India must stop living in denial

In today’s connected world where figures, images and voices are a click of the mouse away, do we really expect the world to believe that India is all malls, highways and high-rises. Namita Bhandare writes.

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Of all the madcap ideas to come out of the Commonwealth Games, possibly the worst is the one to hide away the city’s beggars. Here’s why.

Newspapers have been reporting that many beggars have either been arrested or forced off the streets. Unsightly slums are being hidden behind banners of Shera, our ironically chosen mascot whose big smile surely belies his endangered status. And migrant labourers, many of them roped in to complete unfinished works, are being told to steer clear of public sight.

Much of the rationale for hosting these hugely expensive games is that it will showcase an emerging, confident country. That’s largely why China hosted an Olympics in Beijing and followed it up less than two years later with an expo in Shanghai. And look at the dividends. Despite its human rights record and despite its continuing censorship of online information, China can bully Barack Obama into putting off meeting the Dalai Lama in Washington and issue firmans to Norway against awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to any of the Chinese dissidents on this year’s list.

Let’s not single out India for trampling over the human rights of its poor. China razed entire blocks of housing and displaced thousands of people before its 2008 Beijing bash. Even democracies have not been immune to whitewashing. Atlanta in 1996 carted off 9,000 people, mostly black, for petty offences and Sydney before its 2000 Olympics passed laws criminalising homelessness and begging in tourist areas.

India’s eagerness to put on its best party suit is understandable even if it is a bit of a joke given the huge rips in it caused by collapsing ceilings and gamboling dogs. The damage has been done by photographs of water-logged basements and paan-stained apartments and headlines with words including ‘uninhabitable’, ‘corrupt’ and ‘inept’. How do we gloss over it? By hiding away the poorest of our urban poor we are hoping, stupidly, to present our own version of India’s truth. In today’s connected world where figures, images and voices are a click of the mouse away, do we really expect the world to believe that India is all malls, highways and high-rises – or to use a term that is out of fashion, India is shining, and only shining?

You can hide the beggars but not the statistics. What banner can disguise the cold fact that 410 million of our citizens live on less than $1.25 a day? Where do we tuck away our rank, 134 out of 182 countries, in human development indices? And do we pretend that our problems — beggars and poverty, hunger and illiteracy, gender discrimination and lack of access to medical care, Kashmir and Naxalism — simply don’t exist?

But if there’s awareness of our problems, there is also worldwide recognition for our achievements in medicine, technology, finance and literature. This past week, we were told that the 100 richest Indians share between them a wealth of over $300 billion. American politicians might rail against outsourcing jobs to India but American business follows the money. As long as we deliver, they will come — and never mind the smell and the sight of slums that greet them on the road from Mumbai airport.

By shipping out beggars, we have actually lost an opportunity. It is the opportunity to tell the world yes, we have problems; no, we are not proud of them; and yes, we will tackle them head-on. Underlining that message is another one of telling the world: please stop talking down to us. When President Obama links Kashmir with a permanent seat for India at the United Nations, we should — like China does on so many of its internal issues — be able to tell him to back off.

If we want our place on the high table of international affairs, we cannot dither or be diffident. Yet, I can’t help asking just one last question: how much of the reported Rs 30,000 crore that we are spending on CWG would it have taken to find a more permanent solution to the problem of slums and urban poverty? And how long do you expect the camouflage to last?

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer n The views expressed by the author are personal

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