Last month I did some temporary work in Delhi. This was almost ten years after I’d last been in the Indian capital and while in many ways the city hadn’t changed much – it still seemed as exhilaratingly but exasperatingly hectic, noisy, crowded and colourful as ever – there was one very noticeable alteration. The Delhi Metro system, which in 2004 had only existed as some big, newly-excavated trenches and mounds of earth, is now in operation and it’s a lot easier to get around the place. What, then, did I make of my experiences as a subway-traveller in India’s main city?
It certainly looks good. It’s big, spacious and shiny in a way that puts much of the London Tube to shame. However, it’s also, inevitably, busy. There are dense crowds crossing those concourses, ascending and descending those escalators and waiting on those platforms and, especially during the rush hours, getting on and off the trains is not an experience for the faint-hearted. I remember being on a train one day when we arrived at one of the busiest stops, Central Secretariate. A guy on board the train had positioned himself in front of the doors, in readiness to get off – but when the doors opened, in surged dozens of bodies and the poor guy was immediately flung back to the other side of the carriage, like somebody swept off a beach by a tsunami.
Actually, struggling – shouldering – my way off a train one particularly busy evening, it occurred to me that my body was aching in ways that it hadn’t ached since the days when I played rugby.
I was also struck by how security-conscious the system was. In each station you first have to pass through a security check. Every traveller – and as I said above, there are a lot of travellers – has to dump his or her bags, briefcases, packages, folders, etc. on a conveyor belt at the side that glides through one scanner, before filing through another, bigger scanner and then getting a perfunctory once-over from a security guard with a baton-shaped metal detector. It’s impressive that they manage to check everyone but the process doesn’t look terribly thorough. Perhaps that’s why on the trains a recorded voice and a warning-message scrolling along the electronic signboards keep reminding you, “Any unattended or suspicious article, like a briefcase, bag, toy, thermos or transistor, could be a bomb.” (And I assume it’s for security purposes too that you aren’t allowed to use a camera in the stations or trains, which is why there are no photographs accompanying this post.)
In fact, soldiers with automatic rifles are a common sight on Delhi’s Metro. Where I normally got off the train in the evenings, at Lajpat Nagar station, I had to walk past a lectern-cum-desk at which a solider sat with a carbine resting on the surface in front of him, barrel pointing out across the concourse. Each time I walked past him, there came a moment when I sensed that the barrel was aligned exactly with my head.
Appropriately, given the well-publicised reports about sexual assaults in India recently, there are particular security measures laid on for women. The first carriage of each train is usually designated as the ‘ladies’ carriage’ and it’s a punishable offence for men to attempt to travel in it. Also, groups of deadly-looking Indian lady soldiers, quite capable of kicking the shit out of any leering male chauvinist, sometimes ride along in that carriage for a few stops, making sure all there is quiet and hassle-free.
Where that ladies’ carriage stops alongside the platforms, there are sometimes signs saying WOMEN ONLY suspended overhead or stuck to the platform-surfaces underfoot. Just to make it clear whom these signs refer to, they are pink in colour and dotted with flower-shapes. Because that’s what all ladies like, pinkness and flowers. Right?
Actually, the people in charge of the Delhi Metro show strong concern about all their passengers’ welfare. That’s why on the trains you’re bombarded by aural and visual messages, asking you in polite but slightly authoritarian tones to keep clear of the doors when you arrive at a station, to allow people space to get on and off, to avoid sitting on the floors, to avoid playing loud music and to give up give up certain seats to ‘senior citizens’ and ‘the differently abled’. I have to say that most of these requests – apart from the one asking men to stay out of the ladies’ carriage – are ignored.
You might expect the Metro to have had a devastating effect on the city’s more traditional forms of public transport – i.e. its pedal-powered rickshaws and its motorised auto-rickshaws – but these are still much in evidence because there are swathes of the city that the Metro system doesn’t reach (yet). You might also expect the presence of this new, extensive and cheap competitor to instil some humbleness, politeness and reasonableness in the heads of Delhi’s auto-rickshaw drivers, but it doesn’t seem to have done so. I found them a pain to deal with – not interested in going where I needed them to go, and sometimes demanding 20 or 30 rupees more than the fare on the meter. Their equivalents in Colombo aren’t saints either, but compared to the Delhi drivers they’re much nicer.
It’s self-defeating. After a few days, I got fed up with their bullshit and subsequently tried to use the Metro as much as I could. Another customer defects to the opposition…