Sadana’s Delhi Metro Research Earns Three Distinguished Awards

by Anne Reynolds

Sadana’s Delhi Metro Research Earns Three Distinguished Awards
Rashmi Sadana

What is a metro system?

When a brand new, state-of-the-art metro system becomes part of the transportation infrastructure of a centuries-old city of more than 16 million people, it is much more than a way to get around.

In the early 2000s, the city of Delhi, India, embarked on a modern Metro project. Mason anthropologist Rashmi Sadana, a faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, has undertaken a ten-year study of the Delhi Metro’s impact on the city and its people. Recently, this sweeping research project has garnered Sadana a remarkable trifecta of prestigious research funding awards.

Sadana’s project was borne of her familiarity with the city – she has visited Delhi regularly since she was two years old – and from her doctoral dissertation research on the ethnography of its English and Hindi language publishers. Her dissertation led her to discover a “linguistic map of the city,” she said, and that research, she explained, “really got me out and about in the city.

Metro station entrance on busy street corner

“While I was doing follow-up research to turn my dissertation into a book, the Metro was just opening, the first lines. Like everybody else … the first chance I had, I went and rode the Metro.”

Immediately, Sadana recognized the change that the Metro would represent for the people of Delhi – and found a fascinating topic for research. “It sort of took the idea of urban geography to the next level,” she said. “The kind of city that Delhi is, the way people get around, the way people are divided based on class, depending on the kind of transport they take, ideas about modernity and how that affected people coming into this very high-tech environment. There were so many social, cultural, and political issues that seemed to just all be encapsulated in this Metro project.”

She began her research in 2009, and as it developed, the Metro system grew, expanding in a series of three stages. “The bigger the network got, the more consequential it became,” she said. “And the more it became part of people’s everyday narrative, the more it became part of political discussions in the city and what urban development means, and urban planning, and all of these things. I felt like my project was developing just as the Metro was developing.”

Sadana began her work by speaking with those charged with developing the project: government officials, architects, engineers, and representatives of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, the government entity with responsibility for the Metro. Much of her work, however, centered around speaking with riders of the trains.

“I decided early on that I wasn’t going to focus on a certain caste group or a certain neighborhood,” she said, noting that she’d visited each of the 230 stations in the system, since she is studying the Metro as a form of transport but also as a set of new public places in the city. She considered the contradictions of the “ladies-only coach” on every train, spaces that made it possible for some women to even ride the Metro but that others felt infantilized them.

Exterior of modern Metro station

Even more, Sadana recognized the Metro’s effect on class structure. “India has become what people call an aspirational society, so a lot of people who were from poorer sections of society, some of them are seeing the possibility of social mobility. This can be through education, through learning English, through somebody in the family getting a government job, which is still considered a big deal because it gives you a kind of permanence and security.

“The Metro is considered aspirational in that it’s really a kind of middle-class vehicle,” she said. “You don’t see the very poor on the Metro and you don’t see the rich, but you see everyone else. And in a city of 16 million, that’s quite a big range of people … the Metro has really become a symbol of this kind of aspiration, and of this kind of mobility, because it represents mobility in the kind of every day, sort of literal sense, like you’re literally getting around. But the Metro connects so many educational institutes in the city. It enables people to go to jobs that they normally maybe wouldn’t have been able to go to.”

Sadana recognizes that the massive, capital-intensive Metro project is not without controversy. “The Metro is extremely expensive to build and maintain, like it is in any city,” she said. “Many people see it as a vanity project … if [the government] put all that same money into helping people living in slums, or making the bus system really world class, would they be helping more people? People who really needed it more?

“In my project I really try to look at these contradictions as well. It’s not just that I’m celebrating the Metro, absolutely not. I’m not trashing it either. I’m trying to look at these contradictions and see the social issues and debates that are underneath them.”

Riders on the Delhi Metro

Sadana’s research has been recognized in her recent receipt of three distinct research awards. The American Council of Learned Societies has awarded her a fellowship for academic year 2019-2020. The School for Advanced Research has made her one of two Weatherhead Fellows, offering an opportunity to live and work on its Santa Fe, New Mexico campus for the length of a school year. Most recently, Sadana received a Humanities Summer Stipend award from the National Endowment of the Humanities. Each of these awards is extremely prestigious and competitive.

“ACLS is very competitive for humanities scholars,” said Michele Schwietz, the associate dean for research in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “The School for Advanced Research is very competitive for anthropologists. The fact that Rashmi’s work was recognized for both the humanities and social sciences shows its breadth and importance.”

Schwietz added, “The NEH, when they fund humanities research, they include anthropology if the work has a humanistic orientation. Clearly, that’s the case here.”

With the support from the NEH, ACLS, and School for Advanced Research, along with faculty leave granted by Mason, Sadana will be able to concentrate her time to her project through the end of calendar year 2020. She appreciates the serendipitous timing of the recognition from three rigorous review panels, as it will allow her to focus on preparing her research for publication. “It comes at the perfect time because I’m finishing the project,” she said. “It gives me encouragement but most importantly gives me the time.”

Sadana considers her work with the Delhi Metro part of the “anthropology of infrastructure,” which she described as a sub-field that considers “different ways of thinking about how state and society go together in a more everyday, anthropological way and the power differentials therein.” The effect of the Delhi Metro, she said, works as “time-space compression. That’s what these metro systems do. And when it gets overlaid on an already existing metropolis, it’s mind-blowing for the people who are living it.”