Dilli chalo

A riverfront project that is just a front, sans river

Published: Saturday 15 May 2004

-- COME sir, visit the Yamuna, just like the Thames of London. Parks, sir, fountains. Green, very very.

This is no Indira Gandhi International Airport tout trying to fleece a few hundred dollars off a recently alighted 'foreign tourist'. Alas, it's our respected Union minister for urban affairs, promoting the relocation of slum dwellers from one of Asia's biggest slum, the Yamuna Pushta (see: 'Beautification drive'). He wants to 'integrate the Yamuna riverfront through a walkway along the various samadhis of national leaders leading up to the Ring Road". He wants to "construct two-foot bridges that enable pedestrians to cross the road". He envisions "walkers moving to the green areas already developed between the Old City Wall and crossing over to the Dilli Chalo Park". The Union government thinks urban development is a synonym for "beautification drive". A beautification drive which hides and shifts 75,000 'illegal' slum dwellers from the view of an urban middle class to claustrophobic quarters. Moves them out of sight, but wishes them to keep serving, cheap, the ancillary and informal economy of the state -- as the undernourished domestic servant, the underpaid daily wage labour, or the 18-hour shift temporary worker in the textile factory exporting garments to the US.

We do not trust the Union government to spend a sleepless night thinking of the plight of the slum dweller. Its shoddy draft national slum policy is an example of the government' s callous response to a growing crisis (see: Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 16). But can we trust it to be a good real estate agent -- realise for us that post-liberalisednoe-conservative middle class dream of a sanitised city, with green parks and fountain-laden river fronts where one can take the family out for a picnic? No.

The government is acting the part of a perfect tout out to get the prospective customer. It has already put its entire bureaucracy, and crores of rupees, in cleaning the rivers (that too upon being harangued innumerable number of times by the Supreme Court). It has spent a phenomenal Rs 160 crore constructing community toilet complexes in the same jhuggies that it now has 'rehabilitated'. Most of these toilets are either non-functional or remain locked. In fact donor agencies like the Japan Bank of International Cooperation, disillusioned with the efforts of Delhi's implementing agencies, have slashed budgets for cleaning up the Yamuna. The pollution loads in the river have only increased as the money has got drained in the capital city's prime nallah.

Be assured: the beautification drive for the riverfront is just that, a front sans river. It is a cover up for the years of mismanagement. It is a perfect strategy to get the middle class-preferring media to give it the right kind of coverage (after all, its election time). Does the government really think the denizens of Delhi or the "foreign tourists" would like to walk their children along a smelling, frothy canal of sludge? Does it want us to believe that a fountain spewing sparkling water shall ensure that the stench from the putrid contents of Yamuna doesn't reach leisure-seeking nostrils? Will the government please leave it to the corner-shop estate agent to sell fraudulent stress-busting dreams and get on with a job called governance?

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