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‘What the Metro Smart Card is Unable to Read: Understanding the Relationship between Delhi Metro, City and the People’

Featuring Sakshi Barak’s creative piece that developed as an original project over her term at the Young India Fellowship

Abstract: 

Sakshi Barak explores her relationship with the city (Delhi) by sharing her experiences of traveling by Delhi metro. Drawing from her personal incidents and reflecting on familial restrictions, she raises questions of accessibility, safety, mobility, gender and employment that build the ‘consciousness’ of a city. 

Article:

“Papa, I had registered for a conference some days back and I have got an invitation for the same. The conference is at NCAER today at 11:00 am. Can I take the Scooty, and can you please tell me which way to go?” 

I was an 18-year-old, who had recently secured admission in Jesus and Mary College in the University of Delhi. I had just started going to college on my Scooty and had to ask my father for directions for every single route other than the one between my house and my college, which is in Chanakyapuri and around 13 kilometres away from where I live (the shortest distance between the two was the only route that I was aware of as I had rote-learnt it after two or three trips). I live with my family in our house in Block 2, Mahavir Enclave, sandwiched between Dwarka and Janakpuri. The area is very well connected by the DTC bus route and five minutes of walking leads one to the main road where one can catch public transportation very easily. But at that point of time, the words public transport did not exist in my dictionary. First, it was and still is considered ‘unsafe’ for women. Second, I could not step out of the house without asking my father for directions, as he always knew some shortcuts to navigate in and around the city, as well as for his permission.

He came to the city with the family when he was very young and has spent most of his life here. He got to travel in and around the city a lot and knew every route whenever we used to go out together. As a child, whenever we went out, I was always amused by the beauty of the endless roads that lay before us. We always navigated and experienced the city through his eyes, and when the time came to finally get a chance to explore the city a little on my own, something had suspiciously entered our life. Savdhan India. It not only resulted in increasing the restrictions at home but also took away many peaceful afternoons which could have been easily spent enjoying a cup of tea.

Growing up, the city looked like a labyrinth in which I was just a dot. It was only later that I realised the city itself is merely a dot on the map of India. An insatiable curiosity had always been there inside me as a child to one day explore the whole city, and find my own way in this labyrinth, unencumbered by any kind of restrictions. But the dream always came tumbling down along with the fear of getting lost as virtually the whole city was uncharted territory for me. Also, it seemed like ‘khatron ke khiladi’ for me, riding my Scooty with one hand and searching for directions on Google maps with the other. I found I was always afraid that I would not get a chance to explore the city, but before that, I was even more afraid of never getting permission to do so. Jiska darr tha, wahi hua.

“Stay at home.”

I rarely got the opportunity to travel around the city on my own. Family trips, too few and far between, were restricted to places like the Airforce Museum, India Gate, Teen Murti Bhavan, and sometimes the Lotus Temple. I remember that these used to be the special days when everyone in the family used to get very excited. We used to get ready in the evening for a  45-minute drive in my father’s blue Tata Mobile car, up to Central Delhi to visit India Gate on Children’s Day. Our house is in the south-west district of Delhi, and we would always take the Palam Flyover to commute to Central and North Delhi. We would drive through the lavish greenery of Delhi Cantt, and I was the one who was constantly looking out of the window trying to absorb as much as I could of the city, in the limited time span. As I grew older, curiosity took a back seat as different priorities took charge of driving now. 

15 May 2019 was the day I had my personal interview for the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University. I had applied to the programme without my parents’ permission or even knowledge. Up until then, every stage of the application process did not require my physical presence on campus and things were running smoothly. For the interview, I was called to the Ashoka University campus. Upon checking on Google Maps, I realised that it was around 50 kilometres away from my home. I decided not to cover this journey on my Scooty because, that way my father would have gotten to know about my application. I was completely unaware of the route as well. I searched for the directions to reach the university and came to know that I would have to reach Jahangirpuri metro station, and after deboarding, make an hour-long journey in the shuttle of the university to reach the final destination. It required me to travel inter-city. I had just started navigating my way through the city with the help of the metro and now I had to travel across the city all by myself. It was somehow scary but I was equally thrilled. I had already taken a day off from NITI Aayog, where I was pursuing my internship. I used to take the metro for my daily commute and used to deboard at Patel Chowk metro station. I was familiar with the transportation system and metro stations that were along my route from Palam to Patel Chowk. That day, I took a leap of faith and decided to undertake the journey, which I had never done, to Sonepat, all by myself. I found myself looking out of the window whenever possible, trying to explore every aspect of the city which became visible to my eyes. As soon as I reached the GTB Nagar metro station, the crowd had already started to evaporate and I could see the inner frame of the metro train more clearly, which is rarely the case on stations like Rajiv Chowk and Vishwavidyalaya. Through the window, I could see gigantic cold storage chains and an impenetrable set of local shopping centres. Cold storage facilities gave me the chills even with just a glimpse. “What would happen if I got stuck in there?” By the time I could analyse this question, the door opened with the announcement, “Jahangirpuri station. Mind the gap.”

Throughout my college days, I commuted on my Scooty. All I ever knew about the city was from the ‘rear view’, not only of the mirror but also of my father. I would take the Palam Flyover, which would take me to the main traffic signal where I had to decide which route to choose—Delhi Cantt or Gurugram. I had an access pass with which one can travel through the restricted areas in the cantonment region. Since my father works in the Military Engineering Services, he had one. As his ‘dependent’, I would be free to travel along the route heavily loaded with security, and hence considered to be ‘safe’. After crossing the Manekshaw Auditorium, I would make my way to the Dhaula Kuan road, and then navigate farther to reach my college nestled in the highly secured area of the diplomatic enclave. That was the particular route between college and home, beyond which only uncertainties existed.

I look back on my first journey in the Delhi Metro and I realise it indeed required some courage. I was hoping to not leave any of my belongings behind, hoping to take the right line, and was alert like a cheetah whenever any announcements were made. I looked around and saw many people with their headphones on, and wondered how well rehearsed they were with the act of travelling in a metro. I had to get familiar with the system of how tokens and smart cards are used, guide myself through specific terrains to reach desired platforms, and understand the maneuvering skills required to survive the rush hours. As I started my first journey that day, I was exposed to the life of the city through the metro—a place where lakhs of commuters come to a common platform, where heterogeneities collide intimately, and mobility comes with a negotiation of space in-transit. It felt as if the whole city was at my disposal, ready to be explored. Just by listening to the names of the metro stations, when the announcements were made every two to three minutes, I found myself getting closer and closer to the city. Unlike before, there was no specific route carved out for me by my father. I could take twists and turns and could go anywhere I wanted within the city. I was no longer afraid that in the middle of the road, stuck in traffic, I would bump into my father commuting on the same route that day. This continuous anxiety that came along whenever I had thought of changing my route stopped me from doing so. But travelling in the metro felt liberating, first from the scorching heat that I would be broiling in if I had gone on the Scooty, and second, from the continuous brainstorming required in order to come up with a perfect excuse for changing the route. It provided me with a sense of ownership on my journey traversing the city.

With a population of approximately 17 million according to the 2011 Census, Delhi is the fifth most densely populated city in the world, and it could become the world’s most populous city by 2028, surpassing Tokyo that is currently home to a population of 37 million people (DESA [Department of Economic and Social Affairs]). Delhi has been seeing a continuous rise in the population growth rate since Independence. The reasons for this rapid spike in the population of the city were arguably greater employment opportunities and an increase in the standard of living. Hence, the decade witnessed a greater degree of migration to the city. With the increasing population in each passing decade, it was becoming crucial to build up a rapid transportation system that could cater to the rising demands of the fast-moving city.

The model of the Delhi Metro was adopted, and Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) was established in 1995. The ‘railway project’ as claimed by E Shreedharan, its first managing director, started in 1998 with financial help from Japan International  Cooperation Agency (JICA). It progressed over the course of four years and was completed in 2002.. The construction work started in 1998 under Phase I, which gave Delhi its first metro line, i.e., the Red line from Tis Hazari to Shahdara, which opened on 25 December 2002 (DMRC, Annual Report). There had always been a requirement for an efficient transportation system in Delhi which would cater to growing population needs. Today, there are 11 colour-coded lines serving 285 stations with a total length of around 350 kilometres (DMRC, Annual Report), encompassing peripheral areas of Delhi NCR under its network. The areas such as Greater Noida, Gurugram, Sonepat, Ghaziabad, and Faridabad are well connected through the Delhi Metro. 

New Delhi is infamous as an unsafe city for women. Delhi is ranked first among 19 metropolitan cities in India in recording the highest number of crimes against women, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). A 2012 survey in Delhi which was supported by UN Women revealed that 95 per cent of women felt unsafe in public spaces (“Safer Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls”). Public transportation plays a crucial role in the economy by taking the human resources from one place to the other. In this context, women possess the same right to participate and contribute in the economy as men do. In a study with around 4,000 Delhi University students, it was found that women’s choice of colleges is influenced by the lack of safe and suitable public transport (Borker 5–8) The metro, however, is widely considered to be safe public transport for women. It employs advanced technological systems for surveillance and has added a special coach for women. Thus, it has helped in improving the mobility of women with its well-connected stations encompassing almost the entire city. According to a survey done by the Delhi Transport Corporation and the Delhi Metro, it was found that today women constitute around 30 to 35 percent of the passengers in both buses and the metro in Delhi (Choudhury). Thus, it has made the city far more accessible for women today.

Melissa Butcher claims that the metro has become symbolic of ‘modern’ Delhi; it is more than just a rapid transport system which includes unprecedented safety measures and a major focus on cleanliness (Butcher 165). Delhi Metro has become a symbol of modern and progressing India, and more specifically a symbol of cosmopolitan Delhi. If we glance at the cinematic evidence, the metro has played a major role in Bollywood films, giving a glimpse of life in Delhi. I distinctly remember the movie Delhi-6 where Sonam Kapoor’s character takes the metro to explore herself as well as the city. Its widespread reach combined with a comfortable journey to just about all the important destinations in the city has brought people together who belong to different strata of society. This thought became stronger when I saw two monks travelling in the metro one day as I was headed back home. It depicted a beautiful juxtaposition between two major themes—tradition and modernity. Delhi Metro provides a way to transit between the two.

With my journeys on the metro, the curiosity of exploring the city that had died down a long time ago found itself rising again. Melissa Butcher writes that the Delhi Metro has emerged not only as a means of transport but also as a technology to think about and experience the city differently. In the initial journeys, Delhi Metro had provided me with a platform through which I was not just travelling to an unknown area for the first time but also the opportunity to refamiliarise myself with the city. On the day of my personal interview when I commuted across the city, I realised that the ever-present fear of entering unfamiliar regions was fading away and it in fact provided me with a boost of self-confidence in terms of travelling alone. In Delhi-6, I could see Sonam’s character enjoying the expanding landscape of modernity through the Delhi Metro, and it provided her a channel to experience the city in a different way. In my case it ended up becoming a reality. The vast landscape which encompassed different uncertainties was made available on a single screen through the Delhi Metro app. With every approaching station, I was going to different places, the names of which I had never heard before. I would continue tracking my position with the green dot on the map installed inside the metros. Every three minutes, the doors would open and I would look out to grasp the tiniest of indicators that distinguished one station from the other. Without anyone guiding me on how to navigate the city, I could make my own spatial imagination of the city. I could guess that Chandni Chowk is a place known for shopping, by observing passengers who board at that station with numerous shopping bags. I could not believe that I was in the middle of the city and knew exactly how to go back home in exactly how much time, without having to ask for directions from anyone, not even from my father. I no longer felt like a stranger to the city, nor did the city feel like a stranger to me.

During my initial journeys in the metro, I had found myself quite focused and alert. Listening to the announcements on the metro: “The doors will open on the left. Please mind the gap”, at three-minute intervals, made me realise that it is the disclaimer: “Please mind the gap” that we have come to internalise in our dayto-day travel. Today, when I look, I find the majority of the people engrossed in the screens of their smartphones; some watching their favourite episode of Friends or some busy surfing the tracks in Subway Surfer. Public transport not only facilitates mobility from one point to the other but also provides an ample amount of time for social interactions that can be utilised by the passengers to build healthy relationships with other co-passengers. I recall that day when I ended up discussing books with a complete stranger as he was sitting beside me and reading my favourite book, The Alchemist. Jensen argues that rather than just being ‘passively shuffled across town’ in public transport we are in fact ‘linked-in-motion’ (qtd in Butcher 149)

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Imagine, if Jesse would have been playing Candy Crush on his smartphone that day on the train and Céline too, busy chatting with her friends while taking a seat in the compartment adjacent to his, then we would have never gotten a chance to experience the beautiful journey that follows in Before Sunrise after their interaction (Linklater).


About the Author: 

On the first day of her critical writing course, Writing the City, Sakshi discussed that she had not traveled much around the city even though she had lived in Delhi all her life. During the next six months, she traveled the city through the writings of William Dalrymple, Khushwant Singh, Rashmi Sadana, Shilpa Phadke, and even scrolling through The Delhi Wala. Each week in the course, students were asked to submit their reflections on the readings, which she says helped her the most in building her own impression of the city. She is a huge fan of the Delhi Metro as it aided her in exploring different parts of the city. Therefore, she decided to pen down her relationship with the city and the Delhi Metro in her final paper for the course. She holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce along with YIF and has worked with the finance team at WNS. She loves to bake and create art in her leisure time. Recently she discovered that the writing seed, planted a long time back during the critical writing course, has now sprouted and she is diligently taking care of the little sapling.

About YIF CW Programme:

The YIF Critical Writing programme is a unique, one of a kind opportunity for Fellows to hone their critical thinking and writing skills under the able supervision of trained experts in the field. The CW programme employs a constantly evolving pedagogy, making learning and knowledge production more collaborative and dialogic. Preceptors at the YIF CW programme teach writing through a range of topics including but not limited to ‘History, Philosophy, and Anthropology of Science’, ‘Politics of Language and Multilingualism’, and ‘Education, Literacy, and Justice’. 

About Final Draft:

The Final Draft is the annual journal of the YIF Critical Writing programme. It showcases the range in topic and genre, as well as the strength of writing in the highly diverse YIF student body. These pieces of writing, submitted by Fellows from various classes of the YIF represent only a small fraction of the variety and range of writing done over the years.

About our campaign: 

Through our ‘Final Draft 3’ campaign, we hope to give you a glimpse into some of the styles and voices that have evolved, the concerns and ideas that fellows have explored, and the seriousness of their engagement with writing as drafts in motion; searching for meaning and connection, which makes this more of a pedagogic exercise book. 

(The piece was first published in the Final Draft, A Journal of the YIF Critical Writing Programme.)

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka