Notes from a Metro (Pun Unintentionally Intentional)

Enter Delhi: The boy was about 13, perhaps less. He was riding a bike which was about three times his size. He swerved between the vehicles on the road at Karol Bagh, very much in the wrong in terms of which side of the road he ought to be on, and therefore also in terms of the traffic rules and regulations. But he could not care. I looked at him and wondered,

Dilli dilwalon ki hai – Delhi is a city of the large-hearted, of the daring, the bold and the courageous.

A few days later, one of the auto drivers remarked to me during a journey,

Kehte hai dilli dilwalon ki hoti hai. Lekin yeh jhoot hai. Sabhi log yahan paise ke peeche pade rehte hai aur har koi aapko lootne ki koshish karna chahta hai – It is a saying that Delhi is a city of the large-hearted. But this is false. Everyone here is behind money, and each person is out to loot/cheat you.

Another auto driver mentioned to me during another journey,

Dilli mein corruption jyada hai, doosre states aur shaharon se bhi zyaada – There is more corruption in Delhi, more than what it is in other states and cities (in India).

Kyon – why, I asked, in a rhetorical fashion. Before he could respond, I already answered – kyonki yeh rajdhani hai? – Because this is the capital of the country?

Haan, is hi liye. Aur doosra yeh ki har koi yahan apne aap ko minister ka rishtadar bata ta hai ­­– Yes, that is why. And the other thing is that each one here shows off as being the relative of one minister or the other. In this way, they can get away with anything and also claim to have ‘influence’ or political capital/clout to pass by it all! I smiled on hearing this. Maybe I knew this was coming. At one time, someone had remarked that the problem in Pune city is that everyone shows himself/herself off as a relative of the historical hero Shivaji or belonging to the family of the Peshwas! That relationship needs to be understood in the backdrop of caste, culture, cultural capital and filial capital, somewhat different from the relationships with ministers shown off in Dilli.

I still believe that dilli dilwalon ki hai. I encounter the aggressive coldness, the aloofness, but then there are also people who talk to me, who invite me into their homes to a cup of tea or a morsel of food. And that encourages me to be a conduit of their stories, of their thoughts, of their imaginations, of their aspirations, of their prejudices, of their biases, of their fears and everything else that comes in this package called humankind. I tell a story here, one that I have only weaved from the myriads which auto drivers, dwellers, taxi drivers and various other people I encountered in Delhi told me at different points in time, during different journeys. This is a story of a city becoming. And with the city becoming, we become, we invest, we reap and we lose. As I am writing, I am unsure how to piece the different narratives together. At times, I pause, wondering if I am sounding didactic or arrogant, or if I am being incoherent. So, perhaps as I write of the city becoming, I also write of myself, and hope that Providence will accompany me in this exercise. Thus, we go …

I landed in Delhi on the second day of the strike of the autorickshaw drivers. This was topic enough to begin a conversation from the next day onwards as I leapt in and out of autos.

Toh bhaiyya, aapka strike tha kal. Strike kyon tha? – I asked the auto driver next day, you had a strike yesterday. Why did you strike?

Ab aisa hai ki authauti wale hum ko fine laga dete hai agar wardi na pehno, agar signal kaat do ya phir galat raaste ho jao. Chalan kat ta hai 5,000 ka, 10,000 ka. Aur gaadi chudwane jao woh alag. To hum strike kar rahe the. – Now it is like this, that the authauti (authority) people, they fine us if we do not wear our uniforms, if we break the signal, if we go the wrong side of the roads. The chalan (fine receipt) is usually of 5,000 rupees, 10,000 rupees, and then we also have to go to release the vehicle (which is another headache). That is why we were on strike.

Toh aapka masla hal hua? – So, was your matter resolved? I asked.

Nahin, kahan. Ab to sarkar ne kaha hai ki woh hamare mamle mein dekhenge. Dekhe kya hota hai. – No, where? The government has promised to look into our matter. Let us see what happens.

Another fellow told me that the strike is also because,

Kabhi log meter se jaana chahte hai toh kabhi humse pehle hi fix karwa lete hai ki itne mein hi jaana hai. Ab yeh to logon ki marzi hai. Bahar se jo log aate hai, woh meter se nahin jaana chahte. To woh humse done karwa lete hai ki itna denge. Lekin policewalleh jo hai woh hummein galat batate hai. Kehte hai hum meter se nahi jaa te aur humko chalan laga dete hai. – Sometimes people want to go by the meter and sometimes they want to fix the fare at the beginning of the journey itself. It is their wish. Those people who come from outside Delhi do not want to go by the meter. They want to fix the fare right at the beginning and hence they do so accordingly. But the policemen always put us auto drivers in the wrong. They say that we don’t go by the meter. And then they write us a chalan.

He continued,

Aur galat kya hai jo hum aap se 10 rupaiye jyada bhi maang le. Waise bhi mehangayi itni bdh gayi hai. Aur sarkar hai jo kiraya badhane nahin deti. – And then, what is wrong if I ask you for ten rupees more? As it is, inflation has increased and the government does not want us to increase the fares.

After a while, he said,

Aap ko bata de ki log bolte hai ki Bambai mein saare auto wale meter se jaate hai. Lekin unka meter hamesha badha hua rahta hai. Phir woh sahi kaise? – I must tell you that people tell us that the auto drivers in Bombay always go by the meter. But their meter is not correct and is rigged. Then how come they are right and their ways are correct?

Toh bhaiyya aapka union kuch nahi karta? I asked the driver whether their union does not do anything for them.

Ab aisa hai ki union ek nahi, bikhre huye hai. Political party walon ka bahrosa nahin. Aaj yahan toh kal wahan. – Now it is like that we do not have one union. There are several factions. And we do not trust political parties. Today they are here, tomorrow they are there.

Bambai mein to Shiv Sena wale auto union ko control karte hai. Aapke yahan kya BJP wale union pe kaboo rakhte hai? – I told him that in Bombay, the Shiv Sena party controls the autorickshaw driver unions. Then I asked, if the BJP has a hold on the unions in Delhi.

Waisa nahin hai. Shiv Sena wale ne hamari thodi madad ki thi. Kiraya badhwane ki hamari maang ko unhonne support diya tha. Lekin hum jyada Shiv Sena party se sambandh nahi rakhte. Kyonki woh logon ko baant dete hai. Phir, kuch samay baad, unki party bhi kamjoor pad gayi aur bikhar gayi. To hum unhe support nahin na dete hai. – It is not like that. The Shiv Sena party and their people had given us some support at one time. When we raised the issue of increasing the fares, they supported us. But we don’t keep much relation with the Sena because they are into divisive politics. And then, the party also became weak after a point in time and it began to disintegrate.  So we don’t give them support.

To another auto driver, during another journey, I asked again why their tribe was on strike. He said,

Hum galat raaste ho jate hai to chalan kat jata hai 5,000 ka. Us se bada nuksaan ho jata hai humko. Aur sarkar bhi hai jo kiraya badhane nahi deti. Lekin chawal aur shakkar ke daam badh jaate hai. Ab dekho, Congress sarkar ko aaye che mahine bhi nahin huye ki mehangaayi badh gayi. – If we go on the wrong side of the road, they issue a chalan of 5,000 rupees. That leads us to incur very heavy losses. And then the government is there – they don’t let us increase the fare. But the prices of essential commodities keep rising. Now look, the Congress government is in power since only six months and the prices of rice and sugar have increased.

We were on our way to South Delhi. At one stage, both the driver and I were unsure about whether to make a left or a right on the road. We stopped by and asked the guard at the club to direct us. I spoke to the guard and asked him for the address. He said,

Madam, woh toh road ke doosre side par hai. Agar autowallah us side se jayega to usko chalan lag jayega. U turn le lo aur phir service road pakad lo. – Madam, the place you want to go to is on the other side of the road. If the auto driver goes there, he will be issued a fine receipt. Go to the end of the road, take a u-turn and then take the service road.

My heart jumped out when I heard the security guard. Just at the beginning of the journey, the auto driver was telling me about chalans being issued to them for being on the wrong side of the road and how unfair it was to them and their livelihoods. And now, I would become the cause of a chalan being issued to the auto driver. I was very scared. The moment I spotted the place I had to be at from the other side of the road, I stopped the auto driver, gave him his prepaid fare claim receipt, and asked him to speed off. Whew!

In the days that passed, and I travelled through various parts of the city, it became evident that the transport authority was perhaps one of the most corrupt and controlling departments in the overall administration. Different auto drivers, during different journeys, said,

Ab aisa hai ki Tata wale yeh rickshaw banate hai. Iska daam hota hai 1,25,000 jyada se jyada. Uske upar, aap samajh lo ki gaadi ki registration, permit, aur kharcha mila ke 10,000 aur ho jata hai. To maan lo ki gaadi ka bahut kar ke 1,35,000 ho jata hai. Lekin aisa hai ki dalaalon ne kabza kar rakha hai, aur black karte hai. Yehi gaadi bikti kai 4,00,000 se 5,00,000 lakh tak. Ab hum to itna kharcha kar nahin sakte hai nah?!? Aur yahan log hai, jinhone ne pachaas pachaas auto apne paas kar liye hain. – Now it is like this that the Tata guys make these autorickshaws. The actual cost of the vehicle is maximum Rs. 1,25,000. On top of that, there are costs of registration and permits. That comes to about Rs. 10,000. So, at the most, the auto costs about Rs. 1,35,000. Now, there are these brokers, they control the sales of the autorickshaws and hike the price to Rs. 4,00,000 to Rs. 5,00,000. Now, we cannot spend so much. And here, (in Delhi), there are individuals who have about 50 vehicles under their ownership.

Toh hum ne suna hai ki agar aap Haryana mein registration karwaye, to auto 1,75,000 mein mil jaati hai auto. – So, we have heard that if you register in Haryana, you get the auto for Rs. 1,75,000? I queried.

Haan, yeh toh sahi hai. – Yes, this is right.

Haan, hum kal kisi ko mile the jo hame yeh bata raha tha – Yes, we met someone yesterday who was telling us this.

What a difference in the prices, no?, my friend travelling with me exclaimed. Almost three times!

At another time, I asked the auto driver driving us from Central Secretariat whether the prepaid auto system is more profitable for them or not.

Ab aisa hai ki prepaid mein hammein do char rupaiye jyada mil jaate hai. Lekin yeh bhi problem hai ki hammein jaana padta hai paisa lene ke liye – Now it is like that we get a little more money when we go by prepaid receipt system. But then, the problem is that we have to go to collect the money back to the counter from where the receipt was made in the first place.

Haan, woh aapke raaste ke bahaar pad jata hoga? Yes, that must be out of the way for you.

Nahi ji, woh baat nahi hai. Ab aisa hai ki pulicewale is prepaid ko chalate hai. Aur pulicewala to apne baap ka bhi nahin to mera kya? – No, that is not really the case. The deal is that the prepaid auto system is run by the (traffic) police. Now, the policeman does not even care for his own father, what will he care for me?

Toh aisa lagta hai ki transport department yahan sabse corrupt hai. – So, it seems like the transport department is most corrupt here.

Haan ji. Ab aisa hai ki sarkar license ke do sau pachaas maangti hai. Jab dalaal beech mein aa jata hai, to usi ka che hazaar ho jata hai. Phir permit lena padta hai. Sarkar uske do sau assi maangti hai aur dalaal aa jaye to wahi teen hazaar ka ho jata hai. Woh sab ko paise khilata hai – neeche se le kar ke upar tak. – Yes. Now it is like this that the sarkar (which could mean administration or the government in different contexts) asks for 250 rupees for issuing license. When the broker comes in the way, then that same license costs us Rs. 6,000. Then we also have to take a permit to run a commercial vehicle on the road. For that, the administration asks for 280 rupees but the broker gets in between and makes it 3,000 rupees. The broker gives money to every official in the administration, from bottom to the top.

Phir, permit ki baat hi dekh li ji ye. Aisa hai ki hammein LMV (light motor vehicle) ka permit mil jaye to hum LMV hi chala sakte hai. Agar hammein truck wagayreh chalana ho, to HMV (heavy motor vehicle) ka license lena padta hai. – Then you also take the issue of permit. Now, it is like this that we get a permit to drive light motor vehicles. But if we want to drive a truck or some other heavy motor vehicle, then we have to take another license.

To agar aap HMV chalate hai to phir to aapko LMV ka permit nahin lena padta hoga? – So then, I queried, if you drive a heavy motor vehicle, then you don’t have to take a permit for a light motor vehicle?

Kahan ji! Tab bhi hammein lena padta hai. Yehi to ajeeb baat hai. Agar koi graduate ho, to kya aap us se punchenge ki tumne tenth ka class pass kiya hai ki nahin? Hamney bhi ek baar officer se pooncha tha ki sahib, agar koi graduate hai to kya aap us se poonchege ki woh tenth pass hai ki nahi? Officer ne kaha ki yeh kayda ajeeb hai. Lekin woh kya kare? Woh thodi na kayda badal sakta hai. – Where? Even then we have to take a permit. Now, if someone is a graduate, will you ask him whether he has passed tenth class (i.e. schooling)? Once, we had asked an officer (in the authority), that sir, if someone is a graduate, will you ask him whether he has passed tenth class? The officer replied, yes, the rule is strange. But then, what can the officer do? He cannot change the law and the rules.

Ab aisa bhi hai ki minister department ko utna nahin jaanta jitna dalal department ko ekum andar se jaanta hai. – Now it is also like this that the minister does not know the department as much as the broker knows. The broker knows the insides of the department.

Yahan to Punjabiyon ka raaj chalta. Woh hi saare autorickshaw control karte hai. Aur hamare transport minister bhi Harwinder Singh Lovely ji hain – Punjabi. Aur Punjabiyon ka toh aisa hai ki saara kaam bahar hi bahar kar wa lo. – Here, the Punjabis rule. Most of the autorickshaws are under their control. And our transport minister is also a Punjabi. His name is Harwinder Singh Lovely. And with the Punjabis, they prefer to get all the work done outside.

Bahar kar wa lo matlab kya? ­– What does it mean to get all the work done outside? I asked. (Perhaps he meant that the Punjabis prefer all the matters to be arbitrated and sorted out among the contending parties, outside of the administration’s gaze and involvement.)

Uska matlab hai sab kuch bahar hi nipta lo. Hamare Raju Srivastava ji ne ek joke kaha tha. Flyover banane ka contract nikala sarkar ne. Bungali ne 30,000 ka contract bhara. Marwadi ne 60,000 ka aur Punjabi ne 90,000. Phir afsar (officer) ne teen no ko bulaya aur pooncha ki teen no ke tender mein itna pharak kyon. Bungali ne kaha ki woh saste mein flyover banayega. To woh 10,000 ka material layega, 10,000 labour ko dega aur 10,000 apna profit rakhega. Marwari ne kaha ki woh thoda acchi quality ka flyover banayega. Toh woh 20,000 ka material layega, 20,000 labour ko dega aur 20,000 khud profit rakhega. Phir Punjabi se pooncha. Toh usne bataya ki woh 30,000 bungali ko dega flyover banane ke liye, 30,000 afsar (officer) ko dega aur 30,000 khud rakhega. Toh lo ji, sab khush – aap bhi khush aur main bhi khush. – That means that the matters have to be sorted out directly between the contending parties. Our Raju Srivastava (comedian and TV personality) had once narrated a joke. A tender was opened for bids to construct a flyover. Bengali quoted 30,000 rupees, Marwari quoted 60,000 rupees and Punjabi quoted 90,000 rupees. The officer called them all in order for them to explain the disparities in the price quoted. Bengali said that he would build a cheap flyover and hence, he would pay 10,000 for materials, 10,000 for labour and keep 10,000 as profit for himself. Marwari said he would build a flyover of good quality. Hence, he would spend 20,000 on materials, 20,000 on labour and 20,000 as personal profit. Punjabi said that he would give 30,000 to the Bengali to build the flyover, 30,000 to the officer and keep the balance 30,000 for himself. This way, you are also happy, I am also happy, Bengali is also happy and everyone is happy!

People narrated their perceptions in some journeys. At one time, I was told that house owners prefer to rent their apartments to Bengalis because the Bengalis are peace-loving people and do not fight, whereas Punjabis are more likely to capture the property after living there for some time. In one journey, the autorickshaw driver remarked that Bengalis living in Delhi’s CR Park had all migrated from Bangladesh. He believed that Calcutta was always a prosperous city and that the only Bengalis who migrated were the Hindus from East Pakistan. He explained to us how Calcutta is a cheap city:

Yahan aap auto mein 55 rupaiye kharcha karenge. Wahan Calcutta mein 55 rupaiye mein aap taxi ki savari kar sakte hai. – Here, in Delhi, you will spend 55 rupees to travel in an auto. There, in Calcutta, you will spend 55 rupees to travel in a taxi.

He continued,

Calcutta accha sheher tha. Lekin yeh CPI (M) walon ne usko bigaad ke rakkha hai. Hara aye din strike kar dete hai. – Calcutta was a nice city (the word sheher somehow indicates much more magnanimity, benevolence and vastness than its English translation city!). But, then the CPI (M) (Communist Party – Marxist) has spoilt the city. Every other day, they call for a strike.

I think about the disdain with politics that people narrate to me. Yet, they engage with politics. On the surface, we may read this as the corruption that has set into politics. And yet, people engage with politics. Does one class this as “necessary evil”? Or political consciousness? I am not sure how to explain this. For now, I refuse to dismiss this as corruption/apathy/degeneration set into politics. Perhaps I see this as a way of balancing power scales and equations …


Then I ride past South Delhi. They are building the metro rail system. Just the other day, Mel, D and I were talking in the train from Vidhan Sabha to New Delhi Railway station:

Moi: It is so terrible to keep hearing the same announcements at each station each time you travel through the same route.

D: Perhaps they should randomize the announcements!

Moi: How? They should declare that the next station is Chawri Bazaar and not Civil Lines?

D: Yes, maybe. Then everyone will laugh – hahahahaha!

Mel: Hehehe! I think the funniest announcement is when they say “Beware! Toys, bags, etc could be bomb!” Yes, bomb!  Like everywhere, everyday there is bomb!

Moi: The other day, I was travelling in the train from Vidhan Sabha to Rajiv Chowk. At Kashmere Gate, lots of people got in. One of them had a suitcase which he kept close to an old woman’s legs. The old woman began asking around – “whose suitcase? Whose suitcase? Whose suitcase?” – but no one responded. I felt that the owner of the suitcase was not responding because he did not want to haggle with the old woman for space to keep his luggage. And I assumed that the old woman was nagging because she wanted it moved. Finally, she announced, “Bhaiyya (brother), you never know what this suitcase could be!” implying that it could be a bomb. “Times are different today.” The bhaiyya listening to her concurred with her. The owner of the suitcase came forth and ascertained that the bag belonged to him. I was reminded of my first bus journey in London when an old woman sitting next to me almost had palpitations when she saw the police accumulated around a roadside flea market from outside the window. She wondered whether it was a blast.

Hmmm … such memories, such associations, such fears.

The Delhi Metro keeps extending each year to different parts of the city. Sometimes I am fascinated and I feel wow! I am able to see parts of Delhi which I wouldn’t have had there been no metro. Then I tell myself that maybe I am building false hopes because it means now with the metro, I don’t take no buses as I used to earlier. I think of regularities, of habits, of everyday routines and what the metro does to people’s lives in this city as also to their minds. Does it open the possibilities for new encounters? …

[The other day when I was in the train, people got inside in large numbers at Kashmere Gate. A fellow happened to push another. The one who got pushed turned around and asked the pusher,

Dhakka kyon diya? Why did you push?

Arre bhaiyya, tum nah toh mere dost nah to mere dushman, main aapko jaan boojh kar dhakka kyon du? The fellow replied, oh brother! I am neither your friend nor your foe, why should I push you!

The two men smiled and understood. Dilli dilwalon ki hai – it is these negotiations which force me to peer into the city and into people and their conversations and encounters …]

Does the Metro foster/reinforce old beliefs and ideas? I pass through the security checks each day at each Metro station. Sometimes I find the lady guards so bored, doing the same thing they do over and over again – feel people’s bodies and search their bags. Most of the times, it is a half hearted effort, like a formality. And then, as I write right now, I wonder what would happen if there were no security checks at all at each of the metro stations …

I also think of the implications the underground and elevated metro has, not so much in terms of costs and effects on surrounding neighbourhoods, but more in terms of what becomes visible and invisible as we go underground in some areas and over ground in others? How does over ground and underground shape our perceptions of the city, our sight, our minds and our visions? …

We walked out of Vidhan Sabha metro station, gate number 1. Across the road were the luxurious DMRC flats meant for the DMRC employees. I point them out to Mel. She also exclaimed in wonder. And then she asked me, “So the security guards at the stations and the people who sell the tokens live in these flats?” I said no. I would imagine they are meant for the top notch officials. Then she laughed and said, “Maybe those who guard the metro rail stations also guard these flats!”

The train is usually filled at Kashmere Gate and it both empties and fills up at Rajiv Chowk. The Blue Line trains going to Dwarka are crazy. You get no seat on them to sit for most parts of the journey. The announcement goes:

“Please do not sit on the floors of the train and do not play music.”

And people sit on the floors of the train. And I wonder whether I can play my I-Pod into my ears and if I do, would I be violating the rules of the use of the Metro?

I talk to the taxi driver on the way to the airport. I ask him,

Bhaiyya, Metro ke aa jane se aapke dhande ko pharak pada hai? – Has your business been affected because of the coming of the metro?

Nahi ji. Koi nahi. Balki Metro ke badh jaane se hamara dhanda to aur badh jayega. Kya hota hai ji ki log to station par utar jaate hai. Lekin unko aage bhi jaana hota hai. Toh ab kya hoga ki hammein jyada sawari milegi, bhale hi short distance ke liye. Lekin sawari jyada ho jayegi aur jaldi jaldi customer milte rahege – Not at all! Instead, with the coming of the Metro, our business will increase. What happens is that people get off at the station and then they need to go ahead. In which case, they will call on us. Yes, the distances will be shorter, but we will get more customers, and faster.

Autorickshaw fellows also concurred along similar lines. I asked one of them whether the coming of the Metro has made a difference to Delhi. He explained,

Ab kya hai ji ki BJP sarkar ne is Metro ki planning kit hi dus saal pehle. Aur phir aabaadi toh badhti jaati hai. Aur ab is Metro ke aane se, aabaadi aur bhi badh gayi hai! – The BJP government had planned the Metro ten years ago (according to the then estimates). What happens is that the population increases and now with the Metro, the population has increased further.

But the taxi driver does not concur here. He says,

Metro ke aane se pharak pada hai? Kuch nahi ji. Ab kya hota hai ki Dilli ka aadmi bada sust hota hai. Woh bistar mein pada pada phone lagayega taxi ke liye. Hum taxi le aate hai. Phir woh kahe ga bhaiyya zara upar aa kar ke samaan utha lena. Chalo ji, humne samaan utha liya. Phir hum usko station pahuncha dete hai. Ab who kahega, bhaiyya zara coolie bulwa dena. Chalo ji coolie ne maang liye sau-do sau. De diye. Ab in forgeineron ko dekh lo. Khud itne bade bade samaan apne peenth par utha kar ke khud hi chalte hai aur station khud hi jaate hai. Hamare yahan ke log bade aalsi hai. Ab dekhiye ji, kaun sa aadmi metro mein chadhega? Jo beechara busson mein safar karte karte thak gaya hai aur jo jaldi aur theek thaak pahunchna chahta hai. Ab jo pachees-tees hazaar kamane wala hai, kya who metro mein safar karega? – Has the coming of the metro made a difference? Nothing! Now what happens is that the man in Delhi is very lazy. He will lie in his bed and make a phone call for a taxi. Ok, we bring the taxi to his house. Then he will call us upstairs and ask to pick up his luggage. Ok, we have done that too. Then we drive him to the station. On reaching, he will tell us, ‘go, call a coolie to lift the luggage’. The coolie demands 100-200 rupees – they give it. Now look at these foreigners. They carry their heavy backpacks on their shoulders and backs and they walk themselves to the station. Our people are not like that. Now tell me, who are the people who will use the metro? Those who travel by buses and who want to travel in a clean and safe way and want to reach their destinations quickly. Those who earn 25,000-30,000 rupees, do you think they will take the metro?

He continued,

Yeh public-city hi aisi hai. Jiski jaisi soch, woh waisa hi karega. Joh gaadi mein chalne wala hai, woh gaadi mein he jayega. – This is public-city is like this only. Those who think a particular way, they will behave accordingly. Those who travel by car, they will always use a car.

I think about planning, public transport and ways by which people travel the city. The taxi driver tells me,

Ab Dilli mein jitney road ya flyover bana le, gaadiyan kam nahi hongi. Hota yun hai ki jeb mein hai 10,000 rupaiye. Toh bank wale phone kar ke kehte hai, ‘gaadi bhijwa dete hai’. Kamaiyi toh hote rahegi. Har mahine paise bharte rahenge. – Now in Delhi, build as many roads and flyovers as you like, the number of cars on the road will not reduce. It happens like this that you have 10,000 rupees sitting in your pocket and the Bank fellow knows, he will phone you. He will tell you, ‘we are sending a car for you’. The Bank fellow believes that this fellow will keep earning. So every month, he will pay the installments.

Then I ask the taxi bhaiyya

Aur zameen? – And land? (Can you buy land?)

He laughs, in a tone I cannot describe. I don’t know what emotion he is going through or what thought it is. He says,

Woh to aap soch bhi nahi sakte Dilli mein. –You cannot think of buying land in Delhi.

My mind races back to the man whose name I did not ask, but when we were wandering around someone’s house, he asked me if I was in their area to purchase a plot of land. This man had been moved from Shahadra to a resettlement colony because his land/house was going to be acquired under the Metro rail construction. I asked him whether he was not interested in going back to Shahadra and residing there. He looked at me and smiled and exclaimed,

Soch bhi nahi sakte waapas jaane ki! Zameen ke bhau itne badh chuke hai ki hum soch bhi nahi sakte. Ek gaj ke 35,000 rupaiye. Kahan se laye? – Cannot even think of going back! The prices of the land have increased so much that we cannot even think. One gaj (square meter) costs about 35,000 rupees now. Where to get so much money?

Kya! Itne kyon badh gaye? – What? I exclaimed. Why have the prices increased so much?

Kyonki wahan ab poora market ban gaya hai … – Because a full market has come up there. I am not sure what the market means because as I wanted to talk more, my host asked me to come in along with him and have tea. But he said he did not want to come in. He asked me to look around his area and see if I find some (plot) that I like and want to purchase. Market, I think about that ghost and demon. It has been intriguing me what is the market? How do we understand it? Where is the market? How do we understand the scales at which markets operate? Do the scales have to be separated or can we understand and narrate in a way where scales are neither overwhelming nor absolute nor diminishing one or the other? Market …

And then, in the midst of my thoughts, I suddenly ask the taxi driver where he lives?

Mayur Vihar Phase III.

Haan, hum Mayur Vihar Phase I mein rehte the pehle. – yes, I used to live in Mayur Vihar Phase I in the beginning, I told him.

He then said, somewhat as a matter of factly,

Asal mein Phase I aur II mein apartment hai aur society hai. Phase III poora gaon jaisa hai. Wahan pe gaon jaise kothi/makaan hote hai. Gharon mein aangan jaisa hota hai. – Actually, in Phase I and II there are apartments and are organized into (housing) societies. Phase III is completely a village. There you have houses like those in villages. Some of the houses have courtyards. As he mentioned this to me, I recognized the aspiration for modernity. In some sense, his tone was slightly hesitant and then also somewhat ashamed. From the beginning of our journey, the taxi driver had been talking about how companies like Easy Cabs are now becoming popular in Delhi because,

AC hota hai. Aaraam hai. Auto wale jaise thodi door jaane ke liye jyaada paise maangte hai. Ab hamare yahan kya hai ki sab facilities hai. Aur hum poora data record kar ke rakhte hai. Dekhiye ji aisa ki is gaadi ne kab kis passenger ko kahan choda tha uska poora data aur record hamare paas hai. Ab aapne kahin bag chod diya gaadi mein, to aap keh sakte hai ki is gaadi aur is driver ne hammein choda tha is samay. Aapka bag waapas mil sakta hai. Ab auto ka kya hai ki driver ke maathe pe nahin likha hota ki woh imaandar hai ya nahin. Aapko apna bag mile ya nahin. – There is air conditioning. The auto drivers ask you for a lot of money for going a short distance. We, at Easy Cabs, have all the facilities. We maintain a complete record and all the data regarding all journeys that a particular cab and the driver have done. So if you leave your bag in the car by any chance, then you can call and tell the company that you travelled on so-and-so date in so-and-so car number and you will get your bag back. Now with the auto driver, it is not written on his forehead that he is honest and will return your bag to you aptly.

The taxi driver had completed his Bachelors in Commerce discipline. He gets 20% of the share from the day’s earnings. It has been two years since he is driving his cab. His father is an employee in the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). He is trying for a position in the police services and he hopes it will work out. He tells me about the flyover that is being built from IIT gate right up to the airport.

Aap dus minute mein airport pahunch jaoge ek baar yeh flyover ban gaya toh. Lekin iska kaam chal raha hai chaar saal se. Games hone tak yeh ban jayega. Aisa hai ki PWD wale isko bana rahe hai. Agar private wala banata, toh ab tak yeh khatam ho chuka hota. – Once this flyover is built, you will reach the airport in ten minutes flat. But the work on this flyover has been going on since 4 years. It should be ready by the time the 2010 (Common Wealth) Games begin in Delhi. The deal is that the Public Works Department (PWD) folks are constructing this flyover. If a private contractor were doing this, it would be ready in the agreed upon time.

This intrigues me. I want to probe into his notions of privatization and contract work, more so because he said his father was an employee of the DJB, a government servant.

Toh bhaiyya yeh DJB ko private kar ne wale the? – So brother, they were going to privatize the DJB, I asked him.

Haan, woh toh BJP sarkar karne wali thi. Ab Congress sarkar aayi huyi hai toh unhone rok rakha hai. – Yes, that the BJP government was going to do. But now that the Congress government has come, it has put a stop to privatization.

Then I want to probe more. Hence, I ask him about electricity privatization in Delhi and how that has proved to be as inefficient as the DESU running it and the number of power cuts continue to be the same. He replies,

Ab aisa hai ki koi aadmi do kilo vazan utha sakta hai. Ab aap us ko bolon ki chalees kilo uthaye. Toh woh kaise utha payega? Ab har ghar mein AC hai, pankhe hai. Balki ek hi room mein kamas kam do AC hai. Cooler to the hi the. Log bhi to jyada bijli istamaal kar rahe hai. – Now it is like that man can lift 10 kilo weight but you ask him to lift 40 kilos, will he be able to do it? Now, in every house, there are air-conditioners and fans. Moreover, in the same room, there are two air-conditioners. Coolers were always there. You leave that. And people are also using more and more electricity.

I am left on this journey thinking about the ways in which people perceive services provided by governments and those provided by private entities. There is no straightforward story that we can tell of whether the private is better than government or that the state should continue to provide water, lighting, health and education. I am grappling with some of these issues.


I move around South Delhi and notice the frenetic pace of the Metro Rail construction in preparation for the Games in 2010. I pass by an area whose name I don’t know, but it appears before you hit Defence Colony. The construction of the stadium is happening there. Shapoorji Paloonji is the contractor. I am told that LNJP colony near New Delhi railway station is going to be moved. Surveys have taken place to enumerate the slum dwellers. Mel says that the dwellers feel irritated when they see a foreigner around because they are currently coping with the stress of potential eviction. There is no information as to when the evictions will happen. They are only told that the evictions will happen. We go to Ghevra and at the entry to Savda colony where the autorickshaws and cycle rickshaws stand, we are asked if we want to go to Savda. We ask the people who ask us how they know that we are going to Savda. They say that many NGOwalahs come here and they marked as one of that tribe. When being driven around in Savda, people laughed at us and mocked the autorickshaw driver,

Haan, take them around Savda. They have come to see the area. Come, see!

It is mockery at us, because we are seen as spectators of their plight. I feel ashamed. But I hold out, because Dilli dilwalon ki hai and it is the dil –the heart, the courage, the spirit – which I have to rely on. We pass through the laughter and the prying eyes. And then we are invited into people’s homes and their lives. I watch around in Savda. I hear the language of capture, of building, of speculation which I hear in Mumbai. I then wonder what happens once the games are over. I am told that the built structures will be sold. In my heart of hearts, I hope that they are captured by the very people on whose possessions these were built on.


I began to write my notes sitting at the airport. And even then, I find these are incomplete. There are questions I have not asked, there are conversations I have not told. There is the story of khatra – danger – that the autodrivers spoke to me about which I have not told here. There is the story of illegal property with legal stamping and legal property with official stamps to prove that there is no ghotala – scam – in the transactions and the resulting ownership. But I am spent for now. I am immersed in these tales and I am still dissecting them to understand a city that is becoming. For that matter, all cities in India are now becoming, becoming in a way that was vastly different from what it was two decades ago. My children will know of cities the way I did not know of them. But then, how much did I really know of them as I grew up? …

I write with my feet … I feel to travel more …

[Dedicated to Melodi Oz with who I travelled into some parts of Delhi and lived with during my time in the city. The Oz turned out to be a wizard – waiting for more magic and laughter to rub on me in the times to come.

Dedicated to Ravi Sundaram and his Pirate Modernity – for the conversations, the friendship and the understanding of cities that I have derived from him in some measure.]

5 thoughts on “Notes from a Metro (Pun Unintentionally Intentional)”

  1. lovely writeup. very engrossing. i could almost hear the auto-wallahs speaking.

    And yes, yayyyy for Mumbai auto and taxiwallahs. :-)


  2. I made a short trip to Delhi recently, returning to Mumbai just today..what a coincidence that i came across your article..wonderful…as i read it much of my anger and frustration at the Delhi autowallas dissolved into indulgent smile…
    Having lived in Kolkata for most of my life i found the perception of the city really amusing..and the joke about flyover construction is hilarious!


  3. Thanks for the comments. If you could hear the auto-wallahs speaking in this post, then the job was done well ;)


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