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The Moving City explains how Metro has changed Delhi’s geography, politics

It is a fun read for those who do not know Delhi Metro well and for those who are regular commuters

By Amit Kumar
Published: Sunday 23 July 2023

Have you ever wondered how the Delhi Metro has become a site for new possibilities, imagination and plans for the city? At the same time, it shapes the urban lives and riders’ experiences in new ways.

The Moving City is a field account, in which author Rashmi Sadana observes the Metro's nuances while on the commute, compares train travel with that by road and speaks to riders and residents living near the Metro about their experiences.

She also interviews Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) officials, architects involved in the Metro's construction, students of urban transport and mobilities, former chief minister of Delhi, late Sheila Dikshit and non-profit Hazards Centre’s director Dunu Roy.

The book is divided into three parts — crowded, expanding and visibility. But these titles do not wholly represent what is inside them. Instead, the book is non-linear, and its sub-sections are unrelated to each other.

Each section is a new account. So, readers can read the book in or out of order and will get to know about heterogeneous elements, voices, perspectives, arguments and experiences from the ground up.

Published by a university press and written by a professor of cultural anthropology in a public university in the US, The Moving City is an account that can be read by non-academics, too. It is a fun read for those who do not know Delhi Metro well and for those who are regular commuters.

Sadana shows how the Metro functions as a space for new gender relations, shaped through interactions within the rules of DMRC. Travellers should follow those rules; if they do not, there are fines that can be levied upon them.

CCTVs and guards are constantly monitoring the travellers. She compares the Metro with the privately-operated Blueline buses and the government-run Delhi Transport Corporation buses to show how the Metro outstands other public transport systems for its safety and surveillance.

Women, who are one-third of the total riders, can commute in the Metro even at night. At the same time, Sadana points to the non-recognition of transgenders in rule-making.

Illustration: Yogendra Anand

Delhi always had a major issue of traffic congestion; bus rapid transport (BRT) and flyovers were attempts to decongest the city. Flyovers do help riders avoid busy streets of the city, but they are a funnel which is bound to get congested at its ends.

The failure of BRT in Delhi is an important event for Sadana to analyse the state’s class politics, where the affluent with cars want to move faster than the others. Affluent voices against the BRT corridors (which had dedicated lanes for buses) reducing the space for and speed of cars, forced the newly elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to demolish the structure.

AAP winning consecutive elections in Delhi and choosing to stand against BRT corridors shows the political power that the upper-middle class in Delhi pose. For the upper-middle class of Delhi, their cars getting a right to move over others is a progress over travelling in a world-class public infrastructure.

Though Sadana speaks of the divides in the transport system, she does not engage with the reasons why Delhi’s upper-middle class prioritises private vehicles over public transport.

Public spaces, which are occupied by people from all sections of the society, are considered polluted, as per the caste system in India — an aspect not adequately explored in the book. She does speak of how caste does not matter inside the Metro, since people of different backgrounds and classes travel together, but appears to draw a somewhat simplistic understanding of the Metro functioning as an equaliser in the city.

The Metro could not change the preexisting notions attached to the different localities through which Metro lines pass. Notions of insecurity associated with low-income and unplanned neighbourhoods are reified by the travellers while choosing their entry and exit stations. 

Sadana brings a contrast to the concerns among different sections of people in Delhi by bringing up an interesting case of the residents of Defence Colony — a high-income locality in South Delhi which protested against the construction of an overhead Metro in the neighbourhood. The residents preferred underground Metro because it produces less noise, vibrations and congestion.

Decades in gestation

Sadana reveals the planning of the Metro through multiple interviews with DMRC officials and Indian-owned architectural firms. She finds that the Metro, conceived as a spontaneous response to the transport needs of the city in the 1990s, has actually been in planning since 1969.

A joint venture of Japan and India, with 65 per cent of its finance coming in the form of loan from Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Metro was always considered a solution but was realised only by 1998.

Sadana also brings forth the divide that is produced in projects financed through international cooperation. The Japanese agency had a clause for necessary involvement of international consultants in the Metro project. This produced a divide between local architectural firms and firms from outside India.

Speaking to Indian architects, Sadana highlights the problem faced by Indian firms which were not involved in the planning of the Metro, but were relied upon to complete the design and execute the project on the ground. There was a difference of opinion on everything — from the design to the choice of material to costs.

Sadana also speaks to DMRC staff and highlights their discontentment with the corporation that does not revise their wages and suppresses their voice and protest through quasi-judicial chargesheets. At times, their attempts to unionise are also countered by the removal of the leaders, who mobilise staff to protest, from their jobs.

The Metro for Sadana is an attempt to order the city. It runs in an orderly fashion underneath markets and streets that are crowded and bustling. Sadana shows this by giving examples of Metro stations and how they have changed their surroundings.

Once full of self-employed people selling paan, cigarettes, mobile accessories, fast food, water and other requirements of a traveller, the stations are now a space for branded shops with employees working in them.

Apart from the composition of shops, the Metro stations have also decongested the surroundings and facilitated fast movement of people around their gates.

She also mentions the several stories of conflicts in land acquisition concerning the Metro and the political will to alter the land use. The Metro has significantly changed the city’s agricultural lands into lands with mixed use—residential, commercial and institutional.

The growing reliance, expanse and importance of the Metro have also made it a part of protests. In 2011, it aided protesters to join Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in large numbers. In 2019, the site of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act was near the Jasola Vihar Metro. Due to the Metro’s criticality in public transport, the first reaction from the government against protests nowadays is to close down the Metro stations near protest sites.

The book represents how the Metro has changed Delhi’s geography and influenced its planning and politics. The Metro has gained new meaning for people making different connections inside and through it.

It is an exciting read for academics and non-academics interested in the interaction of the local population with new technology, an invitation to a globalised experience of speed, mobility and high-tech ambience, as well as for those interested in large infrastructure and the changes it brings to a city and the lives of its dwellers.

(Amit Kumar is a PhD candidate at University of Bonn, Germany)


‘The metro wasn’t an integrated system then’

MY INTEREST in Delhi’s Metro stems from what I saw as a seismic shift in how the city was being experienced and perceived from the late 2000s. I was living and commuting in Delhi at the time and taking the Metro most days. The Metro wasn’t an integrated system then; it was in a state of becoming. It was the recognizable high-tech system you see in other cities, just as clean and ordered, often more so, just as fast and efficient; but outside, the seams were still showing where the stations and the city met.

I came to think of these seams as the interface between the city and the Metro, a system which I soon learned was built as a stand-alone artifact. To become an effective metro system, I also knew that the Metro would have to be integrated with “the city”—its roads, its people, and its other forms of transit (buses, vans, jeeps, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis). In a highly developed and densely populated city like Delhi, this process was both exciting and unnerving to watch. I started to contemplate the nature of “the urban” and to ask: When will these seams dissolve? And what is at stake in this transformation, this integration?

I used ethnographic research methods to study the Metro, meaning I rode the trains as much as I could, on all lines and to all stations, clocking over four thousand hours in all. I observed, interacted with, and talked to people on trains, at stations, and around stations, once I got over the strangeness of talking to strangers on public transport. Going around the city in this way helped me to focus on it as a gendered space; for instance, the way darkness signals when women should not be on the streets. In this case, the Metro’s bright lights counter this gendered assumption and practice, since it’s always daytime in the system; and in fact, many women told me that the Metro is the only form of public transport they feel is a legitimate urban space for them at night.

(Excerpted with permission from the University of California Press)

This was first published in Down To Earth’s print edition (dated July 1-15, 2023)

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