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What Does A Beautiful Delhi Look Like?

By Akhil Katyal & Shalini Sharma

22 March, 2010

The Delhi State Government and New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) seem to have a particularly limited vision of a beautiful city. In the run up to the Commonwealth Games, Delhi is seeing a massive beautification drive which is really about an intolerant attitude towards democratic dissent and towards the urban poor. It is an idea of beauty that deals with urban protest or poverty simply by excising it from view.

In the wee hours of the dawn of 18th March, Delhi Police and NDMC officials forcibly evicted the protestors from their temporary shacks in the Jantar Mantar area. Their ‘property’ was confiscated and most of them were picked up and dropped off at the Delhi Railway station and told to ‘go back’. These protestors had made the Jantar Mantar street a temporary base from which to voice their struggles. The police claimed that people can protest at the site but no one would be allowed to stay ‘overnight’. ‘No temporary structures will be allowed to come up in the vicinity till the Commonwealth Games get over’ a senior Delhi police officer reportedly said. NDMC clearly stated that Jantar Mantar needs to be a clear sidewalk for the people and for tourists, not a space with shabby temporary hutments. Suddenly NDMC’s ideal viewer of the city is the figure of the tourist who should have an uninterrupted passage through the city’s streets and sidewalks, malls and monuments. A city amenable to perfect holidays but not to democratic dissent. Within such a view Jantar Mantar is understood only as a problem, a traffic bottle-neck rather than as a thriving sign of our democracy.

Ever since the early 1990s, Jantar Mantar had been a space for farmer groups, human-rights activists and other political groupings to bring their issues to public notice. Since the Narasimha Rao government had banned access to the Boat Club Grounds near India Gate, the protestors had shifted primarily to the Jantar Mantar area. We should understand that Delhi is the political centre of the country which makes it the strategic, and in most cases, the inevitable choice for people’s demands for justice.The shrinkage of space of dissent is curently underway and this beautification drive seems to be pushing it to an extreme. Dissenters are understood in all the negative avatars of encroachers, traffic-jammers, illiterate vandalizers but never for what they are, and never for the reason they are there in the first place. NDMC’s eviction campaign is also being done under the name of safeguarding Jantar Mantar as a heritage site from any physical wreckage, citing the November 2009 protest at Jantar Mantar where a few people allegedly urinated and defecated in the monument premises. Here, two essentially separable issues of monument safety and availability of public space for dissent are clumsily conflated by the municipal corporation. Their kind of urban beauty does not understand dissent in any way without demonizing it.

Protest groups in Jantar Mantar are of several kinds. They might be slum-dwellers from Maharashtra who came to protest against their slums being razed in Bombay or the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy who had come on foot to Delhi to bring to light the apathy of the Centre and the State governments to their medical and livelihood conditions. They stay at the dharna-site till the government responds to their issues which often takes weeks or even months. It should have been fairly obvious to the NDMC and the police that these protestors, like many others, have no other permanent place to stay ‘over-night’ and from which to shuttle back and forth to Jantar-Mantar for daytime protest. Dissent is not dealt like office hours. For most of them who come to Jantar-Mantar, it is a matter concerning their lives, livelihoods and dignity. For many it is a final resort, not the first choice. To consider their final calls for justice as encroachments on urban visions of beauty and well-being would be disastrous for our cities. A temporary cosmetic paradise created for the Commonweath Games on these pillars of exclusion and evacuation will only foil our claims to democracy.

A state envisioned beautiful city is as resistant to urban poverty as it is to dissent. Recently, due to stated ’security and traffic hazard,’ vendors and hawkers had been outlawed from the India Gate area. This is true for many other parts of the city where an enormous police bribe racket has nevertheless sustained itself for years. Bribing rests on the strategic ‘illegality’ of the poor and of any irregular small business enterprises. Small roadside food vendors who largely cater to the lower income bracket employees or to immigrant laborers have repeatedly had to pay bribes to the local police that range from about 500rs to 5000rs a month. In another recent move, Delhi State Government has asked 8 other states to ‘take back their’ beggars as they do not fit the feel-good vision of the city for the Games. Beggars are framed not as outcomes of a widespread inaccess to education and employment but instead, as routine problems, even simply as eye sores, for those who wait at traffic signals in their automobiles. The Delhi State’s solution to begging is only to exile them from immediate view. Mobile ‘court’ vans pick up beggars and adjudicate their destinies and where they will be sent, treating them like a criminalized community. It is hard for us to believe the State government’s assertion that none of this send-back drive would be ‘forcible’.

We will have to understand that our cities will always be home to temporary structures, to informal enterprises and to small individual businesses. We will have to understand that Delhi is a city of immigrants where people try different and small methods to start and sustain a living. Where each of us, rich or poor, should be given the best chance at livelihood which our constitution theoretically guarantees. Whether we are rickshaw-pullers, vendors/hawkers or even beggars, or lower middle class upwardly-mobile employees or big business owners, we should all have an entitlement to city spaces and its opportunities. Most of all we need to fan out our ideas of urban beauty. A beautiful city is the one which does not throw out but instead one which tries to figure out the best ways to deal with urban poverty, which makes the city systematically more conducive to small enterprises and which relaxes its iron hand in distinguishing the legal ‘owners’ from outlawed ‘encroachers’. The figure of the ’squatter’ – whether protester or poor – is usually deployed by the State to deflect attention from more fundamental problems of governance that produce ’squatters’ in the first place.

The real beauty that our cities can aspire to is in their democractic openness to public protest and in accommodating the rich and poor alike.

Akhil Katyal, akhilkatyal@gmail.com

Shalini Sharma, sh.shalini@gmail.com

Both Akhil Katyal and Shalini Sharma are currently pursuing their PhD's at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.



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