Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:14 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:14 | SYDNEY

Delhi: Mind the 500-year gap


Rory Medcalf


4 March 2008 09:11

One of the less-trumpeted achievements of today’s India is its invention of time-travel. On the Delhi Metro, you can now be transported from 21st century New Delhi to the medieval back-lanes of Old Delhi in about twelve effortless minutes. For their part, Old Delhi’s old-fashioned bazaar-wallahs seem utterly nonchalant about the gateway to the future that has opened up beneath their feet.

But the Delhi Metro really is a big deal. Since its first stations opened in December 2004, it has expanded into a three-line network covering much of this sprawling and fast-growing megalopolis, with more lines to come into operation in the years ahead. It has defied the doubters, who thought that a city with a name for private affluence, public squalor, appallingly congested roads and murderously bad buses would hardly take to efficient, clean and high-tech mass transit.

Having lived in Delhi for several years in the pre-Metro era, I was one of those sceptics. On a recent visit, I was delighted to discover how wrong I had been. The Delhi Metro shows up the public transport of most great cities as decidedly third-rate (and left Sydney’s looking downright disgraceful). In particular, it impressed me as faster, cleaner and more efficient than Beijing’s, and just as popular with commuters — though thankfully not as crammed as Tokyo’s.

And the geopolitics of it all are fascinating. The Delhi system is about 60-percent funded by Japanese development assistance, and demonstrates what is possible when Japanese technology and money are strategically combined with Indian ingenuity and appetite for improvement (not to mention the work ethic of both societies). If there does indeed turn out to be a grand plot to balance Chinese power, its most important workings will more likely sound like the peaceful buzz of the Delhi Metro than the whisper of a quadrilateral dialogue or the occasional burst of wargames in the Bay of Bengal.