A news item: “As part of the ongoing drive to beautify Delhi in view of the upcoming Commonwealth Games, the NDMC demolished last week nearly 5,000 homes it described as ‘old’ and ‘dilapidated’. These were located in areas such as South Extension I, Golf Links, Sujan Singh Park, Shantiniketan, Moti Bagh and Karol Bagh. The residents were transported across the Yamuna and left in camps there. R.M. Khanna, 65, resident of 5/15 Shantiniketan, one of the houses demolished, spoke to this correspondent: ‘What are we to do here? My parents came from Pakistan in 1947 and my family built that house. Now the NDMC breaks it because they say it is ugly and has thrown us out of the city! Where do we turn?’ A spokesman for the Games Organising Committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told this correspondent: ‘We are expecting lakhs of visitors for the Games. Do they not deserve to see a world class city free of these crumbling old houses?’”
All right, I made those paragraphs up. But change the words around and it could very well be a report about events that have happened in Delhi in the run-up to the Games. People have indeed been taken from their homes and deposited outside the city, their homes demolished because they are eyesores. Last September, Delhi’s Social Welfare Minister Mangat Ram Singhal kicked off a drive to prosecute beggars with this remark: “Before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, we want to finish the problem of beggary from Delhi.” In March, Britain’s The Independent reported: “Ahead of [the] Commonwealth Games, the [Delhi] government… has increased the number of mobile beggars’ courts from one to three.” Also in March, a report for the NGO SOS Children’s Village had these sentences: “Thousands of shanty towns have also been flattened as part of the city’s pre-Games facelift, leaving countless more homeless. The Games village has been built on the site of a demolished shanty town.”
None of the people who figure in those reports were residents of Shantiniketan or Sujan Singh Park. They belong instead to the streets and slum colonies spread across India’s capital, the interstices and open spaces left in between existing Delhi and everything that’s being constructed so rapidly for the Games. They disfigure the city, so they must go. We are building ‘world class’, you see. Who objects to removing the eyesores?
And yet imagine if my faked news item had been real. Which resident of Delhi would stand for large scale demolitions in Golf Links or South Ex? (Eyesores, let’s be frank, as some of those areas are). The crazy injustice of this, coupled with the now-daily revelations of Commonwealth
shenanigans, is the reason I’m staying away from the Games. If the organisers fling out my fellow Indians, well, they fling out me as well.
But the other side to this gets me nearly as much. What is our fascination with this term, ‘world class’? Why are we so in thrall of it? I’ll start where I’m told many of the lakhs of Games tourists will begin their visit: Delhi airport’s new Terminal 3 — ‘T3’ it is. Since it was opened for use, I’ve seen plenty of breathless coverage about the space and the airiness, the beauty and who-knows-what-else there. I have no doubt it’s all true. I’ve also read several times that T3 can handle 33 (or is it 34? 37?) million passengers every year. Which is one of those numbers that’s flung about to impress. Shorn of context, it sounds hugely impressive and you think, as you are meant to think: ‘world class!’
But here’s context, or perspective if you like. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, erring always on the conservative side, shows that Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus station handles… 150 million passengers a year. Close to five times what T3 is projected to do. Now it seems to me that in its ability to handle this number alone, VT is certainly a ‘world class’ transport hub. After all, how many do you know in the world like that? Yet I don’t believe I’ve ever heard VT referred to as ‘world class’. Why is it that we will build a glitzy T3 for 33 million passengers, but will do zip for the 150 million VT users? Why should the station not have glass and walkways, air-conditioning and cleanliness? My wife was at
VT the other morning and called me to report how ‘filthy’ it was. Would we tolerate ‘filthy’ for T3? Why do we tolerate it for VT? If we can build the splendour of T3, why can’t we do something to make train travel more comfortable? ‘world class’?
I realise how futile a question that ‘why’ is — especially when a skinny woman in a sari walks down my street. She has a basket on wheels and carries two pieces of cardboard. This is an employee of the richest municipality in Asia, and she uses those two pieces of cardboard to pick up trash from the side of the road. The same woman has walked my street with those (same?) cardboard pieces for more than ten years now. Building shiny T3s is, in the end, easy. I wish giving that woman something better than cardboard to pick up the trash with were as easy. Now, that would be world class.
( Dilip D’Souza is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist )
*The views expressed by the author are personal