Signs Of Resistance To India's Glaring Social Apartheid

Discrimination and exploitation are deeply rooted in India. But rather than silently endure, some in the underclasses are raising their voices in defiance.

The Mahagun Moderne luxury complex
The Mahagun Moderne luxury complex
Monobina Gupta

EAST DELHI — It's one of those hot and withering mid-July afternoons. Anjum is sitting in her class at a government school in East Delhi's Patparganj. The class of 30 students is struggling to concentrate on the lesson at hand. But concentration doesn't come easily when you're sitting in a makeshift tin building without electricity (though a fan and light were finally installed earlier this week).

"A new school building is being built in the complex. But until construction is complete, students will continue to huddle in the cramped classroom," Anjum's father, Tarun Das*, tells me.

Das worked until recently as a taxi driver in Delhi. Now he ferries passengers — students, office-goers, anyone in need of a ride — in his new e-rickshaw. "I can't drive around in this city any longer. The traffic is too chaotic," he says.

Like tens of thousands of others, Das migrated to Delhi from West Bengal in search of a job. That was well over a decade ago. "Low-income people have found it harder to survive throughout this period," he says.

The government could have made life so much easier.

With wry humor, Das talks about how indifferently and callously the national capital treats its poor, especially workers, migrants and non-migrants alike. He talks about how subsidies never reach the people they're intended for. The electricity tariff is a case in point. An initiative by the AAP-led government of Delhi brought power prices down significantly. But often it's the landlords who benefit. They don't show tenants like Das the actual bill, and so keep charging them the old price and pocketing the difference.

For years, this and past governments have promised improvements for everyday workers like Das. And yet, little has changed. "The government could have made life so much easier for people had it done its job in the education and health sectors," he claims.

Das recalls a recent experience in an East Delhi government hospital. "A couple of nights ago, I suddenly felt extremely ill," he says. "It felt like a heart attack. We rushed to Guru Teg Bahadur hospital in Shahdara. An emergency technician gave me an injection. After that I lay on a stretcher the whole night. Not a single doctor attended to me. I left the hospital in the morning."

Lashing out

Our conversation turns to the violent clash that occurred on July 12 between domestic workers and residents in Mahagun Moderne, a luxury apartment complex in Noida (short for the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority), southeast of New Delhi. The class conflict erupted after a maid, Zohra Bibi, failed to return home the previous night. Friends and neighbors responded by storming the apartment. Bibi was eventually located, but media reports vary regarding how and where she turned up.

In photographs splashed across newspapers the next day, the maid appeared near unconscious. Police filed charges against both workers and residents. But as the digital daily reported, "Only the group of workers who stormed the society were detained. Of these, 13 were charged with attempted murder even though none of the FIRs First Information Reports filed over the incident mentioned a physical attack on residents. About 81 workers were "blacklisted" and barred from entering the society for protesting on July 12." What's more, the Noida Authority razed more than three dozen shanties in the area where the protesters lived.

Mahagun Moderne Complex Photo: Facebook

These narratives focus on three different arenas of social life: education, health and domestic work; each distinct from the other on some level, but with common elements of disaffection and rage stemming from the reality of social and economic inequality. Das's daughter has to sweat out her days in a tin building. Her father spends a whole night lying unattended to in a government hospital. And in a different part of the National Capital Region, friends and neighbors of a domestic worker, furious over her treatment, vent their rage by throwing stones at an apartment complex and rattling its secured gates. Then, some of their own homes are demolished by a vindictive administration.

Das, too, is bitter about how heavily tilted the system is in favor of the rich and the better-off. But he has more at stake than Zohra Bibi and therefore exercises restraint.

Rank inequality

One could say that these stories are as old as the republic of India itself. Why then go on chronicling the same narratives of despair? One reason, perhaps, has to do with systemic flaws that, far from being dealt with and removed, continue to operate against the underclasses — maybe with even more efficiency than before.

Ironically, the inequality graph has moved upward even as India has become more integrated with the global economy, even as new opportunities have opened up. Since the onset of economic liberalization in 1991, class stratification has deepened, as has the indifference towards the underprivileged along axes of class, caste and other such determinants. In Delhi, this systemic social apartheid is particularly glaring: The rich and the poor exist side by side, often separated just by a street. And yet, socially and economically speaking, they're worlds apart.

The underpaid and the badly exploited Zohra Bibis, without whose services most middle-class households would grind to a halt, aren't allowed to use the furniture. They sit on the ground. They eat from separate plates that employers set aside just for them. They're not even allowed to use the toilets they spend every day cleaning.

The signs of class apartheid are simply too many to compile a holistic list. But they're there for everyone to see. Indeed, there seems to be a certain uniqueness to the audacity with which the privileged leverage their status to both degrade the poor and mark out a space for themselves.

Socially and economically speaking, they're worlds apart.

All this has led to a singular erosion in Indian society of the dignity of labor, which was never all that dignified to begin with. In his book Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, Rana Dasgupta writes about an array of Delhi's underclasses — domestic workers, cooks, gardeners — all of whom are essential to their well-heeled employers leading comfortable lives. Reviewing his book in New Republic, historian Ramachandra Guha writes: "Reading Dasgupta on Delhi's urban underclass recalled for me what Eduardo Galeano once wrote of their Latin American counterparts, who likewise "sell newspapers they cannot read, sew clothes they cannot wear, polish cars they will never own and construct buildings where they will never live.""

But there is a new element, a twist, in this age-old tale of discrimination and exploitation. And that element is rage. The stone-throwing and gate-rattling at Mahagun Moderne is just one of the many public and spontaneous expressions of anger we have been witness to in the recent past. Revolutions of the kind that once shook the world may not be in the making. But millions of small mutinies are unfolding across a range of spaces.

*Not his real name

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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