The metro and the street


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THE AIIMS metro station is located on a wide, busy road that streams with traffic, a typical congested South Delhi thoroughfare. On the several flights of stairs leading down from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, or AIIMS, to the metro, a few families sit huddled. They are neither coming nor going, but instead are part of the overflow from various lines around the hospital complex. Stairs lead up from the metro platforms and end at the entrance to the hospital. On any given day an array of people are sitting or lying down on the ‘sidewalk’ just inside the gates of the hospital. Sometimes families cook on small stoves they have brought with them. Most people look worried, and many look unwell as they wait under the strong sun. Men sit cross-legged on the ground cradling their toddlers while women fan sick relatives.

At times, the metro stations merely accentuate the two worlds of this city – one of movement, speed, luxury; another of stagnation, deprivation, lack. One thin woman in a plain red sari that falls at her hips rather than sways at them, tells me she has come from far away and has taken the metro to reach here. She is sick and waiting for davai (medicine). The fact that the metro was the last part of a long relay-style journey involving several forms of transport and several hours of travel has little meaning for her, except that the metro brought her to the threshold of the hospital. Her experience of crossing the city, once she boarded the train at the end of the Green Line at Mundka Station, was confined to her experience on the metro. Now she stands and waits for the delivery of medicine and wonders when she will be able to go back down the steps of the station that is within eyesight.

Over the last decade, the Delhi Metro has physically become part of the street; it has been absorbed by it, as concrete and metal have been built into, onto, over, and under the asphalt. Its 142 stations now intersect with the large roads and radials of the city. With the construction of phase III of the metro now underway, more of this intersection and bisection is to come, and the intertwining of the street and metro will cover even more of our urban space. This mixing of the metro and the street changes the way people move around, but also brings the ideas and technologies of the metro – notions of speed, time, and the role of surveillance – into greater contact with people’s daily lives, whether they ride the metro or not.

The metro is not merely a mode of transport, it is also an idea about the city and the direction it is taking, both literally and figuratively. It has already become a recognized public space, a shorthand for discussing everything from group behaviour to the architecture of the city, and a place for enacting gendered identities, such as how women and men are supposed to behave in regard to one another and to the spatial and regulatory constraints of this new environment. Can the daily, lived experience in the metro learn from the street (of what and what not to do), and perhaps even offer the possibility for new cultural forms and experiences? Or does the metro homogenize and impersonalize the city, the way other new (and newly desired) spaces such as malls, multiplexes, and corporate cafes supposedly do? Is it merely a more efficient people mover, or can it be culturally, even politically, transformative?


In August 2011, the Delhi Metro lived up to its promise as a ‘social engine’ when it became the ‘people’s’ gateway to the corruption protest site at Ramlila Maidan. Large groups of mostly young men wearing Main Anna Houn (I am Anna) caps and singing Vande Mataram rushed in and out of stations on the Yellow Line. While changing from the violet to yellow lines at Central Secretariat, I came across one of these tricolour-bearing ‘Anna’ groups and quickly moved to the side to let them pass; were they, I wondered, a spontaneous, mobile public, a metro public? They were identifiable as a group having a cause and set of beliefs, and this was partly because their physical presence in the city was simultaneously being discussed and broadcast on every television news channel. And, seeing them in the metro changed my view of the metro itself; all of a sudden it became a public space.

Certainly the media backstory formed part of my perception. I knew that the Anna organizers had to fight and negotiate with the government in order to gather legally in large numbers in the city. Their presence in the city, anywhere in the city, took on greater meaning as a result. Moreover, the metro had been heralded by anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal as being a model of governance. He said that it was a system that worked and that individuals had to conform to it. Seeing the Anna activists in the metro made me think of Kejriwal’s statement and whether metro publics could have a broader association, a way of creating a new kind of urban identity, and possibly, an ethical stance to go with it.

A few days later, I was on my way to Ramlila Maidan, and observed how, at the New Delhi Metro Station, protesters came up the stairs and escalators from the station onto the street. Then, I watched as another mass of protesters poured into the metro and got stuck up in swirls in the space between the ticket counters and security, and then in the even smaller space between the security and the electronic gates. It was as if the energy and exuberance of the street suddenly had to fit through a keyhole.


The Delhi Metro is a distinct environment, cut off from what lies above it, and yet the metro and the street also form a contiguous space. Once through the gates, some of the momentum from the street was regained as people headed towards their trains. They became exuberant again, chanting and singing. The metro became a public stage, and I watched the drama. Then I saw large signs with ‘Ramlila’ and a big arrow leading me to the right exit and onto the street.

Once outside, I followed the crowd. There was a constant stream from the street to the metro and from the metro to the street. In the station itself the energy of the protesters was palpable before I even got to the street, let alone to the maidan. Along the way, women and their children sold flags and tricoloured wristbands. Young men offered to paint faces with the tricolour for ten rupees each. It had rained the day before and there was sludge everywhere, but there was freshness too. I felt buoyed by the energy of the protesters on the street even though I was skeptical of the Lokpal Bill itself.

On the tenth day of Anna Hazare’s fast, news broke that ‘they’ had closed four metro stations (Khan Market, Race Course, Udyog Bhavan, and Jor Bagh) in order to stop the movement of people to a protest site – not Ramlila Maidan but the prime minister’s residence at 7 Race Course Road. Only the Asian Age got the story right by not merely stating that ‘stations were closed’, as other newspapers blandly reported in the passive tense, but by headlining the story with: ‘Cops get metro stations near PM house closed’ (26 August 2011). No matter how automatic their entry gates, the metro stations do not close by themselves.


The metro is one of many urban technologies. It creates a new standard for transportation efficiency, and it is precisely this quality that is promoted by the DMRC to pitch metros to other cities. But the metro is not only about efficiency; it is also an idea, a feeling, and a way to be. Nevertheless, these ideas of personal mobility, choice, and even freedom exist within boundaries set by the DMRC, local police, and the state. In the case of the stations being closed, the metro as a frictionless conveyor, allowing passengers to travel seamlessly across the city, came to be seen as a problem for the authorities, something to be stopped.

Ultimately, the metro is more easily controlled than the streets above. Police may barricade the street, as often happens when a VIP needs to use the street as his or her personal motorway. However, there are still ways of getting around barricades, cajoling policemen, ducking behind bushes, and emerging on the other side of the street. The metro being the ‘system’ it is – a concrete edifice with bounded, shuttered exits and entrances – can be more fully closed and sealed off as compared to a city street. The day the stations were closed, the flow of people stopped as if a faucet had been turned off.

The metro is a space connected to the street and the variety of people and activities found there. And yet, the metro is also completely distinct from it. There is much on the street – food, vehicles, odours – that does not and cannot enter the space of the metro. Once, during rush hour at Rajiv Chowk, while waiting for a train to Dwarka, I noticed a family of three sitting against a wall on a busy platform, eating rotis and subzi from a tiffin container, a scene so common on any railway platform, yet a complete anomaly in the metro. People move through the metro; they don’t linger there to perform ordinary activities, partly because of the short waiting times between trains and because of the restrictions on what can and cannot be done in stations. Even idleness is regulated by the few minute intervals of departing and arriving trains.


The metro can, thus, sometimes feel like a stage, especially in the confines of the trains where conversations are overheard, gestures seen, bodies felt. And, because of the anonymity created by this type of mass transit connecting people from all walks of life and all parts of the city, the experience of the metro is ultimately short-lived and most often forgettable, even if, in moments, it is the most intimate of spaces. A man in his mid-40s told me his experience of changing to the Mundka Line at the Inderlok Station in West Delhi: ‘There’s an interchange and the train gets flooded with Jats muscling their way in. I’m a small built man; it’s intimidating.’ In this sense, the space of the metro becomes a concentration of the street above; it is not seen as a neutral or anonymous space but one filled with the tensions and anxieties of the world outside it.

It is this combination of pace and intimacy that also distinguishes the metro from the street and the kind of watching or witnessing that occurs there. One morning on the Yellow Line, I was standing next to a seated woman nursing an infant not more than twenty days old. We were not in the women’s compartment but in a regular mixed compartment where the ratio of men to women was around 20 to 1. A glass panel with a map of the metro was all that separated the woman and myself. It was apparent that she was not poor but also not well off. She had dark nail polish on her toes that was mostly chipped off; she wore a nondescript sari, and a frayed, light sweater. It was summer, and the train was air-conditioned. She looked like a first-time mother to me, awkward in her feeding technique; she had the baby wrapped in a blanket on her lap. I felt protective towards her but kept quiet and started to make a story in my head to explain why she was taking the metro. I looked around to make sure no one was looking at her, and yet, I too did not want to invade her privacy even as a well-wisher or a would-be protector. There were two men who seemed to be with her, but they were stern and silent and I found this off-putting, maybe even a little distressing. I tried to place them in my story, and then my stop came and I got off.


Metro platforms and pathways are monotonous and characterless by themselves; the bookstalls and coffee counters found at the bigger stations offer bland book displays and tasteless powdered coffee. Instead, it is the flow of all kinds of people in all directions that is the most noticeable and remarkable aspect of the metro environment. The variety of things one finds on the street is sorely missing; and most would say, that is as it should be. The metro is not supposed to be the street, but rather a respite from it. In 1987, Arjun Appadurai identified the variety and commercial complexity of the Indian street (one that we may now further identify as a pre-liberalized street) as the ‘front stage’ of cosmopolitanism, with its heady mix of people, storefronts, and occupations. Conversely, he saw India’s more modernized roads and highways as the ‘infrastructure of cosmopolitanism’.1

The metro would certainly fit the latter categorization, but many would say it is also a ‘front stage’, for is it not the city’s great social leveller? Are not people from different classes and castes bumping shoulders like never before? Where once we might have spoken of the pleasures of the street, with its plethora of foods, sights and smells, today most metro riders would speak of the pleasures of a fast, cool ride that takes them from one part of the city (and its streets) to another in record time. Yet, the metro is not quite a ‘cultural’ experience in the way some streets – bazaars, to be exact – still are. There are more things that you cannot do (spit, smoke, eat) on the metro than you can do. And there are those things you are told not to do (stop the door with your hand, take photographs, befriend strangers) that you do do.


On Friday, 5 August 2011, a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) constable (A.V.M. Pillai) killed his colleague (N.V.S. Teja) with his AK-47 assault rifle before turning it on himself. The event occurred at a metro station and both died by the time they got to the hospital. It was reported in the press that Pillai was distraught and angry about the fact that Teja was to marry someone else. What the press focused on in the days after the tragic event, however, was the fact that the two had been sitting on metro platform number two of the Yamuna Bank Station for over ten minutes before the shooting took place. This information was obtained from eyewitnesses on the platform. The emotional volatility of an individual – or more precisely, the everyday violence of a man killing a woman he cannot have – is staged on a platform beside the Yamuna river.

The metro, in this instance, is not a sanitized, managed space that controls emotions or actions, even of its own armed security personnel as an ordinary workplace tragedy becomes extraordinary because of its location. In the process, it transforms the very subjectivities of Pillai and Teja; they become part of the larger technological environment and their actions and fates are circumscribed completely within it. The press lamented that if only there had been CCTV cameras in place, as there are on many metro platforms, those ten minutes could have been captured on film. The missing CCTV cameras, the ones that did not record the last conversation between Pillai and Teja, were an aberration, something to be fixed. Perhaps then, police reasoned, they would have had better information on what led to the crime. Had the pair been visibly arguing for instance? One policeman was quoted as saying: ‘The bench was behind a pillar. Even the guard didn’t have a clear view of them. He reached there after the firing. CCTV footage would have helped ascertain if they had any argument or not.’2


A month later, after the 7 September 2011 bomb blast that left ten people dead at Delhi’s High Court, it was again reported that there were no CCTV cameras installed there, even though the court had been the site of another bomb scare several months earlier. In the press, there was a clamour for more cameras. Debates followed about whose responsibility it should be to install and, most crucially, maintain them. Who would do the surveying? The police or the department or agency in question? How many more attacks would occur while the bureaucratic passing of the buck would go on?

In both cases, at the court and in the metro, the missing ‘eyes on the street’ – the ones we trust and demand – are the eyes of the camera, and the eyes of those (metro officials, the police) who would presumably watch the footage recorded by the camera. The assumption is that the camera is an objective, reliable eye, the proverbial bird’s-eye view. And yet, the camera is not an objective technology, despite its perch above our heads. Instead, it sets up a different kind of viewing, or witnessing, one that circumscribes social relationships in a new way; it is one that we are increasingly accustomed to and which we trust, and hence have come to demand.


This kind of witnessing is far from urban activist Jane Jacobs’s notion of the ‘eyes on the street’ as utterly human, subjective, and connected to others. Her use of the phrase was in the context of the suburbanization of American cities, in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and is quaint by comparison. Nevertheless, it is one worth dwelling on as the management and character of our urban spaces change. Jacobs describes the relationship between ‘eyes’ and ‘the street’ more fully when she writes of ‘an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.’3 She argued that more, not fewer people on the streets would reduce crime and create more humane cities. Buildings, she said, should face the street so people could watch the street from inside them; people should sit out on their steps to watch the street; they should not hide in their homes.

In the housing boom of 1950s America, as middle class families increasingly shrank into the privacy of residential enclaves and left the urban streets to immigrants, non-whites, and the working classes, Jacobs, in retaliation, championed mixed use spaces and diversity, as well as low-cost housing. She believed high-rent buildings created distance between residents and the street, that these types of residents were in fact the transient populations not to be trusted. She saw the ‘eyes on the street’ as equivalent to ‘natural surveillance’ and ‘mutual policing’. For Jacobs, ‘the street’ was made of the connection between people over time, those having common interests through ordinary, everyday interactions, and who forged a sense of community through those repeated interactions. Her strongest criticisms were reserved for urban planners, whom she casts as interlopers with expensive, large-scale projects that would cut into and destroy the intimacy and solidarity of urban neighbourhoods.


One day, walking down a familiar lane in Sadiq Nagar (a ‘village’ in the heart of South Delhi), I saw that a large tent made of white bed sheets had been erected in the middle of the lane, stretching across its entire width. The lane itself was lined with ground floor shops in low storey residential dwellings, a mixed use space filled with all kinds of things and people hanging about – street vendors, school going kids, women sitting on charpoys. I could usually see all the way down the lane, but on this day the tent blocked my view. I continued down the lane and navigated around the tent, bypassing a fluttering rooster.

On the other side of the tent, there was an opening and I saw six rows of women and three rows of men sitting on the ground, facing a wreathed portrait of a man. Someone had died and here in this lane, a ‘public’ became visible, even if they were cordoned off, performing a ‘private’ ritual. Marriage and funeral events are commonly visible in many places and spaces, but what struck me here was the way the street itself became cut off, impassable and occupied by the very residents who usually stand and live on its sidelines. It was the kind of public-private zone that Jacobs would cherish; yet, it was one that was so particular to the kind of street in question. It is difficult, impossible perhaps, to make a standard object of ‘the street’, as each has its own tempo, logic, history, spatial constraints and possibilities.


Instead, ‘the street’ is valuable as a concept, as a way of thinking about ‘the outside’ and about the relation between ‘private’ and ‘public’ among different communities. The ‘eyes’ on Indian streets are plentiful – from the chaat vendor to the local chowkidars, istri-wallahs and subzi-wallahs to shopkeepers and sweepers, drivers and shoppers – even as the speed and sound of cars and motorbikes cuts through the intimacy of even the most neglected by-lanes. But how hospitable is ‘the street’ to ‘the eyes’, we might ask? There is both great coexistence, with a density of people and activities unmatched in most other places and deep social segregation. As for Jacobs, she might have embraced Indian urban population density, but recoiled from the towering economic divisions between people.

In a different way, Arjun Appadurai cautions against spatial divisions between people; he sees the middle classes increasingly putting ‘our cultural life behind closed doors’, whether by watching television at home or shopping in air-conditioned malls. Appadurai does not celebrate the segregation of the Indian street, but he recognizes it as ‘enormously complex, stratified and multilayered,’ and also as the ‘heart of public life.’ The middle class consumer’s eyes may be looking at different shop fronts as compared to the construction worker’s, but both, in his reckoning, are legitimate members of street culture, and most importantly, street culture has something to offer everyone.

Like Jacobs, for Appadurai it is the retreat from the street by large sections of the population that makes it less convivial and more prone to agitation. Since Appadurai wrote his essay on the Indian street, middle class consumers have, of course, become even more devoted to and obsessed by the private pleasures to be had at home, away from the street, and with gadgets that allow them to stay at home and in their cars in every cultural realm – from the consumption of music and movies to the making of friends. Certainly new media technologies and platforms have taken over some of the roles the street once had.


The illusive quality in Jacobs’s personal documentation of city neighbourhoods seems to ask: How is trust built? Her ‘street actors’ are not just people running errands and fulfilling their occupations, but are members of communities who have regard for one another. To regard is to observe closely as well as have care or concern and perhaps even esteem for someone else. But this regard – whether in the context of American or Indian cities – is not a fixed, natural state. There is also a witnessing that occurs to keep people in line and within boundaries created by such markers of difference as caste, class, race, and gender. It is precisely in this respect that the automated environment of the metro can be seen, in a neo-liberal manner, as more freeing – even though it is a more highly managed space with little scope for the refusal of its mechanisms.

In the crush of rush hour on the metro, as people push into one another with great force and abandon as they clamber to get into the train before others can step out, the blatant disregard is both crude and reckless. In this respect the diffuseness of the street, with all of its things, offers a different potential and a different pacing than the metro ever could.


In thinking about the metro and the street, the question I return to is one of whether the metro changes how people relate to one another, the extent to which it is or can be culturally transformative. However, it is not merely a question of whether people are more civil or more hostile toward one another, or whether the metro can liberate or curtail various forms of freedom, but rather how the metro enables new forms of looking and seeing and being together. The metro forges a future, but it also creates an arbitrary dividing line from what the city used to be.

The past, like the street, gets moulded and at times obscured by the metro, as the trains and lines create a new visual and physical memory of the city. Attention gets paid to the preservation of monuments and archeological sites, but the physical memory I refer to is different from this. It is about the way people think about the city, regard it even, and themselves as they move through it. This aspect is more difficult to capture, but it is these micro histories that might reveal an ever-evolving view of our present.



1. Arjun Appadurai, ‘Street Culture’, The India Magazine 8(1), Dec. 1987, pp. 12-23.

2. Faizan Haider, ‘No CCTV footage leaves cops in dark’, Hindustan Times, 6 August 2011, p. 5.

3. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York, 1961, p. 40.