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A date with Metro…

I was reading Ruskin Bond’s account of Delhi of the 1960s while flying back home. Though it is a period I don’t relate to (my parents probably will), I found his vignettes engrossing. I’ve spent a great part of my life (almost entirely) in Delhi and yet it’s a city I’ve never quite belonged to. My visits here are reluctant, almost grudging and are mostly confined to seeing family and attending to work, this time however, I had a little escapade planned.

The Metro rail project is one of the most ambitious projects I’ve ever seen in this city or for that matter in this country. The execution has been meticulous, on schedule and thoroughly professional, something which is more of an exception in India than norm. Traffic in Delhi, like in most big cities in the world, has been, and remains, a nagging problem. The Metro, Delhi’s answer to Metro in Kolkata and Mumbai’s local trains, is meant to address the increasing congestion that plagues roads of Delhi. The construction has been (and still is) on in full swing for past 6 years or so. The first section became functional in December 2002, about two months after I had moved to Bangalore – an irony of sorts because I was privy to all the traffic snarl ups caused by construction of the Metro infrastructure, in a hope that in grand scheme of things they would only serve to convenience my commutes. (To tell you the truth, the traffic flow in some areas of the city had actually improved, thanks to the conscientious planning and routing by Metro workers!). Now since I wouldn’t swap my current stay in Bangalore for living in Delhi in near (or far) foreseeable future, I requested my sis to take me for a guided tour of the Metro on Sunday.

Elevated tracks and corridor: They had mushroomed in the middle of this busy road with astonishing alacrity (I had endured countless traffic jams at this very crossing just 2 years ago). Note the colorful mosaic of numerous ceramic tiles in the background of second picture:

We started our ride from Shastri Nagar; there is a Metro station at a walkable distance from our home. The Metro in Delhi, at least the current functional phase, largely uses elevated tracks. The stations are clean, airy and spacious. Not being in the basement has allowed them to do away with the air-conditioning. While it felt pleasant even at 2:00 PM in noon in February, I am certain it will not stay the same once the hot Delhi summers beckon. Overall, the focus has been on basics rather than floss, and indeed the basics have been covered well. My first reaction at entering station was to pull out my camera and snap a picture, which was met with disapproving yelps and angry looks from the customer service counter near the entrance – photography at all Metro stations is prohibited. I felt sheepish at having been reproached for a seemingly harmless act and apologized; it certainly had tarnished my mood for our onward journey. The tickets are affordably priced – a one way journey to Shahadra (an otherwise arduous 70 minute commute by road) is priced at 7 Rs, the highest published fare yet. The frequency of trains is good, with a train every 3 minutes.

The entrance to Shastri Nagar Metro station, photography beyond this point is prohibited (while I have one picture that I clicked inside, I’ll refrain from publishing it):

Our designated train arrived within two minutes of our having brought the tickets. The doors slid open and we hopped in. My first experience with trains as a means of commute within city was in Hong Kong four years ago, and it felt exactly like that. The trains fortunately, unlike the stations, are air-conditioned. Even on a Sunday afternoon, the train was running full. We were standing for rest of our journey that lasted 20 minutes. There were 6 stations between Shastri Nagar and Shahadara, each about three minutes away from other; with a stop time of half a minute. All stations have been tastefully done. Each station has its own unique two-color scheme that it follows consistently. There are large, colorful ceramic tile murals at each station that are pretty and vivid. The announcements inside train, first in crisp Hindi followed by English informed us of our arrival at Shahadara. We stepped out, went to the exit, and proceeded to locate the ticketing counter for buying tickets for ride back home. I had recovered from the calamitous prospect of not having been allowed to photograph and was my usual keen observant self (I did try seeking permission to photograph at Shahadara station again, without much use).

Route Map, the dotted lines indicate routes that are not yet functional

For the first time I have seen accessibility provisions made at a public utility place in India. There were doors in the train for disabled, special exit gates at stations and elevators to allow them to reach the two storey high train platforms – at most places in India, these little nuances get overlooked.

May be I am tenacious, but I wasn’t still convinced that photography was banned here! I mean this wasn’t a defense installation but an ordinary public use area. I finally came across a poster with catalog of prohibited items/actions. I reproduce the complete list, without permission, with occasional spicy remarks of my own:

Littering (yup, it is not implicitly implied in India)
Food or Drink
Flammable Materials (we ought to be traveling naked, clothes are flammable ;-), I am deliberately being unreasonable :-))
Spitting (yup, in India that needs to be told)
Photography (sulk, sulk)
Heavy Luggage (not sure how they were going to impose that)

Some rules and laws in India tend to defy logic (for instance, when flying, photography over all Indian territory is prohibited – little ludicrous given the fact that thanks to advancements in satellite imagery, I can pretty much pin-point and capture any street or important installation from space with a resolution as high as few centimeters) but some of them are plain hilarious. Take for instance this notice at the ticketing counter:

“वयस्क के साथ 3 फीट ऊँचाई तक के बच्चे की यात्रा मुफ़्त है।”
“Travel of child upto 3 feet with adult is free”

I’ve seen tickets being priced differently depending on age of your child, but never his/her height! And yes, believe it or not they had means of imposing this! At the customer service booth near the entry to the main platform, is a yellow marking where a child suspected of having grown beyond the mandated 3 feet limit for free rides, would be made to stand for measurements! Fortunately, they did not have a decree prohibiting sketching at the stations, here is a rough sketch of the customer service cubicle:

The journey back home was insipidly swift. I was all but thoroughly impressed! Such immense progress in such a short span of time is not something you get to witness in Delhi all that often. The sheer proportions and fastidious execution of the Metro project would ensure it a place in History books; not to mention the profitability that the proper day-to-day operations of the Metro would entail...

posted: 1.3.04

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