Delhi Stories

Phil Reeves joins the extraordinarily long queues to ride the Indian capital's brand new Metro system, and also discovers why the city's famously grumpy auto-rickshaw drivers are so rude to their passengers
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The Independent Online

They were like novice skiers embarking on their first ride up the hill on the T-bar. To stop them from falling, a man gently gripped each one by the arm as they stepped on board. As always in India, an audience had formed, watching appreciatively.

They were like novice skiers embarking on their first ride up the hill on the T-bar. To stop them from falling, a man gently gripped each one by the arm as they stepped on board. As always in India, an audience had formed, watching appreciatively.

The people sailed upwards, one by one, with an air of quiet approval. Many had not been on an escalator before, so this was almost as interesting as the new train which they had come to try out on the platform above.

On Christmas Day, the first leg of Delhi's new Metro opened for business. It was immediately flooded by 1.2 million passengers, six times more than it was built to handle. The 14 million people of India's capital, weary of pollution and congestion, had been waiting eagerly for this moment, and they were determined to enjoy it.

By the end of the week, the tide had ebbed somewhat. But people were still arriving in sufficient numbers for the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation to publish notices in newspapers complaining of the "extraordinary strain on the system", and requesting joyriders to stay away.

Yet still they came. At Kashmere Gate on Friday afternoon – one of six stations now open along five miles of above-ground track – at least 300 people were queueing to pay their seven rupees (10p) for a ticket. It took 25 minutes to reach the end of my queue.

Tickets were being dispensed by a clerk who was maintaining the tradition of doing a great deal of important writing. He had a red pen with which he was slowly writing the date and the price on each ticket. This was then crossed out, with an equally momentous air, by another clerk manning the barriers. I was told the ticket machines had broken down.

No one complained about the crowds or the wait. It was too important an occasion. This has been a historic moment, the opening of the first stage of a system that is due to expand to a large overland and underground network. It is Delhi's biggest engineering project since the Raj. Like Prince Albert's Great Exhibition of 1851, it is notification to the world of its ambitions to be a modern, dynamic capital. And Delhiites loved it.

On the opening day, they let out huge cheers when the trains pulled in. These bear no resemblance to the knackered and fetid old railway wagons familiar to most Indians. The spotless steel Korean-made wagons are much the same as the later-issue London Underground trains.

Both systems also share the same safety obsession: in a city where entire families ride around on one motor scooter, the public is now under instructions to "Mind the Gap". All six inches of it.

On opening day, the visiting throngs were too excited to mind anything. Equipment was fiddled with, including the emergency alarms. Services had to be suspended for half an hour because the passengers wanted to carry on riding and refused to get out.

Yet for all the smog and poverty and corruption, it proved that this city is not hardened by cynicism, and can take pleasure is something new. I'll take that over the ennui of the pampered West.

Spare a seasonal thought for Delhi's 45,000 auto-rickshaw drivers, who rattle around the city in three-wheeled tin cans amid lung-rotting traffic fumes. They have just ended an 18-day strike over the government's refusal to let them raise their fares. It seems to have achieved nothing, beyond a bout of moaning from the press about their tendency to rip everyone off.

A new study from the Institute of Drivers' Training and Research reveals that this is because the drivers have a sense of old-fashioned virtues. The institute concluded that the capital's "autowallahs" are tortured by a sense of rejection and self-pity that turns into boorishness as soon as a customer shows up.

"They believe the work they do isn't noble," the institute's director explained to The Hindustan Times. Fair enough. And what's the London cabbie's excuse?

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