The bustling streets of New Delhi have undergone a dramatic transformation in preparation for the highly anticipated G20 Summit of 2023. Streetlights now illuminate once-dark sidewalks, vibrant murals and graffiti adorn city buildings, and an abundance of freshly planted flowers greets passersby.
Yet, beneath the gleaming façade lies a troubling narrative of displacement and loss for the city's most vulnerable residents.
The Dazzling Facade
New Delhi's extravagant makeover, with a staggering price tag of $120 million, is the brainchild of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. The ambitious endeavour aims to showcase India's rich cultural heritage and elevate its global standing on the world stage. As world leaders converge on the newly constructed Bharat Mandapam building for the two-day G20 Summit, India's capital city seeks to make a lasting impression.
Displacement and Loss
However, for many street vendors and residents of New Delhi's shantytowns, this transformation has brought nothing but hardship. In a city of over 20 million people, the 2011 census estimated the homeless population at 47,000, but activists contend that the actual number is a staggering 1,50,000 or more.
Since January, hundreds of houses and roadside stalls have been demolished, leaving thousands of people without shelter or livelihoods. Eviction notices often arrived shortly before the demolitions, leaving residents with little recourse.
The Policy of Demolitions
Government authorities defend these demolitions as necessary measures against "illegal encroachers." However, rights activists and those evicted vehemently question the policy, alleging that it has pushed thousands more into homelessness. This practice of forcibly clearing slums and homeless encampments ahead of major events is not new in India, with similar actions taken during the 2010 Commonwealth Games and a visit by then-US President Donald Trump in 2020.
Abdul Shakeel, a member of the activist group Basti Suraksha Manch (Save Colony Forum), asserts that "in the name of beautification, the urban poor's lives are destroyed." He highlights the paradox that taxpayers' money is being used both to beautify the city for international guests and to displace its most marginalized citizens. This dissonance raises fundamental questions about the government's approach to addressing poverty and inequality.
Concerns Raised by Activists
A report by the Concerned Citizens Collective, a rights activist group, published in July, painted a grim picture of the G20 Summit's preparations. It found that nearly 3,00,000 people were displaced, primarily from the neighbourhoods that foreign leaders and diplomats will visit during various meetings. At least 25 shantytowns and multiple night shelters for the homeless were razed to the ground and transformed into parks with no alternative shelters or provisions for the displaced.
Challenging India's Poverty Policies
India's struggle to eradicate poverty remains an ongoing challenge, despite a recent government report indicating progress. The report suggested that nearly 135 million people, approximately 10% of the population, moved out of multidimensional poverty between 2016 and 2021. This multidimensional approach considers factors beyond just income, taking into account education, infrastructure, and access to essential services.
As the G20 Summit draws closer, activists, academics, and politicians have raised their voices, questioning the government's role in hosting the event and its potential benefits. Recent police intervention to halt a meeting of prominent critics underscores the growing tensions surrounding the event.
Caught in the Middle
Amid these challenges, many street vendors find themselves trapped between sacrificing their livelihoods for India's pride and simply trying to earn a living. The issue highlights the complex trade-offs between global prestige and the welfare of the country's most vulnerable citizens.
New Delhi's makeover for the G20 Summit of 2023 may dazzle the world, but it has cast a shadow over the lives of its marginalized residents. The stark contrast between the city's gleaming exterior and the displaced poor raises critical questions about India's poverty policies and priorities. As world leaders convene to discuss global issues, the plight of New Delhi's poor serves as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by one of the world's most populous nations.