NEW DELHI: With the start of the Delhi Commonwealth Games just two days away, authorities are trying to hide the poor and transform the city into a “world class capital” without beggars or slums.
Children at traffic lights pleading for food and entire families sleeping on the streets are part of the landscape in a city of 18 million people that is a magnet for poor migrants in search of a better future.
But in the last few days, the scenery has suddenly changed.
Giant hoardings hailing the arrival of the Games have been erected to hide open sewers, stagnant water and rubbish-strewn slums.
New Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit, who has repeatedly said she wants the city looking its very best for the Games, says that the boards are to create a “festive look” rather than deliberately disguise poverty. Bamboo fences were initially planned to hide the poor but the authorities had to shelve the idea after an outcry. The fly-overs and bridges of the city centre, which function as open-air dormitories for the homeless, no longer provide refuge — except for the odd stray dog.
On the edge of Nizzamudin, a district close to the main Games’ stadium, a young woman was getting ready to sleep on the pavement on a straw mattress with her two children.
“We’ve been asked to leave but I’ve nowhere else to go. My husband is in prison,” she told AFP, adding that she was 17 and called “China”.
She said homeless people who can’t find a place to stay were often taken away in a police vehicle. Local police denied her claims.
Beggars, too, have virtually disappeared from the smarter parts of India’s capital.
Municipal chiefs last year launched an “anti-beggar drive”, using mobile courts set up in buses that criss-crossed the city.
Any beggar caught red-handed was tried immediately on the bus and sent to a rehabilitation centre for a period of one to 10 years.
The social services arm of the Delhi government says that 1,300 beggars have been arrested since January.
But according to the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), an organisation that fights for the right to decent accommodation, arrests have been widened to all the city’s poor.
“About 75 percent of those who’ve left the centre of Delhi are not beggars but the poor and migrants,” said the head of the association, Milun Kothari.
“They’re arrested on the pretext of security because they don’t have any proof of identity, but it’s a human rights violation,” he added, estimating that 60,000 beggars and 150,000 homeless usually live in Delhi.
Kothari said the poor have fled and are waiting for the Games to finish or have been placed in rehabilitation centres or beggars’ homes.
Street vendors have also been told to pack up and go.
A number of shanty towns have also been destroyed, particularly along the Yamuna river, which runs next to the athletes’ village. Only 25 percent of the shanty’s inhabitants have been rehoused, the HLRN said.
One slum near a specially designated road lane for Games officials and athletes that housed 700 families was razed in the last 10 days.
Nevertheless, Amit Kumar, a sweeper in the athletes’ village and a former slum dweller, said he holds no grudges.
“The Games are a source of national pride and if they don’t go well, it will be an insult for the country. The country is for all of us. If we lose a small piece of land for India, it’s all fine,” he said. — AFP