New Delhi’s crowded streets have been resurfaced. Streetlights are illuminating once dark sidewalks. City buildings and walls are painted with bright murals and graffiti. Planted flowers are everywhere.
But many of the city’s poor say they have been simply erased, much like the stray dogs and monkeys that have been removed from some neighbourhoods as India’s capital got a makeover ahead of this week’s summit of the Group of 20 (G20) nations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government hopes the elaborate effort to make New Delhi sparkle – a “beautification project” with a price tag of $120m – will help showcase the world’s most populous nation’s cultural prowess and strengthen its position on the global stage.
The two-day summit will take place at the newly constructed Bharat Mandapam building, a sprawling exhibition centre in the heart of New Delhi.
Scores of world leaders are expected to attend. The G20 includes the world’s 19 wealthiest countries plus the European Union. India currently holds its presidency, which rotates annually among the members.
But for many street vendors and those crammed into New Delhi’s shantytowns, the G20 makeover has meant displacement and loss of livelihoods, raising questions about the government’s policies on dealing with poverty.
In a city of more than 20 million people, the 2011 census put the number of homeless people at 47,000, but activists say that was a vast underestimate and the real number is at least 150,000.
Since January, hundreds of houses and roadside stalls have been demolished, displacing thousands of people. Dozens of shantytowns were razed to the ground. Many residents received eviction notices only a short while before the demolitions got under way.
Authorities say the demolitions were carried out against “illegal encroachers”, but human right activists and those evicted question the policy and allege that it has pushed thousands more into homelessness.
Similar demolitions have also been carried out in other Indian cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, that have hosted other G20 events leading up to this weekend’s summit.
Activists say it was more than just a case of out of sight, out of mind.
Abdul Shakeel of the Basti Suraksha Manch (Save Colony Forum) says: “In the name of beautification, the urban poor’s lives are destroyed.”
“The money used for the G20 is taxpayers’ money. Everyone pays the tax. Same money is being used to evict and displace them,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”