This is the first article in a two-part series on the Delhi metro.
It has been said that the metro has changed the face of Delhi.
It has also been said that it has changed forever the way Dilliwallahs travel.
Let us take a closer look at these two claims – like all generalisations these two statements are true in more than one sense. In one sense these changes are positive, but there are dimensions that are normally ignored in the dominantly self-congratulatory atmosphere that is created around every conversation about Delhi Metro Rail Corporation.
We are not going to dwell on the positives, enough has been said and is being said daily. What we are going to do is to take the statement about the metro having changed the face of Delhi. Is it really something to be proud of?
All over the world, metros have generally tried to achieve two things – to be unobtrusive and to be invisible. The adherence to these objectives has been prompted by a desire to ensure that the general look and feel of the city is disturbed or altered as little as possible, and whenever and wherever it becomes necessary the additions should try to merge with the surroundings.
The Delhi metro has gone about its business as if to prove that it will go against these two practices as much as possible. Except for the areas where the government of India has its offices and the very thickly populated bits of Shahjahanabad and its immediate surroundings, the metro lines are all overhead.
The only argument that has been advanced in defence of this strategy is that tunnelling is more time-consuming and it is a tad more expensive then taking the tracks overhead. The destruction of the skyline of the entire city through the erection of these eyesores of gigantic pylons that loom all over the city is something that does not seem to bother anyone.
The costs of the psychological impact of disturbed sleep due to the noise and rumble of trains trundling by the houses of those who live cheek by jowl of the tracks in parts of south Delhi, in large parts of west Delhi, northwest Delhi and elsewhere is something that has not even been factored in by those trying to meet unrealistic deadlines.
The high levels of suspended particulate matter, including hygroscopic nuclei (minuscule particles of dust and carbon around which moisture collects leading to the formation of smog) leads to increasing instances of deposits on copper traction wire joints. These deposits lead to friction sparking and electric faults in the overhead sections. This is only going to increase with more deposits due to increasing pollution, bird droppings and kite strings getting entangled in the traction wires. The cumulative effect of all this will be increasing instances of ‘minor technical faults’. The mounting costs of all this could have been avoided had the entire metro been underground.
Time saved in building overhead tracks and the rush to beat their own deadlines has its own downside, one of which is accidents and casualties. According to a New Indian Express report, 156 workers’ lives have been lost on metro construction sites between 2002 and end 2017 – and this does not include the figure for fatalities resulting from collapsing beams or falling debris on passers-by.
We do not recollect if the metro rail corporation had commissioned any study to understand the long-term physical, neurological and psychological impact on those who will be constantly exposed to this increase in the ambient noise levels on the streets and residential areas through which the metro lines run. One wonders what kind of committees oversee such projects and how it is that such long-term effects on the health of those who live in these localities are not factored into any project report.
Can you think of any society, even a moderately modernised society, that will allow an overhead train system tearing through the heart of a university every couple of minutes? The magenta line, inaugurated recently by none other than India’s great cutter of ribbons, does so as it rushes through the Jamia University.
It is not that the university did not protest, it is not that the university did not ask for the line to run underground, it did all that, but was told ‘Sorry’. The arguments of additional costs and delays in timely completion of the project are standard answers to all requests for reconsideration of the initial proposal.
The long-term costs of regular disruption of the teaching-learning process for decades to come is something that is obviously not a priority, the profitability of public transport through cutting corners, acquiring huge tracts of real estate to build malls and increasing costs of tickets to an extent that the poor are driven out of the metro are things that take precedence over everything else.
Why is it that no one, but no one, asks the metro one basic question: At a time when you are expanding at breakneck speed and pumping in as much of your resources and borrowings into expanding the network of tracks, rolling stock, signalling equipment and a whole lot of other facilities necessary for a constantly growing network, how can you make a profit? And if you continue to increase the cost of travelling, you will continue to push out the economically vulnerable, the very people who a public transport facility should try its hardest to retain. What is happening is the exact opposite.
After the last increase introduced a few months ago, the metro lost 145,000 passengers daily, that comes to 4,350,000 per month 0r 52,200,000 per year. Instead of accepting this decline, all that the DMRC has been doing is to add the new passengers who have begun to travel on the newly added lines and to say that instead of a decline there is net gain. The intentions are clear, project obfuscation has replaced all other claims about providing an efficient and affordable transport system to the residents of Delhi.
If despite all noises about an efficient transport system, about building among the most modern and most punctual urban transport network in the world, you end up driving away the very people in whose name the institution was created, then you need to take a hard look at your priorities. Are you heading towards becoming a daily commute only for the middle and upper middle class? Then there is need to redefine your brief.
Sohail Hashmi is a filmmaker, writer and heritage buff.