Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Big Story > Track record: Stories from 20 years of the Delhi Metro

Track record: Stories from 20 years of the Delhi Metro

The Delhi Metro is more than a system of public transport: it represents refuge, privacy, freedom and a slow change in the city’s cultural fabric

Mohd Shamim Ansari  and his wife, Tahseen Shaikh, like discovering the city on the Metro.
Mohd Shamim Ansari and his wife, Tahseen Shaikh, like discovering the city on the Metro. (Pradeep Gaur)

Listen to this article

Namita Narula Gandhi lives by the clock. Every workday, she wakes up at 6.30am, gets ready, packs the breakfast and lunch she has prepped the night before, feeds her one-year-old child, and is in her car at 7am. Within 30 minutes, she is on the Delhi Metro’s Yellow Line, travelling from the Haiderpur station to Huda City Centre in Gurugram.

An hour and 50 minutes later, she is hailing an auto for the 10-minute ride to her office, a private hospital, where she works as the head of corporate communications. That’s two-and-a-half hours of travel every morning. It’s the same on the way back. Gandhi doesn’t mind those five hours on the move, for the Metro allows her to be independent.

Also Read: Back on track with the Metro?

“I moved to Sonipat in 2017 after getting married,” explains the 35-year-old, who was born and brought up in Delhi. “The Metro is the reason I can still hold my job. Imagine how much it would cost me in petrol to drive all the way.” She estimates that it would be over 10,000 a month; using the Metro cuts it down to 1,500. Travelling in a bus feels unsafe to her. Shifting to Delhi is not an option since her husband works in Sonipat. Plus, there’s family to take care of her baby at home when she’s at work.

The Metro means different things to different people, whether you are in New Delhi, New York, London or Paris. It can just be another mode of public transport that takes you from point A to B. It can be a place where you indulge in some innocent people-watching. You can enjoy the air-conditioning while the sun blazes outside, try not to overhear an argument, discuss existential questions with friends, meet your sweetheart, read that book that has long been sitting in your bag, talk yourself into writing that complicated article. Or just watch the city through the glass windows. You can do pretty much anything and everything while on the move.

There’s another reason Gandhi prefers the Metro. It offers her “bliss time”: 50 minutes of patchy internet between stations in north and south Delhi, when calls drop every second or messages don’t get delivered on time. That’s when she tunes out from the outside world to listen to music. “In the morning, it’s a bhajan (either Gayatri Mantra or something on Sai Baba). In the evening, trending music; these days, it’s Koka (by Diljit Dosanjh and Sargi Maan). I know, I need to update my list,” she laughs. On days she doesn’t feel like plugging in her earphones, she likes to see what people are wearing. “We all do that, no?” she says. “With the baby, family and work, I hardly ever get time to read up what’s in fashion. During those two hours inside the train, I learn all about the trendy stuff.”

A map of the Delhi Metro network.
A map of the Delhi Metro network. (Wikimedia Commons)

Small beginnings

It was on 24 December 2002 that the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, inaugurated the first Metro corridor, an 8.2km stretch spanning six stations on the Shahdara-Tis Hazari corridor of the Red Line. A mass rapid transit plan, first conceived in the 1960s and formally sanctioned in 1996, had finally come to life six years later following a political push. Vajpayee said it would eventually create a safer, less congested and less polluted Delhi (on a good air index day, Delhi’s reading continues to be poor).

The next day, about 100,000 people used the Metro, while several non-users dismissed it as another government project built to tank. But there was no denying the fact that the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) had built an engineering marvel to navigate a high-density metropolis. Other public transport lifelines at the time—buses and autos—didn’t offer as much safety or the luxury of air-conditioning at a cost of 10 (for 2km or less). For 5-12km, it was 30. And the trains ran on time.

Also Read: Unlock 4.0 | Delhi Metro—memories from pre-covid times

Travelling by the Metro meant you didn’t have to haggle with auto drivers, suffer harassment in packed buses, or get stuck in a traffic jam in sweltering weather. Areas in the vicinity flourished. In the early years, one restaurateur in Connaught Place said it had revived business, particularly on weekends, as crowds from relatively distant areas poured in. It has also enabled easier access to heritage areas like Chandni Chowk.

Twenty years later, the Delhi Metro is an integral part of life in the city, with close to 400km of tracks shooting out in every direction, connecting 286 stations across the city and neighbouring states—a network no other Metro in India has built till now. Each day, it ferries close to six million people in the world’s second most populated city of 31 million. So impressed are other states by the DMRC’s efforts that they have roped them in as consultants to build Metro projects in Mumbai and Patna, and Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. “We are also bidding for consultancy of international Metro projects such as Tel Aviv (Israel), Alexandria (Egypt), Mauritius, Bahrain and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam),” says Anuj Dayal, principal executive director and official spokesperson of Delhi Metro.

He believes the success of the Delhi Metro can be attributed to “various factors ranging from planning, execution, efficient workforce and technological advancement. Our Metro lines connect almost all the important residential areas, major markets, other modes of transport systems such as railways and inter-state bus services, educational and healthcare hubs, and IT corridors in entire Delhi-National Capital Region. We are further expanding the network under Phase 4 project to connect the uncovered areas in Delhi to improve mobility.”

While recovering from the loss of over 3,800 crore in March 2022, owing to reduced ridership during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, the 15,000-workforce at DMRC is working to add three more corridors in and around the city, stretching the network another 65km with an extra 45 stations.

Niggling issues

Despite this massive web, it’s not all hunky-dory. Land acquisition issues have dogged it on occasion. Dayal merely says they were able to acquire land as per the law. By the time work began, Delhi had changed completely; the alignment had to adjust to what was possible underground or overground.

Last-mile connectivity remains a big issue, pushing up commuting costs and posing a security challenge for people returning late at night. Fare increases over the years have pushed out lower-income passengers. Many stations don’t have parking facilities, discouraging people who would prefer to use the Metro. Long walks and stairs within stations are not easy to navigate, especially for the elderly and the disabled. On some lines, rush hour is an unbearable crush.

Any city needs good public transport, says public mobility expert Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (research and advocacy) at the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). “A lot of people have to use cars, cabs or autos to reach a Metro station in Delhi. That discourages them from using the Metro. Last-mile connectivity is one of the most crucial aspects we need to focus on. We need to give people the right options. Nobody likes to waste time in a jam with bad air.”

The capital city of one of the world’s biggest economies is also among the most polluted. At the time of writing this article, the city’s AQI was swinging between “severe” and “very severe”, a familiar trend over three years that leads to temporary shutdowns of schools every year.

A November study by the CSE found that vehicles, including private cars, are one of the biggest contributors to particulate matter (PM10) in Delhi. Towards late October, vehicular emissions accounted for 51% of the concentration of PM 2.5, inhalable microscopic materials less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. What makes this data more concerning is that only a small number of families in the city own cars—19.4%, according to the latest data from the National Family Health Survey.

An eight-coach Metro train.
An eight-coach Metro train. (Hindustan Times)

Where worlds meet

Shreya Johri has travelled by the Metro since she was in class XI because it’s right outside her east Delhi house. As her grandparents grew too old to drop her, and pick her up, from school, they encouraged her to use a “safer” mode of public transport. Soon, it became her ride to a nearby Noida market, where, along with friends, she would drink banta. “It was all like 25, coming, going and drinking,” recalls Johri, 27. “We talked on the way, in the market, and saved money—it was just so easy.”

It was where she had her college “Metro romance”. For one-and-a-half years of the three years she studied in Delhi university’s north campus, she used to take the Blue Line from her home in Mayur Vihar to Rajiv Chowk station to meet her crush-turned-friend-turned-boyfriend. Together, they would board the Yellow Line, not for college, but to the Huda City Centre. They would get something to eat at a street food joint and return to the Metro platform to continue chatting, about their dreams, their friends , their lives, and their next date. By evening, they would ride same the route back home. Even after they broke up towards the end of college, they continued travelling in the Metro together as friends to go to college.

Also Read: This new book is a people's account of the Delhi Metro

“We used to forget checking our phones, sometimes we even missed stations. It was such an easy way of sitting in a clean, air-conditioned place, and nobody disturbed you,” she recalls. “Those Metro rides gave us the confidence to be free, to be like proper adults who could take their own decisions. It might sound like an exaggeration but it really did teach me how to be independent—and more than anything, it was safe.”

Gandhi doesn’t agree entirely, though she is a devoted Metro user. She has been robbed twice. The first time, the thief slashed her mother’s purse and took out 15,000 they were carrying to go shopping in west Delhi. Since then, her mother, who had used the Metro for 15 years, has stopped travelling on it.

A few months earlier, when Gandhi was returning from work, someone took her iPod—her first luxury purchase—from her pocket. Cases of crime and theft are common on the Metro. A December 2021 Times Of India report states that till 7 November, of the 2,174 crimes that were reported in the year, 80% were of theft. The police said 1,380 were solved and 564 people were arrested. The previous year, the report states, “2,113 cases were reported, 1,170 solved and 204 people arrested”.

As of December 2022, each station has at least over 10 theft cases, shows the Delhi Metro site. The super-crowded Kashmere Gate has the most, at 132, followed by Rajiv Chowk, 44, and Netaji Subhash Place, 42. Okhla Vihar has the lowest, at 10.

Dayal says: “The security and law and order in Metro premises is handled by CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) and the Metro units of local police in Delhi-NCR. These forces have adequate presence of their personnel in Metro premises and have been doing excellent work.”

Aditya Sharma differs and says one has to be cautious while travelling in the Metro. One December morning last year, when the west Delhi resident was taking the Metro from Uttam Nagar to feed stray dogs in areas near the next two stations—something he had been doing daily for a year after losing Pluto, his first pet dog—a thief stole the only 500 note in his pocket. “I informed the authorities but nothing happened,” he says., though he still considers the Metro the most convenient and fastest mode of transport. “I can walk to the station from my house, carrying the food for the dogs I feed,” says the 65-year-old.

It’s this convenience that makes the Metro everyone’s darling. According to an estimate by The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), the Metro will help passengers save an annual 572.5 million hours in 2031.

For Sharma or Johri, the nearest station is less than a minute from home. This is exactly why Suvina Rai, a north Delhi resident, used to prefer the train to reach her office in Gurugram, south of south Delhi. Every Monday-Friday, she would find a quiet corner and immerse herself in the world of P.G. Wodehouse or Harry Potter. “Those 60 minutes felt like meditation,” recalls Rai, now based in Bengaluru. “Whenever I am in Delhi, I prefer the Metro.”

Challenges remain

One of the big challenges to last-mile connectivity is the Capital’s population. “Delhi is a challenging city because of its huge population. Secondly, economic growth is so high that it encourages owning private cars,” says Roychowdhry, who, too, ends up using her private vehicle to travel from her house on the outskirts of Delhi to her office in the city’s southern parts. “The Metro station is far from my house. It will take me more time to reach office if I use it,” she says.

That’s why Mohd Shamim Ansari uses a motorcycle to reach his office in Okhla from Jamia Nagar. When he first arrived in Delhi in 2017 and was working further away in Gurugram, the train was his go-to. Those two hours in the train were like a peek into Delhi life. Ansari couldn’t help but overhear stories of someone’s house help not showing up for work, or a boyfriend checking whether their significant other had had breakfast before leaving for work. On the same train, colleagues became his best friends. On weekends, he would take the train to Lodhi Gardens or Qutab Minar, familiarising himself with the city on his own. Nowadays, his wife, Tahseen Shaikh, accompanies him. “I would have continued using the Metro for work but the station is too far from the office,” he says. “Just doesn’t make any sense wasting time.”

A train station should ideally be within a 200m radius to compel residents to use it over personal vehicles or commercial personal vehicles such as cabs, says Roychowdhry. “Public transport is all about convenience. It’s a nightmare getting cabs, autos, or even walking if the station is far. Let’s not forget that our Delhi roads are made for cars, not for pedestrians,” says Roychowdhry. “Public transport has to come to people.”

She cites the example of Kolkata. “You just need to get out of the house and there’s something available for you to navigate the city, whether it’s a bus or an auto. Kolkata’s public transport system is one of the country’s oldest networks Delhi can learn from,” explains Roychowdhry. “We also need to realise that just offering world-class transport is not enough. There need to be systems in place to ensure there are no traffic jams because of the extra buses, rickshaws, autos on the road.”

That’s part of the Delhi government’s plan. As the fourth phase of Delhi Metro commences, the aim is to expand other modes, including buses and autos, to reach the last mile within the city at least.

“If Delhi wants to be the clean national capital of the country, we need to clean up the pollution and give more people the option to use the Metro,” says Roychowdhry. “Otherwise, it won’t be liveable in the next 10-20 years.”

Namita Narula Gandhi would like the Metro to be closer to her house. It would mean more me- and-we-time for herself, her child and family. “I don’t know life beyond work and family right now. Metro is my refuge, where I get time to be with myself,” she says. “And 30 minutes more of that would be more than welcome.”

Also Read: Go on a nihari trail in the streets of Old Delhi and Agra

Next Story