Invisible Indians in Incredible India

There’s no doubt about it, this is incredible India all right.  Where else in the world would you get Judges of a High Court treating a deity as litigant in a legal case?  And then, because the said deity, otherwise referred to as Ram Lalla in the judgement, is to be treated as a minor (was this the only reason He did not appear in court himself?), where else would you find the Court awarding land rights to his “next friend”, a contemporary human and a trust that human is associated with?

For residents of Delhi, there have been other recent signs of our Indian incredibleness.  The Commonwealth Games have thrown up different aspects of this almost continuously in the past few months.  Of course, it could be argued that by now ordinary Indians should be inured to the spectacles of corruption and incompetence to which we have been exposed around this event.  Even so, our rulers retain the capacity to surprise us.

Possibly the most startling relatively new thing that has come to attention in Delhi is the emergence of a generalised “purdah” around those parts of the city that have been deemed to be unsightly for visitors’ eyes and therefore to be rendered invisible.  In the week prior to the opening ceremony of the by-then dreaded Commonwealth Games, new temporary screens pasted with large posters suddenly sprang up all over different roads in Delhi.  The posters blazoned the CWG logo and depicted the tiger mascot Shera inviting us to “come out and play”.  The funny thing is that these were not on billboards that would have been widely visible, but ground level, on pavements and the sides of roads, often restricting pedestrian access, and always adding to an overall sense of constriction and even clutter.

If the idea was to advertise the Games, it was surely a most inefficient way of doing so.  But no, advertising the Games was only a minor part of their purpose.  So what were they actually for?  It turns out that these strange objects are “view-cutters” — which must be the latest proud Indian addition to the ever-mutating English language — designed to conceal the dirtier and more sordid aspects of metropolitan Delhi from foreign visitors.

The idea is simply breathtaking — and it could only happen in India.  Other countries and cities bid to host international events with a view to improving the infrastructure and facilities available for residents, and increasingly urban renewal has become an important element of this.  For example, London’s successful bid to host the next Olympic Games was predicated on its promise to develop the run-down inner city areas and clean up and regenerate the deprived zones by providing new urban utilities and services.

By contrast, what has Delhi done for the bulk of its residents, more than a quarter of whom still reside in chaotic, congested and deprived slum settlements?  Most of these slums lack proper drainage, piped water supply, and even basic sanitation and toilet facilities that would be minimally adequate for a healthy life.  In these settlements, people are cramped together in tiny and precarious housing of such poor quality that the recent rains have rendered many of them uninhabitable; electrical connections are often random and illegal; street lighting is patchy and inadequate; other services simply do not exist.  The question of periodic cleaning of such areas by the municipal authorities is rarely, if ever, addressed.

So did the run-up to the Commonwealth Games involve some attempts to provide more infrastructure and better facilities in slums and other congested areas?  Since this is all about games, after all, and Shera wants us to come out and play, did the planners even consider the matter of providing playgrounds to children who now have nowhere at all to play in large parts of the city?  Was there any attempt to democratise the sports facilities that are being created so that ordinary children will also have access?

Unfortunately, none of this was even thought of, much less attempted.  Instead, the so-called beautification of the city has all been about exclusion and destruction of livelihoods.  In the name of “streetscaping” (most of which reveals an aesthetic that is problematic in the extreme) street vendors have been removed with no compensation, and locals have been deprived of the conveniences such vendors provided.  The rubble created by new construction has been pushed into side streets, shifting the problem onto residents.

And now on top of all the injury comes this unparalleled insult: that the poor are not to be visible, because the squalor, filth and congestion in which they are forced to live will create a bad impression for foreigners.  We can’t or won’t try to fix it, but we can hide it, seems to be the motto.  So up come the view-cutters.  Typically, even this matter has been handled incompetently, so that attempts at drawing attention away from the dirty mess actually end up revealing it, as the makeshift huts of the poor rise jauntily above some of the screens, or as piles of rubble and dirt spill under other screens, or as gaps in the barriers expose the pathetic reality of the urban squalor that lurks behind the shiny new facades.

This extraordinary act of trying to conceal an unpleasant reality instead of dealing with it and attempting to improve it may indeed seem incredible to the foreigners visiting the city during the Games.  Meanwhile, in some areas jhuggi dwellers have already taken matters (and view-cutters) into their own hands and put these strange objects to the best possible use: as covers for their fragile homes.  So all this will certainly add another dimension to incredible India.

But for those who are familiar with the long-lived and wretchedly persistent tolerance of inequality that seems to be ingrained in Indian society, this may be only too credible.  Among the more disgusting historical caste practices in the subcontinent was one that rendered certain castes — and even their shadows — “unseeable” by the higher castes.  Those notions of pollution and purity have surely been abandoned by most of the population for some time now.  But what we are seeing in Delhi now is really another version of this, whereby the poor and the dreadful conditions in which they have to live are to be rendered unseeable by foreigners, so as to preserve what we fondly think of as our positive external image.  Even more than the actual reality, it is this ultimately ineffectual duplicity which should be a source of national shame.

Jayati Ghosh is Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Executive Secretary of International Development Economics Associates (IDEAs).  This article was first published in MacroScan on 5 October 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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