ON A THURSDAY AFTERNOON in late February, a crowd formed in the courtyard of the Chaitanya Bharathi Institute of Technology in Gandipet on the western outskirts of Hyderabad. Around 200 students fanned out around a makeshift stage, with speakers blasting hit songs in Hindi and English. The bold ones stepped forward to dance. At the end of ‘Sexy and I Know It’, they were asked to welcome Sanjay Kapoor, the head of corporate communications for L&T Metro Rail Limited, the private contractor building Hyderabad’s new metro system, which has been rising on lofty pillars of concrete all over the city since it broke ground in April 2012.
Kapoor stood before a lacquered board in his pinstriped suit, tight ponytail and wide sunglasses. The board displayed a futuristic rail car above the words “your chance to be a celebrity”. That chance came from a tiny box, into which students could submit a proposed slogan for the metro, in order to become one of its “brand ambassadors”—10 city residents who would appear on posters and TV advertisements promoting the metro. Near the box was Akshay, a first-year student of civil engineering from Dilsukhnagar, the neighbourhood where a bomb blast a week earlier had claimed 17 lives. A friend from the same neighbourhood, a young mustache gracing his top lip, stuffed a sheet in the box. He bashfully shared his tagline: “Making Hyderabad more beautiful.” They each spend Rs 10,000 per year on their hour-long bus commute to campus.
Once Kapoor took the microphone, it became evident that the dancing was over. On a “serious note”, he began to pose a series of questions to the thinning crowd. Were they aware of the metro? An affirmative murmur rose. “What,” Kapoor went on, “do you know about the Hyderabad metro?” This time, the murmur was less intelligible. One distinct response came from a 23-year-old on my right, muted but audible, and it neatly captured the growing public skepticism that led L&T to launch an unprecedented public relations campaign in January, four years before the metro is scheduled to open: “It is eating money.”