Cambridge2Delhi: Is this what development smells like?



As Delhi prepares for the 2010 Commonwealth games, the city is being completely transformed.  I traveled there in January to research the right to food for a UNDP report, two years after my first visit. This time, having come to see what had changed, I was greeted by streets lined with piles of bricks and mounds of dirt.  Women in tightly wrapped saris hoed the earth as their children played next to them, and mixed groups of men and women laid bricks in new walls.  I watched them daily as my auto-rickshaw  was crisscrossing the city to deliver me to meetings, and I wondered whether all this construction was really any good – if this was employment for the unemployed or if, when the games came, undesirable people would be swept out of sight.  I wanted to know whether life had really improved for those at the bottom of society.

I found that it hasn’t.  When I met with Dipa Sinha, one of the Commissioners monitoring the implementation of the still-open 2001 Supreme Court case on the right to food, she informed me that reports of starvation deaths have been higher in the past year than in any year since the opening of the case.  There is still no India-wide system to ensure that the Court’s orders are put into action, and relief for starving communities happens in a haphazard way, if at all. 

Sinha told me that she has seen people that they are monitoring die over the course of a year. In a typical case, a report will come that a marginalized community is starving and without any work. NGOs lobby the local and state governments to provide government guaranteed employment and subsidized grains. But these communities have often been cut off from social services due to discrimination against minorities, and when the requesting organization follows up with the authorities, none of the promised actions have been taken. By that time, a handful of severely hungry persons will have died. In these ignored communities there are always malnourished people who are on the brink of dying from starvation.

It is hard for me to take this information in, but it is what I have traveled here to learn: to search for signs of implementation of the right to food orders, and to evaluate the direction that the right to food is taking in India. And overall, I found that one of the many paradoxes of modern India is the juxtaposition of its rapid economic growth with the poverty that seems to have only intensified in the most vulnerable communities. 

Journalist David Rieff is writing a book on malnutrition and hunger.  I had breakfast with him at the India Habitat Center, an oasis of calm in the middle of Construction City.  I found myself disoriented as I ate huevos rancheros in an American style diner, with Abba playing in the background, all while we discussed the “why” of modern India’s paradox.

Were we still in Delhi? 

Rieff pointed out some of the unique aspects of Indian hunger. The gender question, for example, looms large in India. In other countries, Rieff has found, a household with food will have equally fed women and men, while in India a household with food might have a nourished man and a malnourished woman.  And then there are other key indicators of health that are missing.  He has traveled extensively in China, and he said he can drink the water there – not so in India. There is also no comparison with the level of open defecation found in India.  As he spoke I had a flashback to my 2008 trip to inner Uttar Pradesh, the first time I had seen so many people openly defecate.  There is no infrastructure to deliver basic services like sewage. 

Yet, I thought to myself, India has plans to test a new space shuttle, with an eye to making headway in the satellite industry.  This is part of the paradox: impressive development is taking place at the highest level. But the bottom rungs can’t subsist on plans for a spaceship.  Poverty at the bottom is still a life and death emergency.

David Rieff mentioned another aspect of India’s paradox: the economic boom has resulted in an even greater divide between the classes, with newly minted cities for the rich that allow the affluent to screen out the signs of poverty and, perhaps, most importantly, interactions with the poor. 

What I came to think of as the “car and driver set” is a good illustration of this phenomenon. Delhi smells. (As do Mumbai, Chennai, and other Indian cities.) It is extremely noisy. Instead of using turn signals or staying in one’s lane (when it is even marked) you instead make ample use of your car horn. All of this can give you an instant headache. But if you have a car and a driver, you are insulated from the smell, the noise, and the stress of the drive.  This phenomenon is not new, but the greater number of people catapulted into this “car and driver”?class, and the construction of new suburbs to house them, has left India more and more stratified.  Rieff pointed to Gurgaon, a suburb on the edge of Delhi, as an example of this new arrangement.

Coincidentally, I was having dinner there that very night. When I spoke to the friend I would be meeting he said, “I’m warning you, Gurgaon is my least favorite place in India.”  This was a strong statement from a person who had a deep affection for the country.

I arrived in the dark. “This isn’t so bad,” I said to him.  I had been bracing for Armageddon.

“You haven’t seen it in the day.  There’s no infrastructure.  The workers and their families that have come to build this place have no toilets, no water, no electricity.  In the daylight, the whole city smells like shit.  Of course, from inside the office buildings, you can’t smell it.  They even have their own electricity generators for when the power goes off.”

The power went off over dinner.  But then, right on cue, a generator kicked in and restored the lights.

On the drive back from Gurgaon to Delhi, my cab driver was in a talkative mood.  He wanted to share what he thought of India’s development.

“I’ve been in this business, driving only tourists, for 18 years,” he said. “And still, 18 years later, my family and I live in the same place.  Our standard of living hasn’t changed.  And why not? Because the wages for us stay the same, and the prices go up.  The prices of food, even the prices of vegetables, just keep going up.  They keep saying, India is growing, India is shining, this is a new India.  But a New India for who?  Who is getting this new India? I say, give first to the very poor.  There are people here who have less than 50 rupees [$1 USD] a day.  Give to them first.”

I had heard the same thing from all of my cab drivers.  “The price of sugar has more than doubled in the past month,” said one auto-rickshaw driver, as we drove we passed a truck draped in banners and filled with people chanting on bullhorns.  “It’s a political party,” the driver explained.  “They’re talking about the increase in food prices.”  We arrived at my destination, the Supreme Court Commissioner’s office, and she, too, immediately mentioned the food prices and the price of sugar.  The anecdotal reports of rising prices are backed by facts. But you can hear from people directly about how they’re being impacted, and I got a sense that people are heavily impacted.

Life goes on, and plenty of people are doing fine, even as others literally starve to death, and as almost half of India’s children remain malnourished to a point of permanently stunted growth.  Over one weekend, I sat with a friend on the beach in Chennai, and watched a festival being cleaned up.  “There are no trashcans,” she said, pointing to the area where the festival had taken place.  “This (the people cleaning) is the rag picker class.”  Instead of lining the festival area with bins, people were brought in the next day to clear everything away.  “Why not have bins? In order to generate jobs?”  “Ma
ybe,” she shrugged.  “But this caste of people has traditionally cleaned the waste.” 

My friend is a development economist. She shrugged because she knows that poverty in India—and in any place, but perhaps more so here—is complicated.  She took me to an estuary where brand new office buildings perch on the edge of the water.  “This is a very fragile ecosystem,” she said.  “It will probably be destroyed by the development.  But if you talk to people, it seems like this is what they want.  They want the new air conditioned shopping malls.” 

But these are the people in the cities, who can afford to go into these malls. In the rural areas, they want any employment they can find, and they want it now. The cities are mushrooming with investment, but more than two thirds of the population’s income still derives from agriculture. As the government of India focuses on the high tech side of development, the farmers are being left behind.  

In my last interview before I flew home, I asked, “What remains to be done? What are the next steps?” 

“Research,” responded my interviewee, without hesitation.  “We need more in depth studies as to why the programmes that we have, the Supreme Court orders that we have, the laws that we have, are working or not working.” 

But what will come first — more research, or an expanded space program?  The buildings to house foreign companies in the growing tax-free zones, or the infrastructure to provide basic programs for the people who construct the buildings?  If things stay on their present course, development as usual will continue to have a negative impact on the people at the economic margins — which presently seems to be the majority of the Indian population. 

I spent my last weekend in India in Mumbai.  “Have you been to Delhi lately?” I asked a friend.  “It’s a construction site.” 

“I heard that,” he responded, “I wonder what it will look like in time for the games.”  So do I.  I wonder what it will all look like in the near future, and whether people like my taxi drivers and the women in saris digging on the side of the road will experience change.   

This version of the article was modified slightly from the version that appeared in the print edition.

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