Moving Backwards? A Ride on the Noida Metro

Getting to the Noida-Greater Noida Metro wasn’t easy. From Central Delhi, I had to transfer from the yellow line to the magenta line to the blue line, walk under scorching sun across a very oddly planned few hundred meter distance between it and the nearest Delhi Metro stop, and then buy a new farecard (for some reason Delhi Metro cards don’t work out here) before I took a seat on the mostly empty train.

I had recently read that a brand new Metro system had opened linking Noida, a suburb of Delhi, with GREATER Noida, a suburb of the suburb (PTI, 2019). I studied urban planning in college, so I’m very opinionated about cities, and one of my biggest interests is the rapidly expanding mega-cities of the Global South (aka Delhi). I knew that a lot of Delhi’s development was going on in the UP suburbs that this new train passes through, hence my arduous journey to check it out for myself. Consider this blog post my review.

(DISCLAIMER: I love trains. My first words, before “mom” or “dad,” were “F Train,” the train I rode every day growing up in New York. So it pains me to write this.)

Pulling out of Sector 51 station, I spent the first twenty minutes of my ride watching a seemingly endless array of identical looking gated housing developments pass by outside the window, most either under construction or clearly brand new. Interspersed between these new high-rise developments, informal settlements and patches of farmland cling to survival, probably soon to be replaced by new housing. And separating the developments from each other are wide, unforgiving highways, which I don’t imagine make for a nice walk or bike-ride to the new Metro stations.

New high rises with a sign that says "POSSESSION SOON" above an informal settlement
An informal settlement below a new development

Clearly, the Metro’s arrival is encouraging a type of development that is antithetical to Delhi’s development needs. In a city that is already among the world’s most unequal, congested, and polluted, gated housing complexes on the periphery of the city encourage a process of social stratification that echoes white-flight in mid-20th century America, though in a very different context. Furthermore, while the new housing is technically “Transit Oriented Development” (a buzz word among urban planners), residents will still be an inconvenient and lengthy Metro commute away from any social or job center. Because the developments are geared towards higher income people, residents will find it easier to rely on cars for most of their transportation needs, and they’ll be able to afford to. So paradoxically, the new train line, by spurring so much development, will only make Delhi more car dependent, and thus more polluted. This comes in addition to the environmental damage already inherent in destroying farmland to extend the city outward.

Under construction buildings from the window of a train
New high rises rising in Noida

Just when I thought the new high rises would never end, the train pulled out of this newly urbanized area and into something even weirder: empty, undeveloped farmland interspersed with rural villages. Not that the farmland itself was weird; after all, I was more than 20 km outside of Central Delhi. But pulling into station after station, the doors opened and no one got on or off of the train, because there was simply nowhere around the stations that people would be going to. Especially considering the vast built out areas of Delhi that have little or no Metro access, and the sometimes severe overcrowding on existing Metro lines, building an expensive Metro line here makes little transportation sense.

Farmland from the window of the Metro
Farmland from the window of the Metro

The fact that planners did route it this way points out one of the implicit reasons for the Metro’s construction: to promote urban redevelopment. The Delhi Metro was partially financed using a system called Land Value Capture Taxation (LVCT), which raises money for large infrastructure projects by taxing the increase in local land value that will result from a project’s completion (Bon, 2015). While the system has proven highly effective at raising money in Delhi as well as other cities like Hong Kong, it’s important to remember what an abstract, vaguely positive sounding phrase like “increased land value” means in real life (Bon, 2015). Well informed land-owners, who are more likely to be wealthy already, will benefit, and also feel more pressure to devote their land to a “higher use,” like luxury housing, a mall, or an office building. But to renters or squatters, for example residents of informal settlements, this new development pressure can spur eviction and other disastrous life changes. In the US, the contextually specific effects of the same underlying economic forces are known as gentrification.

Even landowners who may not be fully informed on the value of their land, like farmers, are vulnerable to being taken advantage of when their land dramatically spikes in value over night. In the case of government led infrastructure projects, where planners and other insiders may know about a coming project (and its potential to raise land values) years before local residents, the potential for exploitation and corruption becomes even greater. The decision to route a new Metro line through sparsely populated farmland and small villages makes much more sense when considered this way.

While the Noida Metro is an extreme example of poor planning, Delhi as a whole suffers from many of the same planning defects. Rhandawa (2012) pointed out land value increases in Central Delhi in the wake of previous Metro expansions as an example of “accumulation by dispossession,” a similar concept to what I’ve speculated might be happening in Greater Noida. Other researchers have identified other instances in which the Metro facilitated development that was against the city’s broader planning goals, like in Shastri Park, where the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation developed an office complex on what was originally Yamuna Bank protected land (Bon, 2015). Still others have pointed out the Metro’s exclusionary cost to the poorest residents of the city, a fact that goes hand in hand with Metro’s reliance on gentrification to fund its expansion (Sadana, 2010).

Relatedly, too much planning in Delhi is focused on accommodating drivers, usually at the expense of (poorer) pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit users. Not only is this inequitable planning, it will also be ineffective; decades of planning experience have taught that accommodating drivers at the expense of other modes only leads to more severe and intractable congestion in the long run. In order to get a handle on congestion and pollution, Delhi would be smart to reconsider its fear of reducing street space dedicated to cars (Misra, 2016).

A huge parking lot under construction
A parking lot under construction next to a Metro stop

It isn’t difficult to imagine that five years from now, the landscape around the farmland surrounded stations on the Noida Metro will look similar to that of the stations a few stops further in today. While the redevelopment that will result will raise funds for the project’s construction through LVCT, it will also surely uproot many of the area’s current residents, some of them unwilfully, while contributing to the massive problems of inequality, congestion, and environmental degradation that already seriously threaten Delhi’s future. Which raises the question, why build the Metro line in the first place? To be clear, I think that the Delhi Metro as a whole has made a strongly positive impact on the city, and can’t imagine getting around without it. But the Greater Noida Metro is a particularly ill-advised example of some of the things that still make Delhi’s Metro, and its planning as a whole, problematic.

References:

“Aqua Line Metro Linking Noida and Greater Noida Opens for Public.” (2019, January 25). The Hindu. Retrieved from https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/aqua-line-metro-linking-noida-and-greater-noida-opens-for-public/article26089362.ece

Baber, Z. (2010). “Public Transportation in An Era of Neo‐Liberal Privatization – the Delhi Metro.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 11(3), 478–480. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649373.2010.484212

Bon, B. (2015). “A New Megaproject Model and A New Funding Model. Travelling Concepts and Local Adaptations around the Delhi Metro.” Habitat International, 45, 223–230. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2014.06.008

Misra, T. (2016, December 20). “Delhi Needs Better Bus Rapid Transit—Now More Than Ever.” Retrieved June 1, 2019, from CityLab website: http://www.citylab.com/cityfixer/2016/12/why-did-bus-rapid-transit-go-bust-in-delhi/510431/

Randhawa, P. (2012). “Business Insights: Essentials.” Economic & Political Weekly. Retrieved from http://bi.galegroup.com.proxy.library.cornell.edu/essentials/article/GALE%7CA287512336?u=nysl_sc_cornl&sid=summon

Sadana, R. (2010). “On the Delhi Metro: An Ethnographic View.” Economic and Political Weekly, 45(46), 77–83. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Kieran was born and raised in New York City, which fostered in him a passion for urbanism and sustainability. He Graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Urban and Regional Studies. After his second year of university, Kieran interned with Kota Kita, an NGO based in Solo, Indonesia, where he worked on participatory mapping with informal settlement residents in the area. Since then, he has pursued international experience, with the goal of entering the international development planning field. In his third year of college, Kieran studied abroad in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, where he researched human-gaur conflict in the rapidly urbanizing Nilgiris district. During his time there, he learned about the AIF Clinton Fellowship. He is excited to work with Udyogini in Rajasthan on an eco-tourism project that will take him back to India and see him bridging the divide between people and nature once again

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