Lakshmi Sarah

Producer, Educator & Writer

Ode to the Delhi Metro

This post originally appeared in Project Groundswell

My fear of Delhi began sometime in the wee hours of the morning a few years ago when I was stuck in a freshly puked-in waiting room near the airport. This fear continued the day I stepped off a plane from the tranquility of Ladakh (a mountainous province in the north) into a mad rush of men offering me a taxi. I cried and retreated back into the airport to regain my composure. But this time, accompanied by friends and a new metro system, Delhi was different.

“Wow, this is like China” and “this is exactly like Singapore” were just some of the comments I heard. With the new metro, I now have a slight idea where I am in relation to everything else and could approximate my travel times to different stations. And as a lone female, I feel slightly more safe in the metro compared to the bus, perhaps because I knew exactly how long I will have to bear standing next to the smelly man next to me.

A metro system in the world’s eighth largest city was long overdue. Begun in 1998, the Dehli Metro now has 6 lines covering 153 km. Daily ridership is over 1.4 million people, helping to ease the Delhi’s notoriously clogged streets.

delhi metroWomen riders on the Delhi Metro. Photo by flickr user Carol Mitchell

The Metro has recently reached Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi. According to locals, it used to take at least an hour and a half to reach Delhi. Now, the journey takes half an hour.  The metro has air-conditioning and the lines aren’t too long at most stations.

Riders of other metro systems in Europe would be livid if they saw how riders of the Delhi Metro do not wait for passengers to get off before they begin getting on, but perhaps this too shall come with time.

I have traveled, waited, and wandered public transit systems from Los Angeles and New York to Berlin, London and Prague, and one thing I wondered is: Does Delhi’s metro system bring it closer to the so-called West or to some ideal of development and is this a good thing? What critiques could I come up with of the amazingly convenient system of transportation that seemed to save everyone time and money?

I wonder what the cost of the project was and what (even who) it displaced? I wonder if it is accessible enough to the people who built the walls and structures to hold it up. I wonder if there is or could have been a way to Indianize the barren walls and metal seats, not to make it more “traditional” but to add an Indian flair if you will – something to make it seem less sterile.

inside the delhi metroPhoto by flickr user Carol Mitchell

In addition, each metro car has at least two seats reserved for women. As a woman, I find this convenient, but almost patronizing. The voice of the metro tells riders to “Please vacate seats for senior citizens, physically challenged and ladies.” Are we then on the same level? Some have suggested a separate car for ladies, this is done in other cities where there are separate buses as well. Is this not continually placing band-aids on a larger problem? It makes me think about the “separate but equal” verdicts of the civil rights era in the United States. For the moment, it allows the few women who do ride the metro a temporary respite from the men who seem to outnumber them more than 10 to one.

As I reflect on my interactions with Delhi, I think back to the first night we spent together, in that puked in waiting room. The one silver lining to my previous wait in the wee hours of the morning was a man a nearby bookshop. As I wandered in and perused the new and used books, we began chat. We spoke of books and travels. I shared my Kerala cashews and we had tea. Before I left he invited me to his wedding.

no spitting signNo-spitting sign on the Delhi Metro. Photo by flickr user wen-yan king

Urban transportation systems should take into account a country’s heritage, history, and people. I hope that instead of continuing to imitate the West for something cheaper, faster and more cost efficient, that the Delhi metro takes on its own personality. This personality would ideally maintain the “no spitting” sign, but perhaps re-think the “don’t make friends” warning that is blared from the loudspeakers (though I guess it is pretty hard to stop for chai on the metro).

Though it’s not perfect, I am a fan of the Delhi metro.

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This entry was posted on October 4, 2010 by in Project Groundswell Posts.

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