Often, actions speak louder than words. Sometimes, so do pictures.
Delhi: a photo essay by Myrto Voyatzis
Arriving at Delhi Airport late at night should be rather convenient since one can avoid most of the desperate shouting and the sweaty, unsynchronized crowds. Or at least that’s what I thought before I arrived. After the traditional control points, I quickly retrieved my luggage, changed some money and, half asleep, headed for the exit. But my glasses were far too deep in my handbag, and the sliding doors were moving too quickly for me to be able to distinguish the nervous shapes patiently waiting behind it. Gradually the noises came to match hundreds of faces surrounding the gates holding signs, one larger than the other, and shouting ‘welcome’ amongst hasty offers of hotel rooms and cab fares to the city centre. 1200 rupees for a ride quickly became 600, and in a matter of minutes I was on my way to Connaught Place, Delhi’s main economic hub.
Once I reached Connaught Place, the crowd of people in front of the airport seemed ridiculously small in comparison. I have to admit that choosing one of Delhi’s most touristic neighborhoods was not the smartest thing to do. Imagine tons of twisted streets and improvised passages invaded by persistent merchants, intense smells and, most unforgettably, car horns. I assure you that in a city with one of the highest road densities on earth, car horns can most certainly drive you mad.
Between spicy colors and investigative looks, my first day in Delhi abruptly awakened my senses, and not always in a good way. Finding yourself in front of such a disproportionate presence of waste and overflowing trashcans in one city definitely makes you appreciate the existence of garbage collectors. Although, the cows and monkeys in Delhi did seem to do a pretty good job themselves.
Walking in the heat for half an hour with the sole purpose of finding a garbage bin is something I remember doing quite often, only to discover one that has been overflowing for over a week. I later found out that in Delhi there is 9.200 tons of garbage being produced every day, and just 15% of the city has a door-to-door garbage pickup system. People are also bitterly opposed to new landfills coming up in their neighborhoods, as they have seen authorities let the past ones turn to massive, polluting heaps. As a result, the soil becomes highly toxic while methane poisons the air. Although it is a situation I was expecting to encounter when arriving in Delhi – after all, it is considered the most polluted city in the world – I was still very much surprised by how thoughtlessly people seemed to throw their trash outside. Once, I even tried to argue about it when a shopkeeper shoved my empty water bottle in a bush, only to receive an apologetic smile as an answer. After insisting for about two or three minutes I gave up. After all, how can words really change such deeply carved mentalities? And where do mentalities meet ineffective policies?
Faithful to its mission to transform Delhi into a capital of the “new world”, the government has initiated several programs to improve its environmental quality, such as turning trash into electric resources or introducing biomining operations. However, the government has often been accused of using pollution as an excuse to implement violent privatizations and unconstitutional land takeovers. One of its most criticized measures is the large-scale demolitions of jhuggis (slum houses) and the evictions of thousands of families every year. Considered encroachers, the 32 million slum residents have been accused of “polluting” the Yamuna River through the discharge of untreated sewage. Yet, recently published studies reveal that only a tiny fraction of the 3,600 million liters wastewater generated in Delhi each day derives from those living on Yamuna’s banks. It is the 19 sewage drains that come from the posh residential areas and industries that actually pollute the river. According to the studies, one slum dweller often receives only 16 liters per day in comparison to 450 liters received by one person living in posh areas. The poor don’t pollute to the degree claimed simply because they don’t have the resources to do so. “The government is presenting incorrect facts in the courts and the poor don’t have the money to approach them and present their side of the story. The fees of the lawyers and judges run in lakhs. How can we pay this?” a slum dweller expressed to reporters in 2011 after his house had been demolished without any notice or court orders of eviction. “My husband died on the 20th, the day of the eviction. In the morning he asked me to make him a cup of tea. When I gave him the tea, he said we should get the packing done because the bulldozers and police were on the way. As we were putting our things together, he said he wanted some water. I got it, and in just that moment he passed away. The police put his body on the road and ordered for our home to be demolished,” another woman told reporters.
These evictions have been presented as a “voluntary relocation”, with people shifting to plots they have elsewhere. But in reality, only a small percent of the residents receive alternative plots. On the other hand, the ‘lucky’ ones who get to move to relocation sites are squeezed in spaces of 16 square meters and often left with no electricity, water or toilets. What’s more, the sites are so far away from their earlier workplaces that they cannot afford the bus fare and are thus forced to quit their jobs. Most of the residents work as cycle-rickshaw pullers, waste-pickers, hawkers, sweepers, domestic workers, drivers or construction workers. Resistance to the evictions is usually punished with threats, beatings or even the use of tear gas.
The absence of planned housing for the city’s poor should not be regarded as coincidental. Do the poor pollute so much that it’s worth demolishing their houses and giving them false promises? The fact that inaccurate perspectives of pollution have class consequences has already been proved several times. Thousands of small industrial units have been shut down on the grounds of pollution since the late 1980s, when India was shoved into neoliberalism. Neoliberalism came with a balance of payment crisis that India underwent in 1990-1991. The country managed to prevent payment default by borrowing from the IMF, the World Bank and bilateral donors. However, the loans came with conditions: India had to implement structural adjustments and move away from a state-led development, under the rhetoric of prescription and post-disaster therapy (“shock doctrine”, as Naomi Klein calls it). Failure to comply meant that no loans would be provided in the future.
Adhering to Britain and US backed policies took more than higher gas prices. It meant the decline of capital formation in the public sector, the intervention of big business houses in the decision-making process, and the re-creation of space to facilitate privatized profiteering. But neoliberal transformation is not simply a top-down process. It has the support of people interested in non-agricultural sectors and the Indian elite, who are in a position to usurp the advantages out of international technological collaborations, profits and expansion of employment opportunities in the corporate sector. Therefore, even if the public sector continues to provide jobs to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, – groups of disadvantaged people – jobs in the private sector, especially the corporate sector, are monopolized by the upper caste population.
The failure of “liberalization” to establish an egalitarian social order is no secret. The violent industrialization and the tremendous shifts in economic power between both urban and rural regions have caused tens of thousands of farm suicides in rural populations since the mid ‘90s. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 199,132 farmers have killed themselves since 1997, a figure that remains disputed with some saying that the true number is much higher. As BBC reports, since 2006 the government spends less than 0.2% of GDP on agriculture, leading to huge migratory waves towards Delhi. This is why the number of jhuggi dwellers has grown so sharply. Sandwiched between blue-glass fronted offices and spanking new malls, jhuggis are accused of disfiguring the city, spreading crime and spreading diseases. Instead of improving their abysmal living conditions, they are violently wiped out from the city’s urban planning, labeled unfit to qualify for the vision of “shining metropolises”.
While roaming around Delhi on my fourth day, I found myself in front of one such slum. I was surprised to see a group of tourists following some improvised passages and carefully listening to the tour guide in front. When I approached them and asked what they were doing there, they told me that it was an organized tour priced at 200 rupees a ticket. “It is meant to sensitise and create awareness,” the tour guide told me. “I have been through this myself so I know what happens here.” I didn’t know what to say. I watched them walk away as their cameras bumped on their chests, ready to be used as soon as the catchy image of a slum kid showed up.