Spring 2015 Article

The Delhi Metro - A Restructuring of Physical and Social Space

By Avneet Takhar

Understandings of space are constantly evolving and changing in accordance with transnational and national relationships. The occupants of this space as citizens, or as part of the society at large, bear the consequences and reap the benefits when space is reconstructed to link people and nations. Space expands and contracts according to national and international systems, at the heart of which is globalization. Through an analysis of New Delhi, India this paper will analyze the effects of transnational trends and expectations that led to the creation of the Delhi Metro, along with the necessity of such a public transit system. Secondly, this paper will focus on the consequences of restructuring a vast space and question the imbalance between progress and the price paid for it. New Delhi is gradually solidifying its place in the global arena as a link between transnational interactions. In order to maintain this position the Delhi Metro took shape and restructured physical and social space in India's capital city.


Megacities have come to define discussions of globalization in the twenty-first century. These are cities in which global flows of information, technology, capital, and infrastructures intersect. While these resources provide opportunities for knowledge that can be translated into improvement and growth at the national level, these megacities are also home to people, ideas and institutions from all over the world. As Jonathan Kalan, Executive Director for Timeline notes, “the largest of today’s urban centers are known as 'megacities.' Behemoths of tightly packed humanity, each megacity holds more than 10 million people…Most megacities are and will continue to be in the developing world-Delhi, Jakarta, Shanghai…” (Kalan 2014: 69). Density of people contributes to both economic and political growth, but also creates major administrative challenges. Megacities play an indispensable role in the global market that neither the national nor the international community can afford to lose  simply because management at such a large scale is extremely challenging. One method that governments of such megacities have employed is control over physical space and mobility. By doing so they can connect larger networks of businesses and people both nationally and internationally: “Governments work to enhance physical mobility in order to keep people and resources closely connected… [because they] recognize that density pays, and they are working to keep people in a tight urban embrace” (Kalan 2014: 71). The New Delhi government employed this type of control through the building of the Delhi Metro.

New Delhi’s Need for a Metro System

The general trend for developed countries has been to plan for a metro system once a city’s population exceeds 1 million people, so that it can be in place by the time that number doubles or triples (Sreedharan 2002; cited in Siemiatycki 2006). On this reckoning, India and Delhi were far behind schedule, but mass public support efforts are illustrative of a ‘better late than never’ attitude. According to the Delhi Development Authority (2003), the population of Delhi has been doubling every twenty years; the population rose from 2.6 million in 1961 to 6.2 million in 1981, 13.7 in 2001, and is expected to reach 23 million by 2021 (cited in Siemiatycki 2006). Despite this burgeoning population there had been no coordinated effort to provide for a public transit system, the lack of which has exacerbated  commuter traffic on Delhi’s increasingly congested roads:

On any given road (including major highways), cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and mopeds compete for space with three wheeled auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages, donkey-drawn wagons, human-pulled carts and pedestrians. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has resulted in extreme congestion, road accidents and air and noise pollution (Siemiatycki 2006: 279).

Alongside the variety of means of transportation there has been a rise in private motor vehicles. This is a result of India’s economy merging with the global market and providing new avenues for the middle class to grow. Prior to this insertion “of the Indian economy into the circuits of global capital, only the elite and a minority of the upper middle class could afford to own cars…The so-called liberalization of the economy, and with it the relatively easy availability of credit to the middle-class, led to the dramatic increase in the numbers of cars on the roads” (Baber 2010: 479). The growing middle class demanded faster and more easily accessible mobility. Their rising numbers and economic influence required State action.

Prior to the metro, Delhi’s main mode of public transportation was buses. This created a host of problems, both causing endless gridlock and causing accidents, which included passengers trying to get on or off the bus. The Indian government decided to privatize this major mode of transport. Private contractors operated commuter buses called ‘Blue Line Buses’, which earned the nickname, ‘killer buses’ (Baber 2010). Unfortunately, instead of easing the traffic situation, privatization only made matters worse: “On average, the privately-owned public buses were responsible for over a hundred fatalities and countless injuries every year. On one particular day, a Blue Line Bus killed seven and badly injured another eight. The poor driver, himself a victim of pressure from the owners of the private buses…was almost lynched on the spot…” (Baber 2010: 479). The utter failure of using the private sector to run a service so widely accessed by and necessary for the public forced the government to take the responsibility for improving the transit system in Delhi. In order to legitimize its position as the rightful and competent leaders of the nation the Indian government had to control the public sphere. Ester Fuchs, Director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia University, affirms that  “The only way cities can meet the economic, environmental and security challenges of the twenty-first century is with an accountable and fair governance structure that delivers effective and efficient public services” (Fuchs 2012: 45). This was a monumental task that required the government to first look within and restructure itself in a way that prioritized the public need and then looked beyond its borders for technical expertise as well as financial support.

Miracle of the Delhi Metro        

In order to better understand the Delhi Metro in a global context it is important to note a trend that occurs with transport infrastructure projects regarding financial expenses and construction time. In a study which analyzed 258 such projects, selected for data availability and located in twenty nations on five continents, Bent Flyvbjerg, Business Studies professor at the University of Oxford, and his colleagues found that nine out of ten transport infrastructure projects illustrated evidence of cost escalation, which was present in all nations and continents, but prominent in developing nations. Their research conclusion states, “project promoters and forecasters have learned what there is to learn, namely that cost escalation pays off; [it] is a simple consequence of cost underestimation and underestimation is used tactically to get projects approved and built” (Flyvbjerg et al. 2003). One of the most extreme examples of public transportation escalated construction costs include the Budapest Metro line. Initial budget estimates for the Budapest Metro were set at $443,426,520 in 2004. After 10 years of construction, which was two years past the estimated opening date, costs had increased by 353%, making the final costs of construction at over $2 billion (Monumental). Similarly, the Edinburgh Tram went 5 years over the estimated construction time and 167% over budget, leaving the overall construction costs over $1 billion (Monumental). The phenomenon of cost escalation and lengthy construction times results in dwindling support and increases the risk of incomplete projects, particularly in developing nations. The fact that the Delhi Metro managed to stay within the estimated budget and was completed without significant delays once construction had started is a testament to its unique role in Indian culture against historical realities and against statistical odds. It is also proof that large-scale development projects in developing nations need not be sinks of corruption and mismanagement, but instead can shine as examples of efficient, well-run state intervention.

The construction of the Delhi Metro stands in opposition to the historical stereotype that India’s business sector is replete with corruption. From a study conducted in the early days of the Delhi Metro, Melissa Butcher, Professor of Modern Geography at Milton Keynes University, notes, “the Metro has become more than just a rapid mass transport system. It has become symbolic of a ‘modern’ Delhi. It has defied India’s reputation for maladministration to claim to be not only ahead of schedule but within budget…”(Butcher 2011: 239). The study revolved around the metro experience of a group of young people. For them, “this ‘miracle’ became a site for the reproduction of Delhi (seeking an identity as a ‘global city’), the nation-state (as ‘modern’) and understandings of class, gender, and regional identities” (Butcher 2011: 240). The Delhi Metro simultaneously became symbolic of functioning governance defying a history replete with disastrous failures in the realm of public expenditures, and also a space for new understandings of relationships and identities in a local and global context. Saskia Sassen, professor of Sociology at Columbia University, comments on the making of a global city, which “operates as a partly denationalized platform for global capital and, at the same time, is emerging as a key site for the most astounding mix of people from all over the world.” Through the metro New Delhi sought to become a space for people and capital to move through and create global linkages -- and it succeeded.

Delhi’s evolving place in the world also forced a new perception of Indians' role in local space. Siemiatycki (2006) elaborates on the idea of a ‘modern’ city, which is inclusive of themes of transformation, mobility, progress, globalization and the like. In order to understand why, despite the low rate of success, there is continued support for mega projects Siemiatycki notes reasons other authors present, including economic globalization and the flow of information. He, on the other hand, with a particular emphasis on the urban transit sector, argues that support comes from gaining positive public perception. In Delhi, along with other cities, “a conscious effort was undertaken to translate the official motivations for developing the metro…as a catalyst towards the development of a modern city” (Siemiatycki 2006: 278). This reflects Flyvbjerg’s conclusion that cost estimates shared in a public forum are deliberately deceptive in order to gain support. The government in Delhi was able to gain public support by manipulating public perceptions of the project’s economic and political structures and creating a cultural need for the Delhi Metro. Development and modernity inherently imply changing  current conditions.

Global Link of the Delhi Metro

Before construction could begin the Indian government, both at the national and city level, had to cooperate and understand the mutual relationship. Historically there has been a divide in the national and city level governments with both entities competing for political and economic power. Megacities hold significant economic power. Their size combined with, “dense concentration of people and resources…currently produce some 14% of the world’s economic output…tools that can be used to drive economies, diminish poverty, and empower residents” (Kalan 2014: 70). Despite this, megacities still require national support in order to continue to be economically dynamic and be the epicenter of  emergent global links:

City governments must be intentionally structured with sufficient fiscal and administrative authority to provide the public services that will make them economically competitive. [They] will continuously face economic challenges that can only be addressed by national governments and international institutions of global economic governance (Fuchs 2012: 53).

The diverse funding is a clear indication that in an age of connectivity both national and transnational links are becoming vital to basic infrastructures. The project was “constructed and managed by Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), the Metro [had] equal equity participation from the Government of India and the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi” (Butcher 2006: 238). However, the major funding came from the Japanese Bank of International Cooperation and about 3% came from property development (Butcher 2006). With national and international backing the Delhi Metro project began in October 1998 and on the 25th of December 2002 the first train ran. The role that a national government plays to gain global support and funding is only possible if the international community sees it as a legitimate partner. This legitimacy hinges on public support and a national state of order in which the cities play a key role.

Without a clear link between the representative or participatory institutions of government and the delivery of public services, it is difficult to ensure the legitimacy of government. If citizens cannot connect government to the lives of their communities in a positive way, it becomes difficult for them to accept the authority of government to protect their property, resolve conflicts and collect taxes. City governments provide this tangible link (Fuchs 2012: 53).

In a global stage overcome by ideals of globalization and capitalist values a country can only survive through a successful merging of its national and local political and economic structures. The national government can provide the resources that megacities can exploit, and in turn, the cities can provide an avenue for the nation to access the population and acquire worldwide legitimacy to gain those resources. Both structures rest on the support of the people that live within the national and urban borders.

The Missed Stop of the Delhi Metro

The effects of globalization can be seen not only in the construction and financing of the Delhi Metro, but also in the motivations for the metro that restructured public space. The Delhi Metro became a project that could not be hindered no matter the human cost; the metro required “thirty slums and 4000 other structures (for example, businesses and houses), along with several temples and hundreds of trees, [to be] demolished” (Archarya 2000: 40; cited in Butcher 2011: 239). Whether one refers to this as land appropriation or land redevelopment represents the crux of the matter that this was land occupied by people who paid a steep price for national progress. The debate between progress and price is one without a resolution, but it is important to note the effects such progress has and to work to ameliorate them. The Indian government’s concern with the completion and the iconic imagery attached to the Delhi Metro left no room for such consideration. Similarly, the commuter population has been controlled and restructured in the name of global recognition and advancement.

The relationship between the Metro and its users is situated within the wider processes of urban reconstruction in Delhi intersecting with global flows of capital, technology and hegemonic discourses of ‘modernity’, ‘development’, and ‘global city-ness’. In accordance with dominant meanings associated with this terminology, authorities have attempted to change commuting practices embedded in the culture of Delhi, a crowded, economically and culturally diverse city, in line with desired new, ‘modern’, behaviours, including an emphasis on cleanliness and quiet (Butcher 2006: 241).

In this sense, India and Delhi are using perceptions of global living and standards, and imposing them on citizens. The hegemonic vision of a modern city is implemented at all levels of governance and civilian life. The very behaviors of people are changed to accommodate the global vision of the Delhi Metro. As a megacity Delhi must fulfill its obligations of providing space for global intersections even if it requires a restructuring of physical, mental, and social space.

The Delhi Metro is responsible for restructuring the physical space of the city and also the culturally constructed social spaces, in which people live. The Delhi Metro has divided its people into three groups: those who have and can join the modern era, those who cannot, and those who the Delhi Metro simply passes by. According to Symes (2007: 446) the rules that accompany the use of the metro are aimed at 're-engineering the urban sensibility' predicated on ideas of modernity, social advancement and self-improvement…the DMRC also plays a role in replicating the city’s normative social obligations of space use to manage this diversity, situating it into the cultural framework of a highly stratified city. It therefore removes traces of behavior that are considered transgressive, out of place, for example paan spitting, sitting on the floor, carrying large sacks, eating strong smelling food. These may seem pragmatic exclusions in a crowded city but they are also the signs of a labouring class in Delhi that is being removed from the public space…Labour that smells of sweat does not have a visible place in a world-class, cosmopolitan city (Butcher 2006: 243).

New Delhi is finding its place as an emerging megacity in the global market and space. The metro has played a key role in bringing about and maintaining that status. The cost and marginalization incurred by the rural or working class may seem like a natural and inevitable consequence of progress. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that these consequences are a result of “Delhi’s urban redevelopment aimed at creating a ‘global city’…[the Delhi Metro] has become iconic of what city authorities and developers refer to as Delhi’s ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘world-class’ status” (Butcher 2011: 237). The global arena is responsible for demanding a restructuring of social space. Given the consequences suffered by an already marginalized population, there needs to be accountability in minimizing or compensating for the ensuing loss.


The Delhi Metro has proven successful despite the odds stacked against it. The nation came together at national and urban governance levels in order to create a system that made the image and desire for a ‘global city’ a reality. The accomplishment of the metro system at the price of land redevelopment and marginalization and near exclusion of the working class brings to light the never-ending debate of how much cost the nation and its citizens can and should bear in the name of progress for the greater good. Recalling Sassen’s point about global cities being a “site for the most astounding mix of people from all over the world,” New Delhi is opening its space for the international populace, but only by expelling its own people. The Delhi Metro’s inability to avoid damage to historically marginalized classes of people brings us no closer to an answer, but it does illustrate that exclusion of its own citizens in order to join the club of international players is far from acceptable and will sooner or later require a new reconstruction of national and transnational physical and social space. Despite its apparent success, the Delhi Metro is a good example of both the promise and the peril of global development.

Works Cited

  • Baber, Zaheer. 2010. "Public transportation in an era of neo-liberal privatization - the Delhi Metro." Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 11, no. 3: 478-480. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2014).
  • Butcher, Melissa. 2011. "Cultures of Commuting: The Mobile Negotiation of Space and Subjectivity on Delhi's Metro." Mobilities 6, no. 2: 237-254. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2014).
  • Flyvbjerg, Bent, Mette K. Skamris Holm, and Søren L. Buhl. 2003. "How common and how large are cost overruns in transport infrastructure projects?." Transport Reviews 23, no. 1: 71. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2015).
  • Fuchs, Ester R. 2012. "GOVERNING THE TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY CITY." Journal Of International Affairs 65, no. 2: 43-56. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2014).
  • Kalan, Jonathan. 2014. "Think Again: Megacities." Foreign Policy no. 206: 69. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2014)
  • "Monumental Budget Busters | Podio." Https://podio.com/. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.
  • Sassen, S. 2000 “The Global City: Strategic Site/New Frontier?” in Democracy Citizenship and the Global City ed. Egin Isin
  • Siemiatycki, Matti. 2006. "Message in a Metro: Building Urban Rail Infrastructure and Image in Delhi, India." International Journal Of Urban & Regional Research 30, no. 2: 277-292. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2014).