You are here: Home » Specials » Weekend
Business Standard

On a tram in Old Delhi

The once-royal esplanade of Chandni Chowk is preparing to go back in time with the revival of a tram route. But the groundwork is yet to begin

Ritika Bhatia 

Deep in the labyrinth — that is Dariba Kalan — in Old Delhi sits the solemn and intimidating septuagenarian Ram Singh, the current owner of the legendary 198-year old Gulab Singh Johrimal ittar shop. The spacious one-room affair in Chandni Chowk stocks a universe of fragrances within bottles, soaps, powders and incense sticks, and represents a world that is entirely in consonance with the old-world chaos outside. While we take a nostalgic whiff of the geeli mitti ka ittar, Singh, in his starched white shirt and faded beige trousers, surveys the unending stream of carts, rickshaws and people on the road outside. You know, you provoke him, things can change now — the government wants to put a tram system in place here. He snorts derisively. He rode the tram that rambled past the locality as a young man and does not have great memories of it. He recollects the peeling paint, ramshackle coaches, and the open carriage right at the rear of the 1950s tram into which people would jump with cycles under their arms. “Trams offered neither comfort nor speed — it was just the poor man’s transport, screeching away at every steep turn of the circular streets,” he says.

That was then and now is now, and Najeeb Jung, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, with scant respect for the memories of ageing businessmen of Chandni Chowk, wants to reintroduce trams in the once-royal esplanade. Today’s Chandni Chowk is an assault on your senses — the sights, the smells, the sounds. Starting just off the Red Fort, the bustling stretch captures a slice of Delhi’s legacy where time stands still yet never stops. Legend has it that the market was built by Shah Jahan in 1650 for his favourite daughter, Jahan Ara, so she could shop for all her heart’s desires. It was designed as a square with a pool in the centre and canals running on the sides, reflecting the shimmering moonlight. Nearly 400 years later, Chandni Chowk has mushroomed into Asia’s largest wholesale market, where the potholed roads are bookended by a gazillion shops selling every imaginable ware on earth from zari to meenakari to anarkalis to paani puri and cheap mobile phones. It is chock-a-block with cars, pedestrians and cattle, with scooters and cycle rickshaws, and recently with e-rickshaws, while tourists, shoppers and salesmen all squirm endlessly in this sea of men and machines.

It is to change all this that the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Project was formulated. It aims to spruce up the environs of Shah Jahan’s city and give it back the nobility it enjoyed in the days of the Mughals. Last month, Jung approved a plan to reintroduce trams on the three kilometres linking Red Fort with Fatehpuri Masjid. Officials from the Public Works Department, civic bodies and representatives from traders associations met to discuss the plan, meant mainly to decongest the roads and allow only pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles to ply there.

“The proposal is in the conceptual stage,” says Jayesh Kumar, chief engineer, PWD, the agency tasked with the rebirth of the tram system. “Detailed work can only start once the plan is passed by a joint committee chaired by the lieutenant governor and then by the High Court. We have been entrusted with the responsibility of maintenance and we have approached the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation for technical partnership.”

The crowded Chandni Chowk has seen several experiments in its traffic management, including pedestrianisation, but the results have proved far from satisfactory. It needs a non-polluting, cost-effective mode of transport that will not be expensive for the passengers, and the exemplar is now the long-serving Calcutta Tramways Company. “Trams are eco-friendly since they run on electricity and life expectancy is high,” says Nilanjan Shandilya, managing director, Calcutta Tramways Company. Since maintenance is low-cost, the fare too can be kept to a minimal. He says that “trams can run at higher speeds if you allow them to move unhindered, but traffic needs to be decongested for that to happen”.

For close to 70 years, the Chandni Chowk area was served by a tram system. It was only in the mid-1960s that the tracks were uprooted and the roads paved for vehicular traffic. One among the six cities in which the British had started tram services — the others being Kanpur, Bombay, Calcutta, Patna and Madras — Delhi soon found the slow-moving tram an anachronism in a city where the population and automobiles were increasing at a galloping pace. Today, Kolkata remains the only city with trams for public transport.

“By 1907, the tram connected Ajmeri Gate, Pahar Ganj, Sadar Bazaar and Sabzi Mandi with Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid. At its most expanded, the tramway spanned approximately 14 miles (22 kilometres), connecting Tees Hazari and Sabzi Mandi to Sadar Bazaar, Bara Hindu Rao and Pahar Ganj via Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid, Chawri Bazaar, Lal Kuan, Katra Badiyan and Fatehpuri,” writes Sohail Hashmi, historian and documentary filmmaker, himself born at Kashmere Gate. Depending on the distance, the fare was adha aana (3 paise), eik aana (6 paise), do aana (12 paise) and char aana (25 paise).

There aren’t too many people today who remember using the tram for travelling the length of Old Delhi. Dialogue writer and theatre activist Lokesh Jain has faint memories of the trams running outside his house in Delhi Gate where nine generations of his family have stayed. Ghantewala Halwai’s manager Kesar Singh fondly reminisces about the trams’ screeching whistles which would prompt him and his childhood friends to go running to catch a glimpse of the often single-bogie trains.

Dariba Kalan’s Ram Singh describes the dream of a new tramway as “a fool’s paradise”, while Jain deems it a mere “political tool”, announced to coincide with the elections. Sewa Ram, head of the department of transport at the School of Planning and Architecture, says that the feasibility of bringing back trams in such a congested space as Chandni Chowk must be studied in detail. “Earlier, trams were slow-moving and would stop at every intersection. In many cases people sometimes preferred to just walk instead,” he says. “If they are to be brought back, it is essential to manage traffic and update the technology, so that a tram requires minimum space and achieves maximum speed.” He points out that Europe has always preferred transit-based systems as they are fuel efficient and economically more viable.

Hashmi says the right solution to the traffic nightmare lies in the regulation of traffic with the removal of motorised transport, and not just in Chandni Chowk but all of Old Delhi. “Decades ago one decision was taken for all the wholesale trade to be shifted out of Chandni Chowk, which was designed in the 17th century for a population of a 100,000. The idea is to decongest — everything else is only tinkering with the surface. If pedestrianisation of Chandni Chowk is successfully implemented, then it may just be a good move to bring back the trams.”

The government has several proposals to revive Shahjahanabad, the royal city of Shah Jahan. These include measures like redeveloping the roads, improving the sewer system, modifying street furniture and taking all electricity wires underground. A tramway can inject a new charm into the effort. Old Delhi’s legendary treats like sohan halwa, motichoor ke laddoo, kalakand, burfi, gulab jamuns and paranthas enveloped in shuddh desi ghee would then be just a streetcar ride away.


- By Nabaneeta Dev Sen, author and academic

I was giving the student directions to our home in which the tramline figured prominently. "But there are no trams here, Ma'am!'' he said, thoroughly confused. And I remembered. Yes, they are gone.

If I concentrate, I can still hear tram- bells tinkling in my head. From our tram stop you could go off on quite a few different routes to so many different destinations – Tollygunje, Kalighat, Park Circus, Esplanade, Dalhousie.

The tram was an important part of my growing up in Kolkata. Smart and slim and beautiful, a couple of conjoined white cars sliding gracefully along green stretches of grass, through the middle of the high street, like a mini train. Most of these had a mysterious, yawning appendage in front, like a half open iron cage. Ma said it was the cow-catcher, a great scientific discovery of the Calcutta Tramways. The lush green strips of grass upon which the silvery tram tracks were laid, were the favourite grazing spots for the cows of south Calcutta. Since cows were often inattentive to the gentle tingling of the tram- bells, they had to be mechanically protected by the benevolent cow -catchers from being run over.

Those grassy islands along the tramlines were equally attractive to early morning, or late evening dog-walkers. One evening my friend Putul was walking her dog and day dreaming with her ears switched off (no cell phones in those days), when she got gently caught and her life saved by the cow-catcher. The dog ran to safety. But for Putul, to be saved by the cowcatcher was a terrible tragedy. "It would have been far better to die under the wheels of a tramcar, like the great poet Jibanananda Das, " she complained, " than being caught in the cow-catching device, and live with this sad tale forever''.

In my childhood, every morning at 4 am, the first tram tring- tringed off from Ballygunge for Babughat with the early- rising, moksha-seeking, Ganga- bathing, crowd. To me, 4 am is an unearthly hour, but when Pishima (my father's sister) came to visit us, I loved to get up and accompany her to the Ganga.

A trip on the first tram was like a dream. The passengers would all be going for a holy early morning dip , the men half -clad, ready to jump into the water, red cotton gamchhas wrapped around their waist, feet in rubber slippers or wooden sandals, furiously massaging mustard oil on themselves, while chanting morning mantras to welcome the day. The women were elderly widows, sensibly dressed in white dhotis carrying their oil, gamchhas and change of clothes in cloth bags. The day was slowly breaking over the city, birds chirping on the trees that lined beautiful Rash Behari Avenue, through which the tramlines ran.

But even before the Bathers' Special, a green tram with one single toy car, ran along those tracks, watering the grass with sprinklers. It did not pick up passengers. The sound of that sprinkler-tram was the very first, comfortable, reassuring, urban noise that broke the silence of the night.

It was a great luxury to go on a tram ride with my father, on a Sunday morning. We would go upto Esplanade, and return through the Maidan on the same tram. I would scramble to occupy the very front seat, where you have a truly wide- angle vision, with access to two windows, one by your side and one in front. My father would quietly read the Sunday paper, while I hungrily lapped up the city sights.

The Maidan was green, cool and mysterious with cattle grazing lazily, children playing, men practicing yoga, boys on horseback taking riding lessons, people walking fashionable dogs, magicians showing tricks, and vendors selling a million irresistible treats. We would buy salted peanuts in paper cones through the window, and return in the same car, refreshed.

Unbelievably, as the rest of the world gets busy introducing trams and trolley-buses in cities to avoid air pollution, we are wiping out Kolkata's proud tradition, this elegant, healthy, urban transport system, one of the few colonial blessings. It is the least accident prone, safe with fixed stops, no speeding, no polluting, no climbing high platforms, easily accessible to the feeble, the elderly, to children, and to us, graceful women in saris.

If we want to keep pace with the changing world, we need our tramways back!


Rail transport that uses dedicated tracks on public urban streets, trams are known by many other names across the world — tramcar, streetcar, trolley or trolleycar. The mid-19th century saw the advent of tramways for ease of intra-city travel in many European cities. In 1807, the world’s first passenger train service was launched from Mumbles to Swansea in England. The fact that these cars were run on rails translated into a much smoother ride for passengers than on a bus, which ran over bumpy roads and potholes. The service spread to many parts of the world, in particular wherever Europeans went as colonisers. However, by the end of the twentieth century, many countries including India, had phased out the trams in favour of more rapid, but fuel-guzzling modes of transport such as the metro train. However, traffic congestion started becoming a major problem in top tier cities by the late 1990s, and that’s when trams or light rail transit (LRT) systems began to make a comeback. Manchester in England opened a new tramway in 1992, Sheffield, Croydon and Birmingham followed suit. By 1990, Hong Kong, China, the Philippines and South Korea had reestablished their tram systems in the form of LRTs. In December 2013, Washington DC introduced its first tram in 50 years, while 10 US cities currently have streetcar projects in various stages of construction. Melbourne, Vienna and some German cities continue to land the top spots in the world’s most livable city surveys, and it won’t be too farfetched to think their extensive tramways have something to do with it.

Dear Reader,

Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information and commentary on developments that are of interest to you and have wider political and economic implications for the country and the world. Your encouragement and constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve and commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed and updated with credible news, authoritative views and incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.
We, however, have a request.

As we battle the economic impact of the pandemic, we need your support even more, so that we can continue to offer you more quality content. Our subscription model has seen an encouraging response from many of you, who have subscribed to our online content. More subscription to our online content can only help us achieve the goals of offering you even better and more relevant content. We believe in free, fair and credible journalism. Your support through more subscriptions can help us practise the journalism to which we are committed.

Support quality journalism and subscribe to Business Standard.

Digital Editor

First Published: Sat, April 05 2014. 00:24 IST