Letter from the Editor
METRO’S BILL OF RIGHTS
Ever since India achieved freedom from Brit rule, models of growth have paraded the national ramp like so many economic fashionistas promising rapid post-colonial development—Mahanalobis, post-Nehruvian, Kaldor, Myrdal, Narasimha Rao, Amartya Sen, Bhagwati, Jayalalithaa…. The model who seems to have stolen the show so far is the Modi aka Gujarat model. But will the new prime minister walk away with the crown? Will he be able to deliver transformation a la Gujarat to the rest of India in the shortest possible time?
We’ve heard the arguments. Solutions that worked for Gujarat’s 63 million people cannot work for India’s 1.2 billion. Gujarat’s quality of life index is not enviable etcetera. Economists like Surjit Bhalla will take on the Modi-baiters statistic for statistic. And I’m not about to bore you here with more stats, even though they remain a valid underpinning for any discussion on why some Indian states have grown while the others have languished in poverty and squalor. It is great that this debate, rather than simply caste and religion, has become—and should remain—the centerpiece for discussion during and following Election 2014.
Let me charge headlong into this argument and posit my own in-your-face model, one that stares at every Delhi commuter, every day of his life. I call it the Delhi Metro Model. But first, let’s get over the statistics: In 2016, with the completion of its third phase, Delhi’s Metro Rail will become the seventh largest Metro in the world, covering 310 kilometers and carrying more than four million riders a day. By any standard, this is no mean feat.
This essay is not simply about the enormity of the project or the technology involved but rather an attempt to hammer home the cardinal point that the Delhi Metro is a testament not only to the power of the yes-we-can Indian but also a living, breathing model of how this nation’s very way of life can be radically transformed through a cocktail of social justice, caring, good governance and honesty.
There is a humongous makeover in the attitude, demeanor and mindset of the Indian the moment he begins the escalator ride into the subway station. He leaves himself and the India he knew above ground, way behind. This same Citizen Raju, who pushes his way through crowds, swears like a thug, litters shamelessly, pees against walls, spits on the pavement, ogles and whistles at women, waits angrily for late buses, shivers in the cold, swelters in the heat, steps over children to get to the ticket window, staggers blindly through blackouts, sneers at the derelicts and laboring classes, metamorphoses below ground.
He pushes and shoves no more, his language is sweeter, he holds his bladder and spit, waits patiently—and in queue—for the next train, neither shivers nor swelters, rubs shoulders with garbage pickers, observes the miracle of no blackouts, offers his seat to women and senior citizens and the differently-abled. Raju ban gaya gentleman.
What causes this remarkable transformation? My answer: Exposure, even if temporarily, to the face of a state that respects you, exhorts you to civilized behavior, provides justice and equal opportunity, cares for your comfort, shows you the value of hygiene, and will be second to none in providing you the state-of-the-art tech facilities.
If charity can begin at home, then surely why cannot the post-Modi development model emerge from Delhi Metro, to which Indians from every state and class and background are exposed? It starts at the very beginning. Earning citizens’ goodwill starts with the laying of the Metro tracks and digging, with an extraordinary sensitivity to keeping traffic disruptions to a minimum, as compared to other construction activities or the blatant injustice suffered by common people, prevented from reaching their destination by VIP cavalcades. Don’t think this comparison goes unnoticed as an act of good and fair governance, especially given Metro’s reputation for a scandal-free administration. It immediately endears you to the Metrowallahs and makes you more forgiving of them, when you encounter a somewhat troublesome stretch.
If you talk of inclusive governance and development, or the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest numbers as part of India’s rapid urbanization, again, what better example than Metro. Here, egalitarianism rules, literally. Prince, pauper, lawyer, businessman, student, migrant laborer, rustic, lumpen, together ride rocket science escalators (some of whom may not even have seen cement staircases) or elevators to wait for three to five minutes for six- or eight-car trains with automatic doors. The air conditioning, in near perfect working condition, caresses all, whether sardine-packed standing or seated. The security scanning and baggage checks are unobtrusive, the queues at token and smart card counters move rapidly and the turn-style entry gates operate more efficiently than in New York or London. And the Metro respects your time. It is never late.
Electronic crawl boards; route maps lit with destination bulbs, reinforced by announcements in Hindi and English, perfectly enunciated and audible; signs; station names; and even color codes with directional arrows on platform floors for the unlettered, are ubiquitous. Everywhere, within the trains, and on the walls, are instructions, either written or through polite public address systems, exhorting us—as should be the norm in all our schools—to civic behavior: fines for spitting and littering; no eating and drinking on platforms or in carriages; offering your seats to the disabled, the elderly and women; no sitting on the floors; avoiding gratuitous contact with strangers; warnings of CCTV surveillance; apologies for delays; and in a tribute to transparency, even the estimated costs of Metro expansion, as well as salaries paid to Metro employees.
The riders obey. Metro remains spotlessly clean. They offer their seats to the needy. They respect the coach reserved for women. Sometimes they push and shove, more often they don’t. There is little or no crime. The lawlessness that characterizes so much of urban India is not the Metro culture, proving that you do not need a police state to enforce decency.
Why? Because to the ordinary citizen, who rides the metro and gets to work for a reasonable fare in less than half the time in air-conditioned comfort, this is not a vicarious experience. It is happening to him in real time. It is unlike visiting a zoo and looking inside cages from the outside, or visiting an air-conditioned mall in summer to cool off and windowshop for things he can never afford, and then returning to his own sordid world. But he can afford the metro. It belongs to him, as much as it does to the rich IT executive or the i-pad toting student, who is hanging on to the adjacent strap smelling of cologne or Fa. The Metro is, in fact, the great leveler.
The Metro is not rude to him. It makes him part of an all-world, high-tech experience of efficiency and energy. It gives him a sense of citizenship and of belonging—the only environment in which the rule of law can exist naturally and without coercion. And so, Citizen Metro reads and listens to the civics lessons and agrees—not “obeys” but “agrees”—with them.
And when he emerges overground again, or returns to his village, he knows he has not dreamt the experience. He wonders why this world of technology and inclusiveness, cannot be replicated everywhere else. His experience and exposure to what is best in India has changed his expectations, his aspirations. He will now demand this from his politicians, no matter who from which party. That is what I call the Metro Model.
Incidents of indiscipline, official negligence and technical snags are usually handled without rancour or violence and riders are more tolerant of glitches and snafus. The lesson here is that when the state respects and cares for its citizens and treats them as stakeholders rather than as subjects before whom it is not accountable, the citizens reciprocate these sentiments equally—they feel a sense of ownership and participation and respect the state. These are the conditions conducive to the operation of the Rule of Law.
Each time I see the red light at the end of tail car disappearing over an elevated track into the night, I think of it as a beacon piercing the blackness with a swathe of light.