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November 27th, 2017
Infrastructure • Cities

The Construction of the Delhi Metro

The construction of the Delhi Metro began in 1998 with the help of international and local partners, such as the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. It was the first urban train system in the city to provide affordable and efficient public transport for its citizens. In 2015, over 2.6 million passengers used the service on a daily basis, creating positive environmental impact by reducing Delhi’s traffic and pollution levels.

The initiative

Delivering the MRT project was enshrined as one of the founding objectives of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) Limited when it was incorporated in 1995. It was jointly funded by local and federal government. It made use of the expertise of Rail India Technical & Economic Services Limited (Rail India), which had already prepared a detailed project report on MRT prior to the DMRC's foundation. The final amount of funding was approved in 1996, and construction began in 1998, based on a four-phase plan:

  • Phase I - began in 1998, creating a network of 65 km in train infrastructure within Delhi. By 2005 the first phase was completed, connecting Shahdara and Tis Hazari ahead of schedule.
  • Phase II - added an additional 125 km of metro track within four and a half years. At this time, the Delhi metro network consisted of 218.7 km, covering 164 stations along with 6 additional stations on the Airport Express Link. After completion, it connected Noida and Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh as well as Gurgaon and Faridabad in Haryana. Phase II was completed by May 2017, although delayed testing in the signalling system postponed the launch of some lines to mid-2018.
  • Phase III - began in 2011 with plans for an additional 162.495 km, involving the construction of three new lines and the extension of existing lines. “The DMRC today has 235 train sets of four, six and eight coaches. More than a hundred trains of six-coach configuration and over 60 trains of eight-coach configuration are currently operational.”[2]
  • Phase IV - intended to complete the project and connect the entire network of over 400 km of metro track. Currently, construction is planned to start by 2018, as soon as additional funding is secured and Phase III is completed.[3]

The challenge

Between 1981 and 1995, the number of registered motor vehicles in Delhi increased dramatically – by 329 percent to 2.3 million. This posed a serious threat to the local infrastructure, which was unable to provide enough space for so many vehicles. At the same time, Delhi’s population continued to grow. Having just reached the 10 million mark, such a vast population was placing an additional burden on the already overloaded traffic system. As a result, officials agreed to begin the construction of a mass rapid transit (MRT) system for Delhi.[1]

The public impact

The Delhi Metro succeeded in reducing the amount of road traffic and congestion in the city. In 2014, 12 years after the first line was opened, it was estimated that the Delhi Metro had kept 230,000 vehicles off the road, resulting in the saving of roughly 104 billion rupees worth of fuel. In 2015, over 2.6 million passengers a day on average were using the metro.

Delhi has also reported a lower number in road accidents overall, which was in part linked to the construction of the metro. The Delhi police stated that fatal traffic accidents in 2016 amounted to 1548, a reduction of 23 percent when compared to the 2,015 fatal accidents that had occurred in 2008.[4]

In addition to the immediate effect of reducing the amount of traffic, the DMRC “has since its inception focused on preserving the environment”.[5] It is the first metro system in the world to trade carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism. Consequently, the Delhi Metro applies various renewable technologies and initiatives to protect the environment, such as braking technology to generate energy; adhering to the Gold Standard for carbon emissions; and installing solar panels to generate clean electricity. Overall, “the carbon footprint of a journey performed by metro is less than the same journey performed by any traditional modes of transport”.[6]

While its effect on the environment is largely positive, the Central Groundwater Board has accused the DMRC of illegal dewatering practices during metro construction.[7] It claimed that large-scale dewatering has led to a lowering of the groundwater table in Delhi, which has declined by 1.44 metres per year because of increased extraction, adding to fears of an emerging water crisis and drought.[8]

Stakeholder engagement

Stakeholders from the rail business as well as local, regional, national and international governments have been involved in the MRT project. While concrete plans were drafted bottom-up by the local Delhi agencies and Rail India, the Government of India and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) provided the necessary funding.

The idea of an MRT service for Delhi was formulated as early as 1969 through a traffic and travel characteristics study and progressed from there through local government levels, with the involvement of Rail India. A first official assessment by the Delhi Development Authority and the Urban Arts Commission in 1984 led to a first feasibility check byRail India and the Delhi regional government.  They recommended “a 198.5 km predominantly rail-based network”[9] to the central government. The government agreed, on the basis of a more detailed project report by Rail India which led to the founding of the DMRC.

Although the DMRC was incorporated as early as 1995, not enough funding for the MRT project or a managing director was yet in place. Regarding the funding, the JICA stepped in to grant a soft loan to the Government of India, which covered 60 percent of Phase I of the MRT project. However, funding was provided only “under the condition that the managing director of the DMRC [should] be in place”,[10] which persuaded the Indian authorities to appoint Elattuvalapil Sreedharan as the first CEO of the DMRC.[11]

During the project, engagement with local authorities remained important, especially regarding the coordination of underground segments of the metro that required local authorities to move underground water pipes and sewage networks and carry out other excavations. Initially, “other agencies were reluctant to cooperate, and this delayed construction in stretches of ground utility infrastructure because utilities could not be shifted”.[12] To address this issue, DMRC offered to conduct the work themselves (see also Alignment below) while involving agencies “through the preparation and submission of detailed plans for approval”.[13] Sreedharan admitted that “all the works which the civic authorities are required to do, we did it ourselves without waiting for them. If a huge water pipeline is to be shifted, they would take two years for that. Whereas we were able to get it done in 30 days."[14]

Political commitment

Regardless of who was in power at anygiven time, the project has always enjoyed strong cross-party support. However, this has been a mixed blessing. Even before the DMRC's foundation, political antagonism between the central and local governments created fierce public debates about whose responsibility it was to fund and lead the project.

Prior to the inauguration of Phase I in 2002, the central government was controlled by the BJP party and the Delhi Capital Union territory by the Congress party. This created openly publicised disagreements over who was the political lead on the project, each party seeking to claim the project's prestige for their own political gain. "Political opportunism has been a constant presence in the creation of the Delhi Metro. The development of such an elaborate metro system can in large part be seen as the result of a polity seeking to construct a monument that could be leveraged for political gain... At every turn, elected officials have sought to take credit for the tangible and intangible benefits that the metro will deliver."[15]

When Elattuvalapil Sreedharan became CEO, he feared that this kind of political opportunism might damage the MRT project, and he agreed to lead the DMRC only on condition that there would be no "political meddling". He has been admired for his strong stand against political interference and corruption as well as for the success of the MRT project as a whole. Employees involved in corruption or politicians trying to award contracts to gain political favours were fired from the project and neither the central nor regional governments were involved in the DMRC's decision-making.[16]

Public confidence

Public support for the MRT project has been firm throughout, largely because the DMRC managed to convince Delhi's sceptical population of the metro's merits by creating a transparent and well-planned PR strategy. This promoted the metro as an iconic symbol of the city and its citizens.

Before the project was initiated, Delhi's citizens were dissatisfied with the traffic congestion on their roads and the existing public transport via bus. “A random survey conducted in Delhi in the early 1990s found that 75 percent of commuters felt that the bus service was grossly inadequate... with frequent accidents causing injury as well as a rising level of perceived incivility.”[17]

Based on that evidence, the DMRC chose a very different PR approach from the kind that citizens were used to in India. Fearing that a negative press could very quickly turn public opinion against them, the DMRC had an open and active engagement with the media. Almost no money was spent on advertising. Instead, all construction phases were strategically addressed in the media to keep the public informed and create a positive and transparent image of the MRT project. The aim was to build public confidence gradually by creating an image that would “generate a sense of public pride, ownership and respect”. [18]

As a result of its image as an honest and transparent organisation, the DMRC was able to address difficult situations such as the construction accident that occurred in July 2009 during Phase II construction. Open engagement with media outlets amplified direct engagement with the public by addressing any queries that arose. “DMRC was able to have a voice in public discussions, thus presenting aspirations of the metro as a transformational force for Delhi and offering the metro as a point of pride for Delhi-ites”. [19]

Clarity of objectives

The original objective of the MRT project was to “provide a non-polluting, efficient and affordable rail-based MRT system for the National Capital Territory of Delhi, duly integrated with other modes of transport”.[20]

The careful planning of the four phases of the project rollout has meant that there have been clear targets and deadlines associated with each phase (see also The Initiative above):

  • Phase I - constructed 65 km of rail network, deadline of 2008 but finished in early 2005
  • Phase II - constructed 65 km of rail network within four and a half years
  • Phase III - constructed 162.5 km of rail network, to be fully operational in April 2018
  • Phase IV - aims to construct 1034 km of rail network to start in 2018.[21]

Strength of evidence

With guidance from the federal government, Rail India conducted a detailed feasibility study of the MRT project, taking metro transport in other Indian cities into account. This study provided an evidence-based evaluation for project planning.

India's first metro was developed in Kolkata in the 1970s and served as an initial example for Delhi. However, it became apparent that the Kolkata metro was more instructive as a negative case from which important lessons could be drawn. The Kolkata metro was "badly delayed and 12 times over budget due to ‘political meddling, technical problems and bureaucratic delays'".[22]

The Rail India feasibility report, which was concluded in 1995,  initially recommended the four-phase construction plan of “a [metro system], comprising a network of underground, elevated and surface corridors, aggregating to 198.5 kms, to meet the traffic demand up to the year 2021”.[23] Originally, it estimated a daily throughput of 3.5 million passengers by 2005. However, later on these projections turned out to be too high and several revisions reduced that estimate to “2 million passengers per day by the end of 2011, for a 190 km long network”.[24]


The Government of India has been able to secure adequate funding for the first three project phases, while the DMRC was given broad freedom to take technical decisions.

From the beginning of the project, making funding available for the project's four phases was key to its success. Thus, developers planned for funding well in advance for the first three phases. The JICA provided 60 percent of funds for Phase I, 55 percent of funds for Phase II, and 49 percent for Phase III in the form of loans. The remainder of the financial burden was shared between the local state governments in India.

Funding for Phase IV remains unclear, however, because the JICA has given mixed signals on whether it intends to continue to fund the project beyond 2017, with some media outlets indicating that it will cease funding,[25] while others report that it intends to continue its investment.[26]

The DMRC enjoyed the freedom to be able to take technical decisions independently and relied on the government principally for arranging funding and land acquisition. The JICA specifically set technical guidelines on the selection process for contractors as a condition of their funding. These allowed the DMRC “to accept only the bid of the bidder with the highest technical rank, with an exception only if the financial estimate of this bidder was unreasonably high”.[27] Such procedures helped to reduce interference from bureaucrats and politicians who had a vested interest in awarding contracts according to other criteria.[28]

Lastly, during the planning period and Phase I, international expertise from the US, France, Korea and Japan was used. To make the project sustainable, though, the DMRC had to engage Indian firms that would later be able to implement the MRT project without significant foreign input. International firms provided their know-how for specific tasks such as station design, construction management, and rolling stock production. These partners “were required to partner and transfer their expertise to Indian firms, so that indigenous companies could take a lead role in the later stages of the Delhi Metro project”.[29]


The management of the DMRC under the CEO, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, was highly effective. He created lean structures, was an experienced leader, and encouraged every employee to be committed the project. He was very experienced in developing and executing large rail infrastructure projects on schedule, being “a technocrat with a long history of service in the Indian Railways and a reputation for completing projects on time and within budget”.[30]

The organisational structure that Sreedharan created for the DMRC was very functional, consisting of only two departments: Organisation and Operations. This meant that costs were limited to specific factors of energy, manpower and materials and unnecessary expenditure was kept to a minimum.

He collaborated with the JICA to introduce the Japanese work ethic into the MRT project design. Being able to pick his own core team of engineers, he recruited them “on the basis of their efficiency, competency, punctuality and integrity”.[31] Furthermore, “DMRC engineers were encouraged to learn tunnelling technologies, management ethos, and value for time, as well as other management techniques from their Japanese counterparts”.[32]

Sreedharan believed that DMRC staff should learn best practices from well-regarded metro systems outside India, so after the initial team was established, employees received training in partnership with the Hong Kong MRT. However, after Phase I was completed, the DMRC opened its own training centre in Delhi. “The institute is ISO 9001:2008 certified and is the only specialised training institute in metro operations and maintenance technology in South Asia, which has a simulator for train operators and a Computer Based Training (CBT) lab.”[33]


The DMRC publishes annual reports which inform its stakeholders inter alia of passenger numbers, major developments, and financial expenditures for the year. At the same time, individual employees submit their own detailed reports to management on a daily basis and there are also long-term studies, which assess the Delhi Metro's environmental impact.

The DMRC's management has been able to realign targets and schedules on a weekly basis, in response to employees' input. “Every employee prepared a detailed report on the work assigned to them. In case of a delay or deviation from the plan he/she had to give valid reasons and see that the problem was resolved.”[34]  Team leaders would meet once a week to discuss new targets and set short-term goals. These measures ensured that employees felt engaged and that progress was recorded accurately.[35]

The Delhi Metro also publishes extensive environmental impact assessment reports of the different construction sites in cooperation with the Central Road Research Institute.[36] In 2007, the report revealed "that the Metro railway has helped save 33,000 tonnes of fuel and prevented creation of over 2,275 tonnes of poisonous gases. Also, it has helped commuters in the city save 66 minutes every day on an average and reduced the daily vehicle demand.”[37]


The DMRC's approach to cooperating with local stakeholders and the federal government's recognition of the need to refrain from interfering with the DMRC's decision-making were major factors in aligning the project's stakeholders.

The central government supported the Delhi Metro project through a number of measures, such as interest-free subordinated loans and a favourable tax regime. The latter included exemptions from property tax, electricity tax, import duty, excise duty, sales tax, and works contract tax.[38]

Where local authorities were inadequately equipped or reluctant to cooperate on a particular aspect of the project, the DMRC offered to take on the responsibility for the operations themselves. For example, they volunteered to move infrastructure such as pipelines, and they prepared and submitted detailed plans for this work to the local authority for their approval (see also Stakeholder Engagement above).[39]


1st Annual Report 1995-96, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Limited

About Us, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Limited

Breaking Ground - A Narrative on the Making of Delhi Metro, Yumiko Onishi, December 2016, Japan International Cooperation Agency

Breaking it Down: How the Delhi Metro was delivered before time and on budget, July 2015, Bridge School of Management

Delhi fears water shortage as groundwater level hits dangerous low, Dinesh C. Sharma, 6 March 2013, India Today

Delhi Metro,

Delhi Metro expansion unlikely to be funded by Japan, Ajai Sreevatsan, 7 September 2017, livemint

Delhi Metro Rail Project Management, Shaikh Amir Ali, 12 November 2015, Coventry University

Delhi Traffic Basic Facts 2017, Delhi Traffic Police

Delhi's metro success a lesson for Australia, Tim Colebatch, 2 April 2013, The Sydney Morning Herald

DMRC expands facilities to train 3000 new recruits, 28 April 2010, Economic Times and Times of India

DMRC Publishes New Phase 4 Map & Table of Delhi's Metro Project, 12 May 2017, The Metro Rail Guy

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Reports, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Limited

Evaluation of Public Transport Systems: Case Study of Delhi Metro, Mukti Advani and Geetam Tiwari, Transportation Research & Injury Prevention Programme, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi

Impact of Public Transport on Delhi, Vishal Kant, 29 March 2015, The Hindu

Is Metro responsible for Delhi's depleting groundwater table? Avinash Sharma, 15 September 2014, One India

JICA keen on funding Delhi Metro phase IV, 1 November 2016, The Hindu Business Line

Just A Minute With: Delhi Metro's E. Sreedharan, Matthias Williams, 13 July 2009, Reuters

Message in a Metro: Building Urban Rail Infrastructure and Image in Delhi, Matti Siemiatycki, June 2006, Volume 30.2, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research

Metro makes major impact in Delhi, 6 June 2007, The Hindu

Metro takes along realty rates in Delhi: study, Mandakini Gahlot, 5 December 2009, The Indian Express

New signal system delays Metro Phase 3, DMRC chief Mangu Singh calls it a ‘setback', Faizan Haidar, 28 August 2017, Hindustan Times

Promoting Low Carbon Transport in India - Case Study of Metro Rails in Indian Cities, Rahul Goel and Geetam Tiwari, June 2014, UNDP Risø Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development, Technical University of Denmark

The Delhi Metro: Effective Project Management in the Indian Public Sector, May 2017, Global Delivery Initiative, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development

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