Beggars won’t do. Nor workers. And we thought games are about fair play

By Shoma Chaudhury

Llustration: Samia Singh

COSMETIC SURGERIES can be dubious exercises as all clients of vanity will testify. You can hide blemishes, fix bridges, add pouts — but word always gets out. The moment you step into public view, the world knows you’ve done a job on yourself and scorns your artificial beauty. If Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has become immune to the issue of human rights, perhaps reminding her of this futility of cosmetic surgery will drive the point home better: her facelift for Delhi is deeply mortifying because it is based on a lie. Far from being a badge of pride then, the Commonwealth Games has become an ignominy for every self-respecting Indian.

Last week, Dikshit announced her government was going to rid Delhi of 60,000 beggars because they ‘harrass’ tourists and give the city a ‘bad name’. Earlier, she had urged Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to ‘take back’ their poor. There is talk of outlawing vegetable push-carts and dhabas. And disenfranchising lakhs of auto-drivers because they are rude. (Does that go for BMW owners who whip out guns and rage at the drop of a hat? No, for them the government has a big ad campaign to inculcate “better manners”.) It’s an open secret that thousands of crores of Commonwealth Games funds are being siphoned off. Isn’t that giving the country a ‘bad name’ too? Is Dikshit ready to throw out everyone in her firmament who has their hands in the till?

But the issue here is not about competitive justice. It is about hubris and misplaced ambition.

The edict against beggars is only the latest in a long list of transgressions executed in the name of the Commonwealth Games. Two years ago, lakhs of workers were brutally uprooted from slum colonies along the Yamuna and literally pitch-forked into dusty wastelands 50 km away. Calling these people ‘slum-dwellers’ is an easy salve. The phrase evokes an image of unproductive parasites, people not quite deserving of human dignity. Set aside for a moment the fact that all human life deserves dignity. What makes it particularly galling is that most of these displaced people were an intrinsic part of the city’s economy: drivers, maids, peons, guards, plumbers, garbage cleaners, masons. People without whom our smooth lives would come to a grinding halt in one second, yet people whose very existence we deem an insult to ours. Not to mention the searing irony that thousands of those evicted to make way for the Commonwealth Games were workers who had come to the city more than two decades earlier to build the infrastructure for the Asian Games in 1982.

It’s taken the Delhi High Court to make a point that should be rudimentary for every democratic leader: “Poverty is not a crime”. India is a country in which hundreds of worlds collide. To present ourselves as anything else is a lie.

Instead of pushing the poor out then, the Commonwealth Games could have been an opportunity to upgrade workers’ colonies and incentivise sanitation. When the world came visiting, we could’ve showcased how we manage poverty, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. We could have showcased how we live in a proud, integrated city, instead of pretending it was a doll’s house. Those who wish to turn Delhi into Dubai and Mumbai into Shanghai must remember: a great and unsustainable ugliness underpins their artificial beauty. Little surprise then that the Burj Dubai — the tallest building in the world — was the site where Dubai’s first riot broke out. And even less surprise that China has an average of 80,000 workers’ riots every year.

Seekers of cosmetic beauty would do well to remember: pressure cookers have an uncanny way of bursting

Home Minister P Chidambaram says he wants 85 percent of Indians living in urban centres. He’s certainly hell-bent on pushing this percent out of rural India, by brute force if need be. But if other leaders are equally hell-bent on pushing that percent out of urban India — where is this unwanted 85 percent to go? It would do well for all seekers of cosmetic beauty to remember: pressure cookers have an uncanny way of bursting.