In 2020, Binod Mairta was working on his second novel, Last Train to Huda City Center – part of a three-volume series set in the Delhi Metro – when the pandemic hit and Metro services were shut down for over five months. “I had to stop writing the book because Metro is my muse and for every scene in my book I took inspiration from my daily journey,” says Marta, whose first book, A Rose on the Platform, is a story about love and Treason is set in Delhi Metro.
“Over the years, Metro had also become something of a social engine in the city, the hottest spot for socializing and dating. Today it is a gloomy place. I can’t resume my book until Metro returns to its pre-pandemic self,” adds Mairta, who works as Associate Director, Editing and Translation Services at Rajya Sabha Secretariat, working back and forth between Dilshad Garden and Metro’s Central Secretariat commutes here.
Indeed, many Delhi metro stations like Barakhamba Road, which saw swarms of people before the pandemic, now look shockingly empty. Even some of the busiest interchange stations, such as Rajiv Chowk and Kashmere Gate, whose restaurants and cafes have been hotspots for social and business meetings and dates, remain pale shadows of their own two years into the pandemic.
With footfall falling sharply, most retail outlets and restaurants have seen a debilitating downturn in business, with some stores closing. According to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), average passenger trips have dropped to around 1.5 million to 2 million a day from 6 million to 6.5 million a day before the pandemic.
It’s 11am on a Friday morning and the Coffee Day café at Rajiv Chowk train station is empty. “Before the pandemic, our sales were €65,000 a day, but by last year’s Diwali it had fallen to around €30,000. Now the sale is only allowed to take away €3,000 a day,” says Shiv Rathore, an assistant manager at the outlet.
“Our restaurant used to be full. Birthdays and business meetings were held here. But most of our clients were young couples,” adds Rathore.
One of the customers was Nidhi Khanna, who recently stopped by the cafe after a year and a half on her way to Noida – but was dismayed at the changes she witnessed in the ‘feel and work’ of Metro.
“Underground subway stations have their own charm and energy. I loved spending time with my friends at CCD in Rajiv Chowk and watching people wait, meet and hop on the trains. In fact, a lot happened here over coffee,” says Nidhi Khanna, 26, a Noida-based IT professional.
“But Metro isn’t the same now. The temperature checks at the entrance and Covid-related stickers on the seats in the compartments are a constant reminder of the risk of infection. Ironically, people used to fight to get the seats, now they prefer to stand as it allows for more social standing, although standing is currently banned. Finding a seat on the metro has never been easier,” adds Khanna.
Jatin Arora, who lives in Adarsh Nagar in north Delhi and works in Gurugram, says Kashmere Gate was the train station where he often met his girlfriend, who is now his wife. “What made Metro so appealing for dating is that two young people could travel in close proximity in air-conditioned comfort without attracting too much attention. But now that anonymity is gone in the relatively empty carriages and stations, and the sense of comfort and coziness in Metro has given way to fear,” says Arora, a marketing executive.
Like Cafe Coffee Day’s Shiv Rathore, Shubham Goyal, manager of Namaste Delhi, a fast-food restaurant at Kashmere Gate railway station, says couples make up a large proportion of his customers, but with most offices and colleges closed, his business is down about 80% decreased. “If you allow 100% seating on the trains, seating in the station cafes can also be allowed. After all, we’re on the metro and unlike those outside, we can’t even deliver to your home,” says Goyal.
Under restrictions imposed by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority following the rise in Covid cases, restaurants were only allowed to take away and take out deliveries.
Prakash Joshi, who works at Sahitya Akademi bookstore at Kashmere Gate railway station, says most of his customers before the pandemic were either elderly or Delhi University students interested in Hindi literature. “Often many commuters would come in and turn our store into a literary salon where they would discuss Munshi Premchand. But now hardly anyone comes. Even before the start of the third wave on December 15, our sales were down by 50%. Now we only have very few customers,” says Joshi, who sits at the counter of the bookshop, whose walls are lined with black-and-white pictures of Indian literary greats like Toru Dutt, Devaki Nandan Khatri and Nagarjun. The teak shelves are stacked with hundreds of titles in over two dozen Indian languages.
It’s afternoon and Vishwavidyalaya Station, which once hummed with the chatter of DU students, is eerily quiet. Balbir Singh, who works at the NBT bookshop by the station, said with universities and colleges closed there were no customers and it was difficult to pass the time. “Before the pandemic, we sold books worth €7,000 a day. Now we are lucky if our daily sale even exceeds €1,000,” he says while watching 1966’s “Phool Aur Patthar,” starring “Dharmendra” and Meena Kumari, on YouTube. “It’s the only pastime,” says Singh.
Back at Rajiv Chowk station, Ravi Kumar, a sales representative for an eyewear retail chain, is worried his store could close by February. “In October-November our monthly sales were approx €12 lakhs a month. But this month it’s hardly €2 lakh so far. The shop rent is approx €3.5 lakh and the company told us we could be off the station by February. Before the pandemic we were 10 people here, but now there are only four of us. Our business is directly related to the footfall at the station,” he says.
The DMRC said it has taken several measures to help companies operating from the Metro campuses. “We have taken a number of measures such as rent waivers, moratoriums and lease extensions to keep various retail and grocery stores at stations. We continually interact with vendors to understand their needs and challenges, and necessary actions are taken. A very small number of retailers have closed their stores,” says Anuj Dayal, Executive Director, Corporate Communications, Delhi Metro.
It’s 5:30pm and the corridors of Barakhamba Road Station are pitch black as most of the station’s doors are closed. The station, which used to see a mad rush of commuters at this hour, now has a small queue of commuters. Rajiv Arora, who works at a private bank on Barakhamba Road, says not only has the atmosphere of the station changed, but the profile of commuters has changed too. “This is an office-heavy area and in the past most of the commuters were office workers going home at night and I knew a lot of them. Now I don’t see a familiar face,” says Arora.
As we talk, there’s an announcement over the public address system “wearing the face mask is mandatory”, Arora pushes his mask to his mouth and boards the almost empty train to Dwarka.