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The real spoilsports

In a bid to beautify Delhi, the poor were forced to leave the city. But then it’s the government that is responsible for their sorry plight, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 13:00 IST

Driving to work each morning, I pass by some slums. In untidily laid out small makeshift homes with mud walls and roofs of plastic or tin sheets, live an assortment of waste pickers, domestic workers, street vendors and casual daily-wage workers. Electric wires are strung dangerously across the settlement and black sludge gathers in open drains. I see men and women bathing alternately under open public taps. Half-clad children with begrimed faces and laughing eyes spill on to the pavement and play. Some, with plastic bags larger than their bodies slung over their thin shoulders, pick waste. Few go to school.

These aren’t unusual sights in Delhi or any Indian metropolis. But last week, I was startled to find one morning that I could no longer see the slums. Instead, I saw gaudy purple and indigo plastic posters erected on bamboo scaffoldings, with upbeat pictures of a tiger cub, mascot of the Commonwealth Games. These were strategically (and unsubtly) placed to hide from view the slums that lay behind them. I felt a deep sense of shame.

The presence of the poor — on pavements, in shanties and at traffic signals — frequently fills me with regret, anger and outrage. But never shame. There is sadness when you see children begging under plastic sheets on a monsoon afternoon, when they should have been in school. There is anger that we never plan our cities to include their poor residents. There is outrage that these are not priorities for our planners and leaders. But never shame. The shame I experienced was new when I saw the tiger mascot posters. I felt ashamed of our government because it’s ashamed of its impoverished residents.

The official efforts to cleanse the city of its poor began much earlier. In the run-up to the Games, the government demolished 350 slums. Colonial anti-begging laws were deployed to send to jail-like beggar homes thousands of destitute persons. This law gives little opportunity to destitute people to defend themselves, and forces them to spend up to 10 years hiding in desolate filthy poor-house prisons. Impatient at the tardy pace of these efforts to round up the poor, the government set up eight mobile courts in which magistrates were driven to locations where people allegedly beg, and unwashed masses of people would be rounded up and immediately sentenced by a judge, who was simultaneously witness, prosecutor and adjudicator. Last winter, the government also reduced the numbers of homeless shelters, and people began to die in large numbers on the streets — until the Supreme Court intervened.

As the dates of the Games drew closer, the police rounded up the destitutes in camps in public parks, again camouflaged by festive posters, assuring that they would be housed and fed there for the duration of the Games. But they were then herded into trucks and forced on to trains to leave the city. Police also descended on slum shanties and ‘advised’ residents to leave the city at least until October 13, when the Games will end. Only those with ‘identity cards’ would be ‘allowed’ to remain. Panic-stricken people formed serpentine lines at police stations, vainly seeking some kind of proof of identity. Many left the city, forgoing precious wages and spending their savings on travel, desperate to avoid police custody.

When even these endeavours failed to fully rid the city of its poor, officials announced plans of planting bamboos in front of indigent settlements, to hide them from the eyes of passers-by. Fortunately administrative inefficiency blocked this and the government resorted instead to the screens that I encountered.

The city’s poor are regarded to be illegal, illegitimate residents of the city. The Constitution guarantees people the right to live and work in any part of the country. Yet, recently, the Supreme Court (in the Nagla Maanchi demolition matter) was explicit that people should not come to Delhi unless they can afford to live in the city. Most of Delhi’s middle class are migrants, but no one is asking them to leave. The poor are seen as burdens to the city, ignoring that they provide inexhaustible supplies of cheap labour, which build the city, cook and clean homes, recycle waste and deliver the cheapest retail. The lifestyles of the middle class would be impossible without the army of the poor who are so unwelcome in the city. Governments also claim that the poor need to be ejected in order to make the city safe. But I have never heard of a terrorist who was homeless. Where would he hide his RDX and bombs?

The government is ashamed of the poor also because they are ‘dirty and unhygienic’. But living the way they do is not a choice of the poor. It is the direct outcome of the failure of governments to provide them affordable legal housing, and to extend public services like sewerage, piped water supply and drainage to poor settlements. Innumerable studies show that slums are virtually unserved by most local bodies. The shame then is not that the poor are unclean, but that governments have forced them to be so.

The city of the official imagination is one that is cleansed of its poor. We must construct another, more compassionate imagination. Of a city which includes its disadvantaged residents, with caring, respect and justice. Of a city which banishes poverty, not the poor.

Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies

The views expressed by the author are personal