New Delhi, India’s bustling capital, has recently undergone a stunning facelift. The once chaotic streets have been resurfaced, streetlights now bathe previously dark sidewalks in a gentle glow, and the cityscape is adorned with vivid murals and graffiti. Blooming flowers add a dash of nature’s vibrancy to the urban sprawl. This transformation isn’t just about aesthetics; it’s a grand endeavor to thrust India’s capital onto the global stage.
The Vision: A $120 Million “Beautification Project”
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian government embarked on this ambitious “beautification project” with a staggering budget of $120 million. The objective is clear – to exhibit India’s rich cultural heritage and bolster its global standing. As the world’s most populous nation, India aspires to make a statement at the international level.
The Unintended Consequences
However, amidst the grandeur of this transformation, a darker narrative emerges. For many street vendors and inhabitants of New Delhi’s shantytowns, this makeover has translated into displacement and loss of livelihood. This raises critical questions about the government’s approach to poverty alleviation.
Since January, hundreds of homes and roadside stalls have been razed to the ground, forcing thousands of people into sudden homelessness. Several shantytowns received eviction notices shortly before the demolitions began.
Officially, these demolitions were carried out against “illegal encroachers.” However, human rights activists and those evicted from their homes question the policy, claiming it has pushed thousands more into homelessness.
Similar demolitions have occurred in other Indian cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, which have hosted various G20 events leading up to the summit.
The Human Cost
Activists argue that it’s more than just a matter of “out of sight, out of mind.” Abdul Shakeel, a member of the activist group Basti Suraksha Manch, or Save Colony Forum, laments that “in the name of beautification, the lives of the urban poor are being destroyed.”
He points out a paradox: “The money used for G20 is taxpayers’ money. Everyone pays taxes, and the same money is being used to evict and displace them. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The global summit, spanning two days, will be held at the newly constructed Bharat Mandapam building, a sprawling exhibition center near the iconic India Gate monument. Numerous world leaders are expected to attend, as India currently holds the presidency of the G20.
The Stark Reality
A report by the Concerned Citizens Collective, a rights activist group, revealed that the preparations for the G20 summit resulted in the displacement of nearly 300,000 people, particularly from neighborhoods that foreign leaders and diplomats will visit.
At least 25 shantytowns and multiple night shelters for the homeless were demolished and turned into parks, with no alternative shelters provided for the newly homeless.
The Voices of the Displaced
In a poignant example, Rekha Devi, a New Delhi resident whose home was demolished, said that authorities refused to consider documents she provided as proof that her family had lived in the same house for nearly 100 years. “Everyone is behaving as if they are blind,” Devi lamented. “In the name of the G20 event, the farmers, workers, and the poor are suffering.”
India’s Ongoing Struggle
India, home to 1.4 billion people, continues to grapple with poverty. Despite a recent government report suggesting progress, nearly 135 million people, almost 10% of the population, moved out of multidimensional poverty between 2016 and 2021. This concept considers not just monetary poverty but also factors like education, infrastructure, and access to services.
A Troubling Pattern
Criticism is not new regarding the Indian authorities’ practice of clearing homeless encampments and shantytowns before major events. Similar actions were taken during the 2020 visit of then-President Donald Trump and the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
The Dilemma of Street Vendors
Some street vendors find themselves torn between sacrificing their livelihoods for India’s pride and the necessity of earning a living. Shankar Lal, who sells chickpea curry with fried flatbread, reflects the sentiment of many: “These are government rules, and we’ll do what we are told. The government doesn’t know whether we are dying of hunger or not.”
In conclusion, New Delhi’s transformation is a complex tale of progress and displacement, beauty and hardship. As the world watches the city sparkle during the G20 summit, it’s essential to remember the human cost of this grand endeavor.