhi).

People were enthralled with the new line as soon as it opened. ‘Have you been on the metro yet?’ became the standard question people asked when they met. Thousands of Delhi’s citizens – holidaying families, young couples and curious students – bought tickets and went along for the ride.

Young lovers found the metro a convenient way to escape the eagle eyes of their parents – instead of hiding in a darkened cinema they rode the trains.

On opening day the whole city decided to party. Families packed hampers of food and set off on foot, in cars and on buses, to ride the metro. Young lovers found the metro a convenient way to escape the eagle eyes of their parents – instead of hiding in a darkened cinema they rode the trains. Teachers rounded up groups of students and went for a ride.

For Ravinder, who lives in the eastern part of the city, the day was significant. With each new metro extension he’d made it a point to be the first passenger. He and a friend of his from the opposite end of Delhi rose at dawn to be at the station when the first train was flagged off from each new station, and then they met up somewhere along the way. Ravinder woke his three children while it was still dark, bundled them up to protect them against the cold, packed them into his car and drove to the metro station, parked, and off they went. Chocolates provided sustenance during the journey, and the children had strict instructions not to litter – after all, the metro was ‘theirs’ and had to be kept clean.

It took several days for the partying to stop and for the metro to assume its role as a much-needed transport system for this creaking-at-all-points city. But the novelty didn’t wear off and people continued to regard the subway much as one would a new film – something that had to be seen. In every conversation, there were those who’d experienced the metro and those who hadn’t. Key stations suddenly developed a new ‘feeder’ system for passengers. The cycle rickshaw, until then limited to certain parts of the city, now became a good way of travelling to and from the station and a new business opportunity was created for the poor. In offices, employees asked for time off to go for a ride on the metro.

Of course, joyrides and celebrations notwithstanding, there were glitches too. One day there were huge delays after an electricity failure but everyone waited patiently for things to get sorted out. Other days a curious newcomer to the metro experience, intrigued by the alarm button, would press it ‘just to try things out’, causing huge delays. At their wits’ end, metro officials were pushed into admonishing the transgressor, much as a parent would a child, saying they would be punished if they continued to be so irresponsible.

In the West, when a new subway line opens, the occasion is usually treated with far less fanfare. The shine wears off quickly. People travel from point A to point B and that is that. But in Delhi the new subway was a cultural event first – a reason for celebration as well as an excuse just to go for a ride. Inevitably, as the metro merges into the life of this city, it is beginning to change the pattern of travel and traffic. The latest line threads through some of the busiest parts of central Delhi. Much of the time it runs above ground, held aloft on sturdy concrete pillars that are numbered for miles and miles. These pillars have now become new markers to provide directions: ‘Just turn left at pillar no 625 and you’ll be there,’ is the kind of thing you hear often.

All this excitement means new future lines are eagerly awaited. Says Ravinder: ‘I’m waiting for my next early morning ride. I have to be the first one!’

Urvashi Bulalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

New Internationalist issue 389 magazine cover This article is from the May 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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