By Tim Sullivan
The Associated Press
NEW DELHI (AP) — The banners were erected at the little hillside enclave while everyone was at work, long blue and purple signs with a smiling cartoon tiger proclaiming the arrival of the Commonwealth Games.
By nightfall, the enclave was nowhere to be seen. The plastic-roofed shanties that are home to more than 200 people — laborers who have spent the last year fixing up the city’s roads for the games — had disappeared behind the smiling tiger.
While poverty remains one of India’s most intractable and enduring problems, officials don’t want it to be what visitors to the games remember. Many of this city’s beggars have been arrested or forced from the streets, migrants have been rousted, and thousands of homes hidden from sight.
New Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, the equivalent of mayor, denied the hundreds of banners put up around the city in recent days had anything to do with disguising poverty.
“It’s to give the city a festive look,” she told reporters on Monday, Sept. 27.
But the message was clear to Chaitran Rahu, one of the migrant laborers whose home was hidden last week by the 10-foot banners, which are made of thick plastic and mounted on metal and bamboo frames.
“They know that we’re laborers and we’re dirty, and they don’t want anyone to see us from the road,” he said, growing increasingly angry as he spoke.
He shovels tar for a subcontractor and makes about $2.75 a day. If that seems to be miserable pay, it puts him well ahead of more than 800 million Indians who, according to World Bank estimates, survive on less than $2 a day.
The Commonwealth Games — an Olympic-style competition held every four years — bring together nearly 7,000 athletes and officials from 71 countries and territories. India wanted the games, which open Sunday, to help showcase its emergence as a growing economic power and help it shed its old cliches of poverty and illiteracy.
Instead, its image has been battered by its chaotic last-minute efforts to get ready for an event it was supposed to begin preparing for in 2003.
In recent weeks, organizers faced criticism over the filthy and unfinished state of the athletes’ village, questionable construction, security fears, and worries over diseases such as dengue fever. Over the weekend, a snake turned up in the room of a South African competitor, and a 4-foot cobra was reportedly found at the tennis stadium.
The village was supposed to be ready last week, but many teams have delayed moving in because cleaning and repairs have not been finished.
“We inherited a very difficult situation, but it’s improving almost by the hour,” Dikshit said Monday. “We are racing against time, no doubt about it, but we will perform.”
Some of the buildings had leaks in them, there was still water in some basements, and some elevators were not working, Dikshit said. But team officials and athletes said conditions in the village had improved dramatically.
Pakistan Olympic Association Chief Arif Hasan complained that his team’s rooms were “not fit enough to live in” and gave organizers 24 hours to improve conditions or its athletes will stay in a hotel.
As for poverty, officials seem to want no one to see it at all.
Officials launched a drive against beggars, slum neighborhoods, and the homeless earlier this year, demolishing thousands of slum homes and arresting or displacing thousands of people. Human rights groups complained, and the courts finally stepped in to stop them.
“You cannot just take bulldozers anywhere and demolish anyone’s house in the name of the Commonwealth Games,” a New Delhi court said after city officials tore down a series of homeless shelters and shantytowns.
“We think you want to show the foreigners coming for the Commonwealth Games that there are no poor people in India.”
New Delhi, of course, is not the first city to try to hide its rougher edges. The Chinese government tore down and rebuilt large parts of Beijing in the years before the 2008 Olympics, demolishing entire blocks of housing and displacing thousands of people.
But Indian officials like to point out that they govern the world’s most populous democracy — unlike China, its main regional competitor for economic power — and the needs of ordinary people need to be taken into account.
“The government is just trying to hide its ineptitude,” said a homeless man named Ilyas, a civil servant who recounted how he had moved to New Delhi a month ago after a bitter family feud and a battle with depression. He had been living on the streets, near a mosque where free food is distributed. But now, he’s hiding in a city park and sleeping in the bushes. “The police tell us to get off the streets, so we come back here,” he said.
P. Sainath, an Indian journalist who often writes about India’s growing economic divide, said he was not surprised by the government’s actions.
“All this captures the elite of India very well,” he said, referring to the government’s proud recitations of its booming economic growth and increasing consumer culture. “India is not really about ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ It’s about slumdogs versus millionaires, and that’s what you’re seeing in Delhi now.”
On a New Delhi street corner Monday, some things continued as they have for years.
New Delhi is believed to have about 60,000 beggars, many of them handicapped. Nearly all are from India’s poor northern states.
If begging is ubiquitous in many parts of the city, it remains officially illegal. The least lucky beggars are convicted in special courts and trucked out of town to rundown facilities that are often little better than prisons.
While most beggars have been chased off the streets recently, two young girls were working cars stopped at a traffic light near the city center. One was performing second-rate gymnastics while the other held out a bowl for donations.
The older one, who was about 13 and who identified herself only as Seema, said they regularly had to dodge the authorities these days.
“The police say the Olympics are coming, and we have to stay away and come back in one month,” she said. ♦