Delhi is throwing a party. In autumn 2010 the city will play host to the Commonwealth Games, a sort of mini-Olympics for the United Kingdom, its overseas territories, and all of the postcolonial states that share the dubious distinction of having once been under the Queen’s proper fist. From badminton to boxing, pistol shooting to ping pong, in exactly 425 days Delhi will be abuzz with athletes, coaches, camera crews and fans.
In order to make sure that everyone has a grand time at this fête, the city has elected to enact violence, both physical and aesthetic, on some of its poorest citizens. First, the ironically-named “Social Welfare Department” has created a dozen anti-beggar squads that fly around the city in vans and drag beggars out of intersections and streets where they eke out a livelihood. Second, the government has begun looking into the possibility of planting huge walls of bamboo trees along major thoroughfares in order to “screen the slums and garbage along the roads that will be frequented by visitors and athletes taking part in the games.”
Developments such as these are not new, of course. Gearing up for the Beijing Olympics last year, the Chinese government kicked legions of migrant workers, beggars, masseuses and fortune-tellers out of the capital and instituted a $7.00 fine on public spitting. But Delhi’s recent pronouncements got me thinking about parties in general, about our “social faces,” and, of course, about the wastepickers.
I’ll admit that when I throw a party I generally go overboard, fretting like Mrs. Dalloway for hours before guests arrive. My tendencies are common: procure some freshly cut flowers; shove aside the beloved-but-worn footstool to facilitate freedom of movement; stow the breakables; remove any photographs or items that seem too personal; clean maniacally; and so on. From the host’s perspective, parties almost universally include the transformation of space. On a metaphorical plane, this transformation demands a denial of the human body, a denial that the party venue is actually a lived-in place.
It’s no different for cities. But the problem is that the civic body is unlike the body of a single human party host. The civic body is a multiplicity; it is coherent because of, not in spite of, its diversity. Denying an integral part of the civic body by hiding it behind bamboo is like me walking around my party with my head in a burlap bag.
I am particularly incensed that the brains behind Operation Bamboo is Shashi Tharoor. Mr. Tharoor is the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and a member of the Indian Parliament from Kerala. He’s also the proverbial “distinguished alumnus” from my graduate school. He had a long career in the UN, rising to the rank of Under-Secretary General and narrowly losing the race for Secretary General when Kofi Annan retired. According to everybody’s favorite open source encyclopedia, he’s a “prolific author, columnist, journalist, human-rights advocate, and humanitarian.” It’s deeply embarrassing to me and my Fletcher School colleagues that this humanitarian and human-rights advocate from Fletcher is so ashamed of his own civic family that he proposes to lock them in the closet when his party guests arrive.
On the face of it, bamboo is a good idea. Delhi already ranks high in tree cover, and additional greenery would provide shade and suck carbon out of the atmosphere. But deployed as a purely cosmetic measure, the bamboo screens entirely miss the point of “going green.” In fact, some of the very communities who will be hidden are Delhi’s greenest citizens. My climate change research this summer has revealed that wastepickers’ annual greenhouse gas reductions from recycling are equivalent to taking 31,000 passenger vehicles off the roads each year. What’s more, they undertake door-to-door waste collection, composting, and form the backbone of Delhi’s waste management and recycling systems. They are greener than the bamboo that will shield them from public gaze.
The Commonwealth Games have spurred the development of tons of new infrastructure: a slick new subway system, dozens of overpasses and bridges, and widened roads. These are capital intensive, long-term investments. To truly address the “unsightly” slums and garbage, a similar investment is needed in the city’s social infrastructure. This investment is partly about money, but it’s mostly about dignity; hiding poverty from the guests further stigmatizes and penalizes the poor. Without an investment in social infrastructure, Mr. Tharoor & Company may wake up after the Games looking around the living room at some new sprigs of bamboo, but they’ll be nursing the same old raging hangover.
Posted By Ted Mathys
Posted Aug 4th, 2009