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When Foreign PMs Visit, the Poor Are Sidelined: Who’s to Blame?

There is a culturally innate embarrassment we showcase as a country when international dignitaries visit.

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There is a culturally innate embarrassment we showcase as a country when international dignitaries visit.

In the last one year, Ahmedabad has hosted prime ministers of two countries. In both cases, we watched as the streets of the city were transformed about three to four days prior to their visit.

Though temporary, this ‘transformation’ included displacing several people of their livelihood and dignity.

While the last 10 days have seen considerable international and national media pine over the many politics of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to India, there's a major aspect that has gone unnoticed and/or unreported. That is the culturally innate embarrassment we showcase as a country when international dignitaries visit.

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Cleaning Means Displacing

Essentially, we see that prior to such a visit, the streets of the city are cleaned up. They go from being crowded with garbage at each corner and blocked by poor parallel parking, to spick-and-span overnight.

What’s truly reprehensible, however, is that part of this cleaning involves displacing several people, taking away their livelihoods, their shelter, and implicit in this all, their dignity.

This means that all those who set up shop or home on the streets of the city are shooed away to avoid being seen by our international visitors.

If not displaced, the homeless, who have set up temporary residences, cloth roofs, and makeshift kitchens, are hidden behind tall poles covered with cloth so they cannot be seen.

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The Various Degrees of Economic Inconvenience

For those who use these spaces to transact (whether for selling or buying), being pushed away from their daily location each time an international dignitary visits the city, brings along with it various degrees of economic inconvenience.

This ranges from buyers having to walk a little longer to get their chai or snacks, to the much higher inconvenience for the many who rely on street hawkers for their mid-day meals.

For the people who set up shop, this inconvenience ranges from losing some amount of business to losing a few days’ worth of income, depending on how they are able to cope with losing their space. We observed the same during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit as well.

According to a few people who we interacted with (when they were allowed back to work), they were not told why they were being moved out. Instead, police officers had simply confiscated their things (a stove, gas cylinder, and ingredients for making chai, cutlery, and vessels) and bullied them out of their spot.

They said that they were simply told that they could return in three days (the day after Trudeau’s visit). Moreover, some of their belongings were not returned to them and they were contemplating whether it would make sense to try and get them back or if they should just buy those again.

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Taking Away the Dignity

Implicit in this all is the fact that each time we displace someone who is working for a day’s earning to hide them from an international audience, we take away part of their dignity.

We are telling them that while we choose to interact and transact with them on a daily basis, we do not feel they are ‘fit’ enough to be seen. In other words, they are unclean. 

Moreover, we see that they have little agency in refusing to leave. This aspect is, of course, far worse for whom these spaces serve as homes.

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Nothing to do With Political Parties?

For those who are reading this and have starting to curse the party in power, let’s acknowledge that such behaviour of administrators has nothing to do with the political party they’re affiliated with.

Among many such instances, a similar situation had been reported when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

During that time, the government had suggested they would use this as a deadline to relocate all the homeless to permanent residences on the outskirts of the city. But when they failed, all the streets that ran alongside slums were boarded up with tall bamboo curtains that simply hid the slums from the view of onlookers.

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A Cultural Issue

Secondly, this is definitely not just a problem of governments trying to hide what they have failed to alleviate.

While this might not be entirely incorrect as we see similar cases of increased vigilance towards duty by local government officials when any superior government official is expected to visit their locality, this seems to be a cultural issue.

If we remember in early 2016, a video made by the band Coldplay (for their song ‘Hymn for the Weekend’) was painfully admonished for cultural appropriation by India’s urban elite active on social media at the time, despite having only shown children belonging to the urban poor celebrating Holi.

This seems to be more an issue of a culturally innate embarrassment amongst those who can afford to hold such opinions, and especially when an international audience’s opinion is at stake.

The people we interact with on a daily basis, our chaiwaalas, the uncle who makes us bun omelettes, the aunty selling us fruits and vegetables, the family which sells fresh fruit juices outside our homes are “cleaned away” overnight, and, somehow, we have normalised this.

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Several years ago, during the Commonwealth Games, several news outlets covered the pathetic reality in which slums were hidden. Now, several years later, this continues to happen and no one flinches.

We’re equally to blame for such ignorance, as we probably only understood the extent of this inconvenience after we made the effort to speak to a few people affected by this.

While we can justify this by saying it is only a matter of a few days, what happens if the number of visitors, frequency of visits, or duration of visits increase?

So while we hope India continues to receive friendly attention from international allies, we have to constantly ask ourselves, who hopes this, and shouldn’t the people who are most inconvenienced by these visits have some say?

(Karan Singhal and Nisha Vernekar work on education and gender at IIM Ahmedabad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(The Quint, in association with BitGiving, has launched a crowdfunding campaign for an 8-month-old who was raped in Delhi on 28 January 2018. The baby girl, who we will refer to as 'Chhutki', was allegedly raped by her 28-year-old cousin when her parents were away. She has been discharged from AIIMS hospital after undergoing three surgeries, but needs more medical treatment in order to heal completely. Her parents hail from a low-income group and have stopped going to work so that they can take care of the baby. You can help cover Chhutki's medical expenses and secure her future. Every little bit counts. Click here to donate.)

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Topics:  Shinzo Abe   Displaced People   ahmedabad 

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