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People not like us

With the Games over, the ‘banished’ are back in Delhi. Now would be a good time to come up with a solution to their accommodation problems, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: May 13, 2011 12:19 IST
Lalita Panicker

We certainly had them fooled. Just when the world thought that the Commonwealth Games would collapse before it began, we pulled off a spectacular show. Mani Shankar Aiyar, eat your heart out, the stadium roof did not cave in, the aerostat stayed airborne with its psychedelic messages of Incredible India. And it didn’t stop there. In a Merlinesque sweep of the wand, we also managed to spirit away all our beggars, homeless, even some domestics, giving foreigners the impression that beyond the scenic view-cutters lies a global power where everything works as well as the awesome aerostat which dazzled us so.

But now back to reality and all those ‘unwanted’ people are back, panhandlers, migrant workers and domestics who were part of the great Indian vanishing trick for the duration of the Games. How lovely our city looked without all this flotsam and jetsam, many said. Yes, indeed. But would we have been able to pull off this acclaimed feat without these people who are ‘not like us’?

Indeed, the manner in which they were treated is reminiscent of the plight of the protagonist in the famous children’s book by Dr Seuss called I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew. Troubled by small indignities, the protagonist sets off to a land where ‘they never have troubles/at least very few’. En route he meets a bossy companion who makes him pull his wagon towards the promised land with the priceless explanation, ‘This is called teamwork, I furnish the brains/You furnish the muscles, the aches and the pains.’ Does it not remind you of the Games organisers and those who toiled in less than salubrious surroundings to make it happen?

But now ‘these people’ are back in our midst sending a frisson of distaste down our collective spines. But, are we forgetting something? How many of us see our lives collapsing that little bit when the household help takes off? How we grouse and grumble about their perfidies, quite forgetting that in Manhattan where many of us already exist aspirationally, such help cannot be had for love or money unless you happen to be a man with a dead squirrel on your head like Donald Trump. As for personal chauffeurs, you should be so lucky.

Yes, it would be glorious if we could ship them all off to Bawana or Muzaffarnagar where they would be out of sight when we did not need them. There they would not clutter up our space and we would not have to put up with their less than hygienic ways. But then again, not too many of us would give them the extra money they would need to commute to our homes or let them off in time to catch whatever available transport they can back to their hovels far away from our aesthetically inclined personages. We certainly would want to have our paranthas and eat them too.

That migrant workers will come and go from our cities is a fact and temporarily shutting them out of view is not going to help. It is simply a matter of demand and supply. Every housing colony and apartment complex is meant to have some accommodation for the economically weaker sections who serve as support staff, according to some long forgotten guidelines. But the land meant for that is taken by the better-off and sold at market rates to dalals who then put up shacks and rent them out at exorbitant rates to the people who work in our homes.

The government still can frame a new set of guidelines making it mandatory for any new residential development to factor in the labour it will require on a permanent basis and charge the client accordingly. This would ensure some safety for both the workers and the clients. The harebrained plan of allowing support staff to fend for themselves and then rounding them up and getting rid of them whenever it becomes inconvenient is the ultimate in apathy and cruelty. It is, in fact, a grave violation of human rights that any government can decide when you can be seen and heard and when you cannot.

As for the issue of beggars who are a permanent fixture in many cities, not just here but across the world, it is clear that trying to get rid of them is a losing battle. As a matter of fact, the government is actually armed with a law, the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 which makes begging an offence. It is applicable now in 18 states including Delhi. It is no one’s contention that a poor person with no means of livelihood should be punished for begging to get half a square meal. But the fact that despite such a law, the government has done nothing over the years shows that it knows that this phenomenon cannot be eradicated unless it puts its mind to the task of finding gainful employment for people.

It has become a pattern now to allow illegal hawkers, beggars and vendors to claim patches of territory only to be unceremoniously flung out as and when the government fancies. But to deprive a person of his pitiful shelter and livelihood so that we can show the world what a spiffy capital city we have does not bathe us in the luminous light that we so desire. Many of these evictees have now come back to the hostile streets bereft of jobs, even the patch of pavement they may once have fancifully thought to be their own taken away from them.

Perhaps now would be a good time to come up with a solution to the problems of accommodation for migrant workers and homeless people. There are over one lakh homeless people in Delhi alone. And 12 homes in which job-seekers, vagrants and beggars are all crammed in. Needless to say, at the first opportunity they run back to the streets creating the eyesores the so offend us.

So now that we have proved to the world that we can pull off such a huge sporting extravaganza despite all the glitches, the same tenacity should be put to finding at least a semi-permanent solution to the very real concerns of people who live on the margins. At the very least, we owe it to their tribe for making the Games such a success with their muscles and pains and for making our daily lives that much more painless.