The Delhi Metro as Field Site

By Rashmi Sadana
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology & Anthropology and CGS Faculty Grant Recipient


The Delhi Metro – the first multi-line, urban metro rail system to be built in South Asia – is set to be one of the largest in the world, and has already transformed the city with its seven lines and 160 stations currently in operation. For an anthropologist, the allure of the Metro as a new kind of everyday, public space is undeniable. And in fact, it was while riding Delhi’s Metro in its early years, in the mid-2000s, that I first had a glimmer of an idea of what an ethnography of it might look like. Everything about the sleek, hyper-modern Metro went against the unruly, friction-full roads of the Indian capital. It also went against the segregation of car drivers, bus riders, pedestrians, and all manner of road traffic, in this city of great wealth and poverty. Instead, inside the cool interiors of the trains, people sit and stand together, as they do in much of the world. The Metro has become – not surprisingly – a symbol par excellence of rising India and the growth of its middle classes since the country’s liberalizing economic reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It has also become a model for many cities across India and in neighboring Bangladesh that hope and plan to emulate it.

And yet, the allure of the Metro as a field site has been matched by a daunting challenge: how to make “local” a massive transportation infrastructure that covers two hundred kilometers of urban space and hosts nearly three million riders a day. It has certainly expanded my idea of what ethnography could encompass and challenged me to connect what is essentially a transnational construction project to the grain of people’s lives. On the one hand, the Metro defies notions of community in any traditional sense; on the other, it opens up the possibility of a new kind of urban citizenship, with new lines of inclusion and exclusion. Whether on or off the trains, one of the phrases I heard again and again when I first started my research was that “the Metro gives people an identity.” It is indeed a signifier – connecting the dots of a varied urban expanse with its dozens of mostly aboveground stations – but it also signifies membership in the city, like nothing before. What, I often try to discern in my conversations with people, is the value of this membership? And what are its limits?

I began my project by trying to link the powerful imaginaries of the Metro as infrastructure and technology to issues of policy and the workings of government. My aim has been to put anthropological understandings of the city in dialogue with urban planning and design. How for instance does urban governance – from issues of transparency to addressing inequality – intersect with concerns about aesthetics and materiality? To this end, I have talked to engineers, architects, and officials at the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation – the half-city government, half-central government entity that builds and runs the Metro, as well as contract workers, bureaucrats, and politicians. In the Delhi politico-scape, the Metro stands alone, which has been part of its success, and yet, thirteen years since it ran its first trains, it has increasingly become enmeshed in local politics and the daily travails of urban mobility.

More and more, I am connecting riders’ experiences to a broader idea of urban transformation, as people’s ideas, lifestyles, and expectations move from the urban peripheries to the centers and back again. I both observe and interact with people on the trains as well as document types of circulation through time and over space. How do the contracted distances of the city impact not only people’s daily commutes, but also the way they see and live their futures? This aspect of my research has required me to think about the Metro not only as a form of transport and as an institutional object, but also as an urban imaginary. For women and lower-income riders especially, the Metro has, for example, been a way for them to think differently about their place in the city. In this regard, my goal has been to understand the changing structures of people’s lives and see how the Metro might operate as a form of aspirational infrastructure.


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