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Real india takes an ultramodern metro

L K Sharma

Sunday 29 June 2003, by SHARMA*L.K.

Article from DH News Service WASHINGTON, Dec 26 2002.

The real India came to America riding a thoroughly Modern Metro! Or perhaps, the metro took the "phoren" to India. But if this is India’s ride towards the 22nd century, it will be such a long journey, media reports here suggest.

The reports do not say whether a champagne bottle or a coconut was broken at the inauguration which makes it difficult to deduce whether the ceremony signified a new India or an eternal India.

The readers do get to know about the poverty of the first-day commuters and the established rival transport system consisting of "buffalo carts", belching buses dangerous scooter rickshaws and over-charging taxis. The AP reporter speculated that the Metro could represent a "true lifestyle leap" for the gritty, traffic-clogged city. American readers were relieved that everything passed off without any casualties, though "the city police had to resort to tough crowd control measures to manage the jostling crowds". Scholars are hunting the archives to examine how the British police had managed the inauguration of the railways in India, a historic event that can still be seen in sepia coloured photographs in Bombay.

The new story of a toy train drawing unmanageable excited crowds has many elements of an old story told by foreign travel writers so often. The giant spectacle, mass enthusiasm, mad rush, chaos, breakdowns and delays are all too familiar. The escalators could not take the extra load of boisterous commuters, the automatic electronic gates were disabled by a sudden surge of overuse, the computerised fare collection system broke down and the trains did not run on time. All these will be fixed easily by Indian technical expertise. But the Metro spokesman did sound a bit helpless: "I know I can’t change the people’s ways. But I am telling them to behave better, at least while inside the metro."

The Metro can boast of many firsts. The list of all that is prohibited includes roof top travel, drunkenness, abusive language, elbowing of women passengers, littering, spitting, vandalism, tampering with the switches and gadgets, ticketless travel, carrying large bags, pets, milk cans and perhaps gas cylinders. In their enthusiasm for the new thing, none of the first-day commuters complained that this long list of "don’ts" took out all fun from travelling. A positive reaction came from Subhadra Chatterji who told the Washington Post that for the first ride, she specially wore her bright blue silk sari and gold jewellry. With great relief she recalled the nightmare of city buses for women who are subjected to "so much groping and pinching all the time".

Many in the million-strong crowd had not slept the previous night after seeing the prime minister taking an inaugural ride. Some came prepared to ride the whole day. The accounts of Indians in Delhi helping themselves to the Christmas day gift say less about the engineering marvel and more about an arrested cultural revolution. The trouble with such stories is that these leave the Joint Secretary (External Publicity) helpless. He can hardly organise a briefing to "correct" the misimpressions about India. He should be thankful that V. S. Naipaul was not there talking to the people who came to see and touch and feel the gleaming imported railway bogies. The nation’s capital was a witness all over again to a million mutinies being staged on the same day. But then, one wonders whether through the glassy window of the new metro, Naipaul would have seen a resurgent India or an India which believes that it can walk on water. He may offer comments while participating in the NRI Diwas celebrations in New Delhi. What comes through in most reports is the East’s perception of the West. The commuters offering quotes to reporters seem to agree on one thing that their Metro is just like "foreign". London Underground commuters may crib about their dirty coaches but Indians do not associate the west with dirt, poverty, homelessness or any other kind of deprivation.

"For a few minutes, I felt I was not in India anymore. It was world-class", said Ashok Chatterji to the Washington Post. "Now we have trains like they have in foreign countries", said Mr Birendra Singh to an AP reporter. He normally goes to work hanging off a door of an overloaded bus that belches smoke and goes nowhere fast in New Delhi - India’s gritty, traffic-clogged capital of 16 million people, the reporter added. The new Metro, "airconditioned, automatic and clean" made a big impression. "Many who rode the trains had never seen anything like them. Some had never used an escalator. Workers showed people how to swipe ticket cards at electronic turnstiles and cautioned others against standing too close to the tracks."

The report noted the radio ads warning against spitting, bothering women passengers and several other actions. Fines range from one dollar for riding on the roof of the train to 10 dollars for drunken behaviour, indecency or abusive language. Still, passengers tampered with the automated doors of the train cars, forcing authorities to ground one of the four trains scheduled to ply through the day. The trains mostly did not arrive at the promised 15-minute intervals, and officials blamed the delays on passenger interference. The "dream project had a bumpy start" but these were perhaps just teething troubles and the new Metro and Indians will learn to coexist.

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