Long queues, fear of infection and flouting of norms, commuters using the Delhi metro have little choice
Satish Kumar is amongst the first people meeting riders at the gates of a Delhi metro station. He checks the temperature of those who want to enter, goes on to spray disinfectant through a huge canister, and then asks the person to proceed to the hand disinfectant machine.
He works for a company hired by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) to provide these services during Covid, a necessity with rising numbers and perhaps even to remind riders of the potential risk of a metro ride.
When the pandemic hit India, and the central government called a nationwide lockdown, metro trains faced a complete shutdown from 22 March. The services were resumed after over five months on 7 September, in a graded manner in three stages. When first resumed – running four hours in the morning between 7-11 am and then in the evening between 4 pm-8 pm – the number of fresh Covid cases on that day was around 2,077, which took Delhi’s tally to over 1.93 lakh, and a mounting death toll at 4,599. The number of active cases then stood at 20,543 while 1,68,384 patients had either recovered, been discharged or had migrated.
By stage two, which set in on 11 September, lines were opened for 6 hours in the day and then again in the evening, and by 12 September full operations were resumed. Coincidentally, 12 September, was also the day that Delhi recorded its highest single-day spike in Covid cases with 4,321 cases being reported. This brought the grand total of cases in Delhi at 2,14,069, with a death toll of 4,715 and 28,059 as active cases.
As of 25 November, Delhi has witnessed a total of 8,621 deaths due to Covid with 109 people succumbing on 24 November and 6,224 new cases on the same day. With cases rapidly increasing, even as normal metro function continues, are the trains safe with the large number of commuters, sharing space in air-conditioned bogies? While seats have been earmarked alternatively for use to maintain social distancing, riders complain that in peak hours people fill in the standing spaces, without the six feet of prescribed distance causing a social distancing nightmare.
Anand Kumar, a civil defence volunteer deputed at a Dwarka metro station to man the gates and see that people are wearing their masks admits “I don’t even allow those who are wearing gamcha (a scarf) sometimes. Because they usually just remove it after they go through the check. The ones who aren’t well off, I let them go with whatever they are using as a mouth cover. I would even hand masks out sometimes but now I don’t have any left. There are some who will say ‘Oh, I forgot my mask’, I send them back, saying go home and bring it or go to the market and buy one. Many people are flouting rules, it’s not safe.”
Metro services when they first resumed saw low ridership with an average daily line utilisation in September at over 6 lakh, but by October it had doubled to over 12 lakh passengers daily – still a fraction of what it used to be before the pandemic. July 29 witnessed the highest single-day ridership with over a little over 59 lakh riders.
Even so, the Delhi metro authorities admit that in October they had observed that certain sections of the Metro network were reaching the 100% occupancy mark during morning and evening peak hours.
These sections, pointed out, were Dilshad Garden to Shastri Park and New Bus Adda to Dilshad Garden in the red line; Mundka to Kirti Nagar in the green line; then Kirti Nagar to Mandi House which falls on the blue line; and Escorts Mujesar to Badarpur on the violet line.
Anand says people are even found removing their masks inside the trains to eat food, which was always forbidden, even pre-Covid. “How many people can you constantly keep an eye on?” he asks. What’s worse, he says is that he believes Covid positive people are also taking the metro to travel. “If anyone’s temperature is high, we send them back. But numbers (of Covid cases) are now increasing, and it’s not safe,” he reiterates.
Satish too admits that safety does not come even with the huge disinfectant sprays and sanitisers, but believes the threat is low. “Look, this is the third month that I have been working for Covid to check commuters. I have not contracted the virus yet; I think it’s just to scare people.”
But if the increasing number of cases are to be believed, the virus is no farce. There are many though, who still do not take things quite as seriously. The Delhi Police has been conducting checks on “Covid direction violators”. The initiative which began on 15 October has till 23 November resulted in 688 challans, after a total of 45,059 trains were checked.
While the DMRC have persons manning the metro gates and stopping too many passengers from getting in, those who have taken the busy yellow and blue lines admit that the corporation has not been successful in creating a distancing bubble. Furthermore, it has also caused long queues outside the metro stations, which riders also point out has people standing close to each other.
The queues are so long now that DMRC now uses its Twitter handle to inform riders with a warning of the average time it would take in major stations which are busy. On November 24 it tweeted that the average waiting time in Rajiv Chowk was 21 minutes. The day before that, the waiting time was 28 minutes in the peak hour around 6:30 pm, and on the same day in Saket station, the peak hour update at 9:37 am was the average waiting line of 25 minutes.
But even while the inconvenience rises, many passengers still take this mode with offices resuming. We came across many tweets asking the DMRC to stop operations as the huge crowds only make the danger of contracting Covid more of a possibility. Photos of people standing side by side in queues and more worryingly inside the train show that the social distancing norm is not working.
Commuters we spoke with say they try and avoid peak hours because the danger is palpable for them. Others say they have no other choice and even employees like Satish and Anand think it’s at least safer than buses “so, why not just take the metro?”
For people who can choose to take their private vehicles or even cabs, the Delhi metro seems like an electric contagion. But for those who have to take public transport, it is a better option than overcrowded buses, which we too have found to be flouting all Covid protocols in the Capital.
(Cover: WATCHFUL EYE: The Delhi police from 15 October to 23 November has checked 45,059 trains and issued 688 challans PHOTO: DCP METRO/TWITTER)