As the pomp and splendour of a prestigious international event such as the G20 meet unfolds in India’s national capital, New Delhi, over this weekend, highlighting India’s presidency of the influential grouping, there is an inescapable parallel narrative about how the city was “cleaned up” for the meet. Even as the massive preparations for the G20 meet made headlines in the national and international media, the continuing demolition drives across the city grabbed attention as they are wont to. The message was clear: India’s government did not want the visiting dignitaries and the international media to see the abject state of its urban housing and the lives of its poor in its capital city.
By all accounts, there have been as many as 45-50 demolition drives in the past four-five months mainly targeting jhuggi-jhopdis and slum clusters, dis-housing and displacing lakhs of people who would count among the poorest in the world; one estimate put the figure at three lakh men, women and children uprooted from their homes and living environments which should shock the visiting dignitaries, international community, and Indians too. Despite such widespread and brutal action recorded, the junior minister for housing and urban affairs, Kaushal Kishore, brazenly denied the demolition of “any house” during the demolition drives while speaking in the Parliament and stated that the drives were carried out to reclaim nearly 230 acres of government land.
The junior minister perhaps needed to be briefed better because detailed accounts of demolitions have been documented from locations such as Jahangirpuri, Tughlakabad, Bela Estate, Pragati Maidan, Kashmere Gate, Dhaula Kuan, Qudsia Ghat and Nigambodh Ghat. Also, these demolition drives were carried out by the Centre as well as the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and picked up steam as the “beautification drive” for G20 gathered momentum. While some of the land would have been “encroached” upon, it does not justify massive and multiple demolitions without following guidelines laid down for eviction. Either the minister was misleading the Parliament or the Narendra Modi government does not want to own the brutal action against lakhs. The government, which has pulled out all stops to make the G20 meet a success, does not come out smelling good but displays an anti-poor approach to hide its own shortcomings.
Barricading the poor behind green screens as was done in Ahmedabad during President Donald Trump’s visit to that city or demolishing slums to beautify Delhi for G20 meet is akin to the family head hiding away the family’s failings during a celebratory event. The real picture, a mix of grit-and-grime with glory-and-glamour, is photoshopped to only show the latter; the former eliminated from the frame. The failure here is a starkly urban one – inadequate provision of affordable housing which pushes migrant workers into informal, inhospitable and even unsafe housing. It is worth remembering that Prime Minister Modi had unveiled a grand programme for ‘Housing for All’ by 2022; the deadline is long past us.
The Modi government has behaved in line with previous governments such as that of the late Sheila Dixit, Congress chief minister of Delhi, under whose watch the city was transformed in many ways but also saw demolitions of slum clusters as part of the preparation for the Commonwealth Games and other “clean-up drives”. Mumbai had witnessed slum demolitions along the routes that were to be used by dignitaries during the centenary celebrations of the Congress party in December 1985. Other cities have seen such “clean ups” and “beautification drives” too usually to host an important national or international event. The intent is always the same: hide the ungainly face of the city when guests are around.
That this also happened under Congress-led governments does not justify this year’s demolitions in Delhi for the G20 meet, but it helps to remember that governments mostly behave the same way. What is surprising is that Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, then a budding politician, who had vehemently protested at Dixit’s residence about the demolitions has been rather quiet this year as the Centre and DDA went about their task. Demolishing slums to hide the poor and present a shining city only reveals the moral hollowness and ideological bankruptcy of governments; the Modi government has done no better than its predecessors.