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Riding the Delhi Metro

On my first visit to New Delhi, in 2009, my parents and I stayed in a hotel within walking distance of the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg station on the blue line of the Delhi Metro. At this station, the blue line still runs above ground, but this is the last elevated station before the line plunges underground. One of the first times my parents and I rode the Metro was on a Saturday morning. We climbed the stairs from street level to the station, bought RF-ID metrocards with value stored on them, went through a quick security check that made sure we weren’t carrying any guns or bombs, and then climbed the rest of the way to the platform level. When we got to the platform, there were only a few people milling around, waiting for the next train. As minutes passed, the platform slowly but steadily filled up with people, until there was a crowd of hundreds standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the platform.

The train had better be empty, I thought, because there is a trainfull of people standing here on the platform.

At last, the train arrived, and as it pulled up to the platform I saw that it was already packed full of people. The train slowed to a halt, the doors opened with a ding, and all at once the crowd on the station platform surged into the train. My parents and I had no choice but to go along. As we crossed the threshold and stepped into the coach, other people pressing in on us from all directions, I had a brief moment of panic. This is where I die, I thought, trampled to death in the Delhi Metro.

I am happy to report that I did not die while boarding the blue line. I did not even suffer any physical harm. Somehow, the bodies already in the coach managed to compress and make room for all the bodies that had been standing on the station platform. Once everybody was inside, the doors shut and we were off. As we pulled away from the station, a young man next to me started chatting with me and asked if he could take a photo with me (and the forty other people standing in close proximity with us) with his mobile phone. He told me that there was a fair today, and that explained why there were so many people riding the Metro on a Saturday.

When the Delhi Metro opened in 2002, it became the newest and sleekest addition to Delhi’s public transportation infrastructure, joining buses, local trains, Ambassador and Maruti taxis, autorickshaws, and cycle rickshaws. Each electric-traction Metro train consists of four, six, or eight coaches built by Bombardier, which have benches along the sides of the interior and plenty of standing room in the middle. The Indian broad-gauge lines of the Metro radiate out from the city center, covering the National Capital Territory and stretching out into the two adjoining states, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The biggest station is Rajiv Chowk, where the blue and yellow lines meet. The station is built under the center of the circular shopping district Connaught Place in the British-planned part of the city. Whenever I have been to Rajiv Chowk, it has always been busy, with long queues waiting on the platforms for the two lines.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has had to socialize the population of Delhi to use the Metro, because subways are a technology that originated in the West during the Industrial Revolution and can only be adapted so much to Indian culture and conditions. Announcements piped over the station intercoms in Hindi and English (the Delhi Metro is totally bilingual) remind passengers boarding the train to allow other passengers to disembark first. Posters in the stations masquerade as fun trivia but really take part in the socialization as well: “Did you know? 95% of all passengers cooperate with CISF [Central Industrial Security Force] personnel during security checks.” I have a strong suspicion that this is part of the proverbial 40% of statistics that are made up.

The socialization has worked to some extent, but still not everybody follows the instructions for the security checks and it is common for passengers to shove into a coach while others are trying to disembark. Getting onto a train can be challenging, and getting off equally so, as you have to shove past passengers who are not getting off at the same station as you. For the most part, though, other passengers are courteous, asking you to make side if they are getting of before you, or helping to eject you from the train when you have reached your stop.

Fares on the Delhi Metro generally range from Rs. 9 to Rs. 21, which in US currency is 15¢ to 35¢. Most of the passengers I have seen on the trains appear to be businesspeople, students, or government servants, although tickets are cheap enough that working-class people can afford to ride too. In recent years, there has been plenty of infrastructural development in the Delhi area that has been for the privileged classes only, such as shopping malls where the guards at the doors are instructed to turn away anybody who appears working-class. The Delhi Metro, on the other hand, is for the aam aadmi (common people).

A later addition to the Delhi Metro system is the Airport Express Line; it opened in 2013. It runs from the suburb of Dwarka to New Delhi Railway Station in just 25 minutes. Unlike the main lines, the airport line is almost never crowded, and I have gotten a seat every time I have ridden on it. (On the main line, I almost never get a seat.) This speed and convenience comes at a higher ticket price: Rs. 90 or $1.50 for a one-way trip. This hasn’t stopped commuters who live in the suburbs from using the express line, in addition to the jet-setters for whom the line was ostensibly built.

I can’t help but be enamored by the Delhi Metro. It makes getting around the city so much easier. New Delhi was inaugurated 69 years before the Delhi Metro opened, and the history of civilization in the area goes back at least three thousand years before that. But for me, Delhi wouldn’t be Delhi without the Metro.

Horn Please

“Hamara Bajaj” - mudflap for a Bajaj scooter.

“Hamara Bajaj” – mudflap for a Bajaj scooter.

On an afternoon walk in an undeveloped forest area just outside of Jaipur this summer, I found a small souvenir of Indian technology: a hard-rubber scooter mudflap, with the words “Hamara Bajaj” and “Horn Please” molded on it.1 This is one of many examples I have seen of vehicles, or parts of vehicles, asking for the use of signaling devices. Variations on this theme include “Horn Do,” “Awaz Do” (“awaz” is Hindi for “sound” or “voice”), and “Use dipper [turn indicator] at night.”

Traffic on an Indian road may be chaotic, but it is not completely disorganized. There is an order—and it revolves around the use of the horn.

The sound of vehicle horns is the main element of the background noise of an Indian city. Horn sounds vary widely, from flat tones to trills to tunes. In most part of my home country, the United States, horns are mainly used in anger. My own Toyota Corolla has such a wimpy horn sound that I am embarrassed to use it. But in India, horns are used constantly as a signaling method. Vehicles tend to drive toward the center of roads, where the pavement is better. If a faster vehicle approaches from behind, the driver honks to announce his approach. If the way is clear, the slower vehicle honks back in response, then pulls over and sometimes waves the faster vehicle forward. Every type of vehicle takes part in this signaling system, because every form of transportation—from pedestrian on up—joins the traffic flow on the left side of the road.

Horns have other uses too. I was once in a taxi van when the driver overshot his turn off of the busy Tonk Road in Jaipur. Rather than circling around or finding a different route, he simply put his vehicle in reverse and backed up to his turn, blasting his horn all the way.

Traffic flow in India is more flexible than the regimented, linear procession of vehicles on most American roads. Lane lines and center-stripes, where they exist, are suggestions. A road with three marked lanes might have five lanes of traffic weaving in and out of each other. Except where solid medians prohibit it, traffic will often spill across the center-line onto the right side of the road. And even where a median is in place, it is not an impermeable barrier. If a scooter or rickshaw driver can negotiate a shortcut that will take him on the right side of the road, he will.

The point I want to make is that traffic customs in India work, even though they might seem chaotic and anarchical to a western (especially American) visitor. Traffic in India works by rules, which just happen to be more flexible than the rules in the West.

But let us not romanticize Indian traffic either. According to the World Health Organization, low- and middle-income countries—such as India—have considerably worse traffic safety records than high-income countries. More than 90% of the world’s traffic fatalities occur in these countries, even though these countries have less than half of the world’s vehicles.2 A comparison of the United States and India will show that, although the US has a slightly higher per-capita rate of fatal road accidents than India,3 the per-vehicle rate in India is much higher than in the United States. There are 145 traffic deaths for every 100,000 vehicles in India, compared to only 17 deaths for the same number of vehicles in the US.4

  1. “Hamara Bajaj” means “Our Bajaj”; it was a marketing campaign for the motor-scooters produced by the Indian industrial firm. Some of the Hamara Bajaj ads that aired on the state television network Doordarshan twenty years ago are now on YouTube. []
  2. World Health Organization, “Global Status Report on Road Safety: Time for Action,” http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2009/en/. []
  3. In 2006, there were 9 traffic deaths in India and 14 in the US, for every 100,000 people in each country. []
  4. See the individual country profiles for India and the United States. []

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