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Hyper-Congested New Delhi Looks to New Metro

In the hyper-congested city, rail system is eagerly anticipated. Just getting it built was a monumental achievement.

October 13, 2002|Tim Sullivan | Associated Press Writer

NEW DELHI--It's the evening rush hour on the New Delhi stretch of the Grand Trunk Road, the centuries-old highway that slices through the Indian subcontinent, and things are fairly normal.

If that's what you'd call it.

Horns blare, buses bursting with passengers spew clouds of rancid fumes, bicycles and motorized rickshaws weave through a thicket of trucks, cars and horse carts. Off to one side, oblivious to the chaos, a bicycle-rickshaw driver sleeps soundly, feet on his handlebars. He's the only peaceful sight around.

"Transportation here, we have some problems," shrugged Aziz Narvi, a doctor walking home along the road. "Most of the time, I'm afraid to drive."

But things are changing in New Delhi, with a transportation technocrat preaching a gospel of rapid-transit rail lines and even a subway through the city's hyper-congested, ancient heart.

"People will come over to our system," said E. Sreedharan, managing director of Delhi Metro Rail Corp., ticking off the promises of his soon-to-open network: "The ease of travel, the safety, the lack of pollution."

A new commuter railway line--an above-ground line in this area--is being built parallel to the Grand Trunk, and more lines are going up around the capital, where 16 million people and 4 million vehicles, more than half of them two-wheelers of various sorts, fight for space in the crush of traffic.

In December, the first five miles of the planned 37-mile commuter rail network is scheduled to open. By late 2005, the entire system is supposed to be working, including seven miles of subways under downtown New Delhi. The rest will either be surface or elevated rails. Up to 2 million riders are expected to use the system daily.

And maybe, just maybe, it will work.

"Surprised? Surprised? We are very surprised. How have they managed to complete this project?" asked an incredulous Subhash Agarwal, a businessman waiting for a bus along the Grand Trunk. "Nothing here works."

India has a sprawling and often corrupt bureaucracy notorious for spending billions of rupees and accomplishing little. New Delhi's past transportation projects, mainly highway improvements that can take years, have nearly frozen traffic in some neighborhoods.

Then there's the electricity required to power the rail system. With power questionable through much of Delhi, real estate agents highlight homes near those of top officials. Those neighborhoods, they note, normally stay lighted at night.

When ground was broken on the Metro in 1998, that alone was an achievement. The idea was first raised in 1950, and 35 sets of plans were drawn up and forgotten before work finally started.

The public adores the idea--"We love this Metro," said Narvi. And newspapers and magazines celebrate it. "Victory of the technocrats!" one magazine proclaimed. "The good times are coming," declared The Statesman newspaper.

Ask along the Grand Trunk Road, the ancient highway where, Kipling once wrote, "all the world is going and coming," and you'll understand the excitement. People talk of fume-fueled throat infections, of frenzied drivers who view red lights as mere suggestions, of commutes that can take three hours each way.

"Every day I go by bus and every day I'm waiting," said Agarwal, keeping an eye on the road for his ride. "Every morning I wait; every evening I wait."

At the Metro, the public company building the $1.7-billion network, officials speak messianically about changing not just traffic, but India's corporate and political culture.

"Our attempt is to see this Metro as a model project," said Sreedharan, a former civil engineer and longtime executive with the Indian railway system, "so this culture spreads to the rest of the country."

The chance of one project melting away decades of entrenched bureaucracy is slim. But Sreedharan and his team have proven one thing: that with the support of top government officials, subway builders from around the world and millions of dollars in low-interest Japanese loans, it is possible to stay on schedule and withstand the political cronyism that plagues other government projects.

Not that politicians don't try: "Day in, day out, every day I get the pressure," Sreedharan said, laughing.

But if the public and Metro officials are waiting feverishly for the first train, others are far more wary.

Homeowners whose land was seized for construction have filed more than 200 lawsuits against the system, although so far courts have sided with the Metro. Also, although Metro officials insist they have taken care to protect historic architecture, some conservationists fear what so much construction could mean for Delhi.

"The heritage is so vulnerable," said architectural conservationist Nalini Thakur. She said that while the ancient monuments are mostly protected, there is plenty of more recent but still historically important architecture that could suffer.

"This whole Metro is such a massive project, it's running over all of Delhi ... ," she said.

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