NEW DELHI — With its air-conditioned trains, clean platforms, clockwork timing, orderly lines and women-only carriages, New Delhi's Metro has been celebrated for a decade as a symbol of a rapidly modernizing nation. But the gleaming public transportation system has now become a suicide hot spot.
Twelve people have killed themselves at Metro stations here this year, a trend that is threatening to mar the image of the capital city's new lifeline. Most of the dead were younger than 30. There were a total of 10 suicides at the Metro in the nine previous years.
In a country of 1.2 billion people where 180,000 killed themselves in 2010, according to the World Health Organization's most recent estimates, the Metro figures may not count for much. But newspaper coverage of every case under headlines screaming "Metro suicides" has sharpened a debate about the growing nationwide problem. It has also prompted the Delhi Metro, which carries 2 million passengers daily, to devise a suicide-prevention plan.
"Metro lines around the world have confronted this problem, but what is really worrying for us here is that many of the suicides are by young people," said Anuj Dayal, a spokesman for the Delhi Metro Rail Corp.
In the past few months, young men and women have died by throwing themselves in front of trains or jumping from elevated stations, officials said. Many others have made unsuccessful attempts.
Experts say the Metro deaths are a surprising development in a country where the national debate on suicide has traditionally focused on rural incidents, especially the large numbers of struggling farmers who kill themselves by consuming pesticides. A 2012 Lancet study of suicides in India said rural rates were twice as high as urban ones. Suicide rates in India have risen by 67 percent since the 1980s, according to one of the authors of the Lancet study.
Rising urban anxieties surrounding education, jobs and changing lifestyles are driving more young Indians into deep depression, analysts say.
"Rapid social changes are creating more helplessness and despair," said Vikram Patel, a professor of international mental health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and co-author of the Lancet journal essay. "With education, young people's aspirations are growing, and they are surrounded by the narrative of booming India, but somehow the real India they encounter is not as promising as they are led to believe."
The reasons young people kill themselves include parental disapproval of romance and worries about college grades and jobs, officials say. About 70 percent of suicides are among Indians younger than 44.
India is one of the few countries that still regard the attempt to commit suicide as a punishable offense. Bowing to pressure from mental-health caregivers, the government is considering amending the law to decriminalize it. A proposed law on mental health care also seeks to humanize India's approach to suicides.
"What we are saying in the proposed law is that if somebody attempts suicide, it must be assumed the person needs immediate medical attention and should be shown to the doctor at the earliest, even before the police question him," said Keshav Desiraju, a senior Health Ministry official.
But Desiraju says there is an alarming shortage of trained psychiatrists in public hospitals. There is no nationwide toll-free suicide help line.
"The government programs do not focus on suicide prevention because it falls through the cracks, between social, legal and health stigmas," said Lakshmi Vijaykumar, who founded a help line called Sneha in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and is a consultant to the World Health Organization's suicide-prevention program.
Meanwhile, Delhi Metro officials say they are hoping their passengers will be their eyes and ears.
"We are going to start raising awareness and give the passengers tips on how to observe and deter people who may exhibit suicidal tendencies," Dayal said. "If a person is crying or behaving in suspicious fashion, then we tell other passengers to report it. If a passenger skips boarding two consecutive trains, the person will be questioned. We are also watching all this on surveillance cameras."
Authorities also are raising the level of walls and railings at several Metro stations.
"We cannot afford to build sliding screen doors at each station to act as barriers like in Singapore and Bangkok," Dayal said.
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