For most of India, United States’ president Donald Trump’s visit is a spectacle to be watched in passing on a television screen. But for some unfortunates, his arrival is a curse that has overturned their fragile lives and thrown them to the wolves.
Slum dwellers and street hawkers, who during election time are much sought after by political parties for their votes, feted with food and drinks are suddenly unwanted by the very same politicians, now in power. To these “leaders”, their very sight is an embarrassment and a blot on the landscape. To others like the police and the bureaucracy, the leaders’ wish is their command. The end result: Scores of slum dwellers are evicted, street hawkers banished and a wall is erected so that their cringe worthy presence is not seen by the world’s most powerful politician.
After all, the BJP’s Narendra Modi government in Delhi or its state government in Gujarat were elected by people, the very same people who are today being treated with disdain. India is not yet a formal dictatorship. So, why target the poor who are already struggling to make a living? And, why should not Donald Trump see India for what it is. Just by erecting a wall or cleaning up slums and driving away street hawkers do they change anything? Will Trump come away feeling that India is a developed super power where poor people don’t exist?
The powers that be in Delhi may be under the illusion that Trump and his American entourage are ignorant about India. But the truth is the Westerners probably know India better than even Indians. Day in and day out, second by second, American satellites hover over India; they see all the poverty, dirt and the dire conditions in many parts of the country. For a few minutes, as the entourage travels out of Ahmedabad why create a bubble of an illusory India?
The reason is actually pretty simple: India may have physically won its independence from foreign rule over seven decades ago and it may have at its helm an avowedly nationalist outfit, but the rulers cannot help but suffer from a deep-seated inferiority complex, a servile mindset that forces the menials to impress the elite.
Roads that are never scientifically tarred, densely-populated areas that never receive basic necessities and people left to their own devices without any governmental help are overnight taken over by the state for cosmetic reasons that have nothing to do with any real development.
In the past few days, the lives of the poor who happen to be living along the route of Trump in Ahmedabad, by all accounts, have been turned upside down and inside out for no fault of theirs. And, worse, there has hardly been any reaction from the rest of society, especially from the more well-off, politically powerful and elite sections.
The continuing state of social inequality and the all-pervasive presence of poverty have over the years all but desensitised the population to an extent where they no longer move most people. In fact, it is taken for granted that whenever a so-perceived high value visitor enters the country, the route taken by them is “whitewashed” and given a “spring cleaning” – justified by a notion that this is what one should do.
Many take umbrage when foreigners are taken on tours of slums like Dharavi in Mumbai. Conceding that there is some merit in the criticism of such “poverty tours”, the alternative is not to brutally treat people, fellow Indians, just because they happen to be poor and attired in clothes and live in houses that may not be exactly bright and shining.
The irony is that the very same people who live in shanties or sell stuff on footpaths are much sought-after by the middle classes and the elite to do menial work and to buy inexpensive goods. According to economists, for instance, street hawkers play a key role in the economy of a nation like India by catering to sections that otherwise may not be able to afford wares sold in high-end malls.
Even on a daily basis, hawkers are subject to much harassment by local goons, the police and other vested interests who extort daily commissions and prey on their vulnerability.
The crib of this piece is that a democratically elected government, instead of attempting to make the lives of the poor easier and help them climb the economic ladder, is actually going after them as they are considered an eyesore. Seriously, something is deeply wrong somewhere.
A few years ago, when I was working abroad in a Gulf country, I told a foreign national during a conversation that I was an Indian. The first reaction to that from the foreigner was “Oh, I was in India recently and was shocked to see the extent of poverty.” It was tough to respond to this statement and though I hate to admit, I went hot under the collar.
The point is the entire world knows India rather well and however much we attempt to paint a picture of prosperity (especially by trampling on the poor) no one is fooled, least of all Trump.