New Metro affords a glimpse of a possible India

The train arrives with a rush of cool air and on time, and passengers walk on board in an orderly fashion and settle down into the clean stainless-steel seats.

Cool. On time. Orderly. Clean. These are a few new words to describe New Delhi.

Few Delhiites were quite prepared for the changes that would occur in their lives, both physically and mentally, when the New Delhi Metro officially opened in December 2004. Even today, the nearly 40-mile long - and expanding - Delhi Metro system remains on budget and slightly ahead of schedule. It has the capacity to grow to 2 million passengers per day, 60,000 passengers an hour, eliminating the need - in theo- ry - for some 2,600 of the city's wildly driven buses.

Large-scale public projects - America's interstate highway system, Russia's Siberian railway, Boston's "Big Dig" - have a way of changing the way citi- zens see their country or city, and the construction of a world-class subway system almost inevitably will prompt many Indians to change their expectations for their country's future.

"There are times in the life of nations when they feel confident that they can take on the world, that they are capable of meeting any challenge," Raghuram Rajan, director of research at the International Monetary Fund, said at a speech last year in New Delhi. "One reason such a mind-set is important is that it creates an intolerance for laziness, for shoddy products, for open corruption, and for the usual excuses. When people have a strong conviction that they can achieve the possibilities of the future, it makes them less tolerant of impediments in their way to it."

For the time being at least, the Delhi Metro is inspiring a kind of awe among its passengers. At ticket counters, people stand in line patiently, quite unlike the hustle and shoving one finds at a typical Delhi bus stand. The walls and floors are clean, unlike the halls of the typical Indian government ministry, where the reddish stain of paan spit adorns nearly every wall.

A list of rules, in Hindi and in English, specifies the fines for certain undesirable behavior.

Traveling without a ticket - 50 rupees ($1) fine. Drunken behavior - 500 rupees ($10)

Walking on the Metro track without authority - 500 rupees.

Traveling on the roof of the train - 50 rupees.

For those who cannot read, there are stick-figure illustrations accompanying the four big no-nos. No smoking. No littering. No spitting. No food or drink.

Rahul, a 12th-grade student, says that when he sees the gleaming interior of Delhi's new subway, he feels that, finally, India is beginning to show some of its potential as a modern country.

"It makes you feel good, like our country is progressing," he says, standing up to allow a small child to take his seat. "Really, Delhi is getting better and better. After they switched taxis and buses to CNG [compressed natural gas], the air is becoming cleaner. Now this will make things easier to get around."

The cost, at 6 rupees (13 cents) a ride, is no bargain, but is competitive with buses.

One can imagine that the sight of the Delhi Metro would have been a welcome surprise to the satirical Urdu poet Shaukat Thanvi, who once wrote of the shameless behavior many Indians and Pakistanis adopted once they had achieved azadi, or freedom, after the British left in 1947.

I'll spit exactly where I am forbid,
There will be no punishment for any crime I commit.
A tyrant and a despot, inventing new skills,
Freedom has conferred on me the right to do my will.

There's a pungency missing in the English translation. In Urdu, the word spit is "thook."

For Ashok Batra, a government employee and frequent passenger, the Delhi Metro is just one of the major changes that have come online in the past five years, all in preparation for Delhi's planned hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2010. The games are a kind of Olympics for members of the British Commonwealth.

"I've been staying in Delhi for 25 years, and I've seen many changes," he says. "It's becoming more beautiful, advancing day by day."

At Chandni Chowk, passengers exit into a gleaming station but come to an unexpected halt at the escalator. A middle-aged woman in a fuchsia sari hesitates to step on the escalator. "Chalo, Mama," says her daughter, pulling her on. The crowd behind them breathes a sigh of relief.

Up on the street is a Delhi that, perhaps, these folks are more accustomed to. Narrow alleys lined with fabric merchants, the smell of doughy pooris frying in oil, glitzy shops full of chunky golden jewelry, bicycle rickshaw drivers jingling their bells to clear the path ahead, and long lines of Punjabi Sikhs bathing their hands and feet before entering a 300-year-old temple for prayer.

Some parts of Delhi don't change.

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