New Delhi Postcard: How A G20 Makeover Looks After The World Leaders Go Home
Before the G20 summit, which took place in New Delhi from Sept. 9-10, Indian authorities carried out a "beautification" of the city. Entire slums were bulldozed, forcing some of the city's most vulnerable residents into homelessness.
NEW DELHI — Three cinder blocks with a plank, a gas bottle, a stove and a lamp are all that's left for Chetram, 32, who now lives with his wife and three children under a road bridge in Moolchand Basti, central Delhi.
"On March 28, the police came at 2 p.m. with their demolition notice. By 4 p.m., the bulldozers were already there," Chetram recalls.
All that remains of their house is a few stones, testimony to their former life.
Before hosting the G20 summit on Sept. 9 and 10, Indian authorities gave the capital a quick makeover. Murals were painted on the walls. The portrait of Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister, was plastered all over the city. And to camouflage the poverty that is still rampant in Delhi, entire neighborhoods have been demolished, leaving tens of thousands of vulnerable people homeless.
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) carried out the demolitions in the name of beautifying the city.
"Personally, I'd call it the Delhi Destruction Authority," says Sunil Kumar Aledia, founder of the Center for Holistic Development, an NGO that helps the poorest people in Delhi. "The G20 motto was: 'One earth, one family, one future.' The poor are clearly not part of the family."
The hunted poor
The DDA has demolished many of the homes located under "flyovers": road bridges that enable people to cross the capital quickly. Chetram and his family live under one of these bridges. Four sticks planted hastily in the ground now mark out their living space. They have asked to be rehoused, but their request has fallen on deaf ears.
In the background, a lame cow grazes on the grass of a field where, for part of the year, Chetram grows vegetables that he sells at a local market.
There is simply no political will to help the most vulnerable.
These vulnerable workers face many calamities. During monsoon season, families living along the Yamuna river are exposed to flash floods. This year, the river reached record levels, drowning thousands of houses built along its banks. "Flooding is a problem. But the G20 has been an even bigger problem. Where are the poor supposed to go now?" asks Chetram.
Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard near the main venue of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India.
This is one of the families' main grievances — the Indian authorities offer them no alternative housing. The city of Delhi has a rehabilitation plan, but only for officially recognized slums. In Moolchand Basti, the authorities have deemed that the dwellings are located on agricultural land, which denies the residents the right to benefit from a rehousing plan. This is despite the fact that some families have lived in the area for several generations.
"The government doesn't want to listen to us," says 43-year-old Reekha Rajput, who shows a bundle of documents attesting to her family's presence on the land since 1913. She fought for a year and a half to prevent the demolition of her house. But the bulldozers arrived last March and swept everything away. Alongside others, she protested silently under a bridge, amid the deafening noise of engines and horns.
It's a sad sight. Her companions in misfortune stare into space. "The city of Delhi has no urban planning," says Aledia. "There is simply no political will to help the most vulnerable."
On the banks of the Yamuna, not far from the Kashmiri Gate, camps for the homeless were demolished; a prefabricated shelter housing 50 people was demolished at midnight on March 10.
"I feel really bad," explains Lallan Sahamhi, a 50-year-old former resident of the shelter, who is sitting on a plank at the foot of a tree. All that remains of the building is a muddy rectangle plowed under by the tracks of the construction machinery. After the shelter's destruction, Lallan went back to sleeping on the streets. His whole life now fits into a small canvas bag. Disabled by a road accident, he survives thanks to donations from devotees who come to do their ablutions in the Yamuna, one of the sacred rivers of Hinduism.
There were a total of nine shelters on the banks of the Yamuna near the Kashmiri Gate district. All were demolished in March. The stalls, where exhausted workers could drink chai and eat, were also swallowed by the machines.
Seema, 42, lives in this "no man's land" with her seven-year-old daughter and her husband under a yellow tarp stretched by two poles, in total destitution. She has "no words" to describe the month of March.
The destruction of the shelters also led to the disappearance of the few public services to which the residents had access, such as food distribution or access to basic medical care. Hundreds of men and women who earn a living with odd jobs found themselves out of work overnight. By the riverbank, some have unrolled tired mattresses to find a little shade under the pipeline that runs alongside the river.
If they come, we'll be living under bridges and in the streets.
Elsewhere, bulldozers have destroyed entire camps. Such is the case of Gwasapur, an informal settlement housing 800 families, razed to the ground in January 2023.
It's probably no coincidence that this slum was razed to the ground: It was located along the route taken by the hundreds of buses carrying journalists from all over the world to the $2-billion exhibition park where the heads of state had gathered for the G20 summit. NGOs estimate that the G20 summit led to the displacement of 300,000 people and the destruction of 25 slums.
A slum in New Delhi, India.
The summit is over, as is the parade of delegations' limousines. But the threat of bulldozers remains.
Authorities have warned that they will continue to "beautify" the city. A few hundred meters further south, in Behlolpur, another informal settlement surrounded by garbage is under threat of demolition.
Shaer Ali, with two wives and seven children, welcomes us into his home. A precarious dwelling: the walls are made of brick, but the roof is made of simple plastic sheeting. A few political party posters salvaged from the street have been stretched out to fill the gaps.
Arriving in Delhi in 1996, Shaer Ali is fighting in court to assert his rights, but fears that the bulldozers will come here to clear the way. The DDA is due to arrive on Sept. 26. "Going to court is the only recourse we have left," explains the scrap dealer.
With the G20, legal proceedings have accelerated. "If they come, we'll be living under bridges and in the streets," he continues. A rain shower passes. The drops pound the sheeting stretched over our heads. For a few seconds, the noise drowns out Shaer Ali's voice.
"In the name of the G20 and development, they order the eviction of the poor they don't want to see," he continues, once the storm has passed. The sun returns, peeking through one of the posters, revealing Narendra Modi's smiling face.
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