June 18, 2024

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G20 summit: India clears out slums in New Delhi as the meeting draws near

G20 summit: India clears out slums in New Delhi as the meeting draws near

New Delhi

Bulldozers and government officials arrived just before dawn, tearing down the row of huts as their distraught residents watched nearby.

“We were so scared,” said Jayanti Devi, 56, as she tried to save what was left of her possessions in the heart of New Delhi. “They destroyed everything. We have nothing left.”

For the past 30 years, her home has stood on a rickety sidewalk, next to an open sewage drain, across from the sprawling Pragati Maidan complex, a landmark conference center in the Indian capital that this week hosts G20 leaders. Nations.

But the abode is not what US President Joe Biden, French Emmanuel Macron or British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will see when they arrive for the pivotal summit.

Devi is among tens of thousands of New Delhi’s most marginalized residents evacuated from their homes in the run-up to the G-20 meeting, as authorities embarked on a campaign of mass demolitions in neighborhoods across the city.

The government justified the demolitions by saying the buildings were “illegal” and said it planned to relocate some of the affected communities.

But activists have questioned the timing, claiming instead that the demolitions are part of a “beautification” project – a campaign to rid the city of beggars and slums – to impress foreign dignitaries.

The image of India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to project at the G-20 is that of a modern superpower, leader of the global south, and a voice for poor nations. But the government has been accused of concealing one of the country’s most enduring problems.

“What amazes me most is that India, the Indian state, is ashamed of alleged poverty,” said Harsh Mander, a social activist who works with homeless families and street children. “She doesn’t want poverty to be visible to the people who come here.”

In a written response in Parliament in July, the Indian government denied any link between the house demolitions and the G20 summit.

CNN has reached out to the New Delhi and federal governments, but has not yet received a response.

Jayanti Devi stands in the ruins of what was her home for 30 years.

Delhi has long been a city of stark differences.

It is a city where millionaires live in gleaming mansions next to homeless families on nearby footpaths, and children sell toys to motorists when they stop at traffic lights. It is a city that attracts huge business, yet the demand for jobs is increasing sharply.

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About 16 million people live in the capital, according to the latest government census in 2011, but only 23.7% of them live in “planned” or “approved” neighborhoods, according to a census. a report by the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

The rest live in slums, villages and unauthorized neighborhoods.

In April, Savita and her four daughters watched in desperation as government authorities stormed their settlement – an unauthorized neighborhood – next to the 14th-century Tughlaqabad Fort, a landmark Delhi monument, destroying their tiny home and reducing seven years of memories to rubble.

Hundreds of homes demolished near Tughlaqabad Fort in New Delhi.

“I can’t explain how dumbfounded everyone was when they bulldozed the houses,” Savita said. “People were screaming and crying and begging them to stop.”

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which carried out the demolitions, alleges Savita and her neighbors trespassed on the land and built their homes illegally, according to court documents seen by CNN. Court documents show that in a notice to residents in January, the agency directed all “squatters” to remove “illegal structures at their own expense within a 15-day period”.

ASI did not respond to requests for comment.

Savita said she learned her family was buying land in the unauthorized settlement when they built their home in 2016.

“We knew the risks we were taking. But we are poor and that’s all we can afford,” she added. “People have been living here for more than 40 years. Why didn’t the authorities demolish these homes earlier? why now?”

Savita looks at what was her home seven years ago.

Homeless and hungry

More than 100,000 residents living in the Tughlaqabad district lost their homes in April, according to a petition filed with the Supreme Court by a lawyer assisting the residents.

With nowhere to go and no money to rent an apartment, many, including Savita’s family, had no choice but to live under tarpaulins on rough terrain, even as heavy rains and floods battered the city.

By day, they begged nearby policemen for some bread to share among the six. And one night she said: Men attempt to kidnap her neighbor’s daughter, dragging the screaming teen into the dark forest.

“We endured this hardship for six weeks,” Savita said, crying. Her daughters had to study next to piles of rubbish while stray dogs and cows scavenged through decaying food, and her daughters struggled with their homework, leading to depression and withdrawal.

Workers build a wall near Savita's house.

This is not the first time the Indian government has carried out slum or slum demolitions ahead of a large-scale international event.

In 2010, when opposition now The Indian National Congress was in power, beggars were forced from the streets of New Delhi, slums were destroyed in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, upending the lives of tens of thousands in the capital.

Mander, a social activist, said it was not fair for the government to target poor families living on unauthorized lands.

“The government does not recognize the imposition of illegality on these poor people,” Mander said. “This is because this city has been planned in such a way that there is no place to live legally. The demolitions are being done very harshly.”

Savita helps her children with their homework in a makeshift home in Delhi.

The Delhi government has said it intends to rehabilitate Savita and her family, but says no help has arrived so far and is fighting her case in court. Her family now lives temporarily with a relative in a two-bedroom apartment in a cramped, crowded informal settlement.

The stench of cow dung permeates the gullies, thousands of flies swarm outside the doors and mangy cats roam the alleys.

“My children don’t like it here,” Savita said. “They ask me why this is happening to us. What can I tell them?

Since assuming the presidency of the G-20 this year, India, the world’s new most populous country of 1.4 billion people, has positioned itself as the leader of emerging and developing nations – often referred to as the global south – at a time when consumers are under pressure from rising prices for materials. Food and energy as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Modi sees India as a confident, modern superpower, and a voice for the voiceless seizing the twenty-first century. Last month, India celebrated the successful soft landing on the moon, becoming the fourth country in the world to achieve this feat.

Speaking before Congress during a highly publicized trip to the US in June, Modi said that “giving a voice to the global south is the way forward”.

As the war continues to throw the global economy into disarray, India has signaled its determination to raise the many concerns the global south faces, including climate challenges and food and energy security.

“The world looks to the G20 to mitigate the challenges of growth and development, economic resilience, resilience to disasters, financial stability, transnational crime, corruption, terrorism, food security and energy security,” Modi said in February.

However, activists point out the irony in that picture, when India’s poorest people suffer at home.

“People are dying in the streets in the cold winter and we are demolishing homes,” Mander said. “There must be a basic right to life… to live with dignity.”

Standing amidst the ruins of the home she lived in for seven years, Savita said she had many dreams for her family.

“I wanted my children to grow up here. I wanted to give them a stable upbringing,” she said.

Now, security guards patrol the Tughlaqabad district while construction workers build a wall to seal off the land. “Where were you the day the bulldozers took over our house?” the residents asked the guards angrily. “Why didn’t you come to help us?”

Devi, from Pragati Maidan district, is now forced to live in a makeshift tent on a sidewalk nearby, without any relief from the scorching summer heat.

She says no one has helped her find alternative shelter.

She sells tea and snacks to make ends meet, and surrounded by decaying rubbish and an open sewage drain that attracts hundreds of mosquitoes and flies, she feels defeated and alone.

“We are very angry, but our poverty makes us powerless,” Davey said. “We can’t talk.”