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A dirigisme for the poor

A dirigisme for the poor
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First Published: Wed, Sep 29 2010. 09 27 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Sep 29 2010. 09 27 PM IST
India started its economic reforms 13 years after China. Ever since, it has been in a race to catch up—the staging of the Commonwealth Games starting Sunday follows China’s successful hosting of the Olympics two years ago.
The trouble is that India is learning the wrong lessons from China.
One such is forcibly evicting the poor. A week before the Games, Gurgaon’s nouveau riche living in Singapore-style apartment complexes discovered that their overworked cooks, maids, gardeners, drivers and cleaners, who have enabled the sahibs and memsahibs to enjoy a Westernized lifestyle without having to do household chores, had disappeared.
Many of the workers were recent migrants who lived in temporary tent villages. They didn’t have permanent addresses or papers proving their citizenship. Many left before being asked, afraid that the police might beat them up. The officials’ targets are the poor: No professional driving his car, nor the teenager coming out of a disco, has been asked for his or her papers. But checking the identification papers of sweepers, garbage cleaners and ayahs is fair game.
Those without proper papers were put on trains taking them to wherever they came from. People who went on their own to police stations to get their papers verified had to stand in lines for hours; in some cases, the police simply tore up identification papers, and told the people to leave.
When Raj Thackeray and his hotheads in Mumbai started attacking those they considered outsiders, there was justified outrage because Indians have the right in general to move freely, and don’t require permits to live or work in other parts of the country. The bullying in Haryana is, however, state-sanctioned, and it will have long-term consequences: The evicted may not return, particularly if they find opportunities elsewhere, and that can have crippling consequences for Gurgaon’s economy.
The move in Haryana is also unconstitutional. A poor villager from Bihar has the right to move to Gurgaon—as indeed Balram Halwai does in Aravind Adiga’s novel, The White Tiger (2008). Poverty drives the rural poor into the cities, but once there, the migrants show their determination to improve their lives. Sending them back to the dust bowl is inhuman.
The officials claim that they are removing the people without proper papers. This is straight out of an authoritarian society where the individual is subservient to the state and must prove his identity. It helps segregate people. In South Africa during the apartheid, the Group Areas Act forced non-whites to live in specific areas, and to enforce it, there was the Pass Law, which forced blacks to carry at all times a passbook that they called dompas (for dumb pass). China’s hukou system treats rural migrants in cities as second-class citizens, denying them equal opportunities in jobs and housing.
India is, of course, not there yet, but it has carried out mass evictions, and officials know how to destroy residents’ records to make removals easier. The Unique Identification Authority of India won’t fix the problem, because decisions would remain in the hands of a lathi-wielding cop. If the authorities haven’t registered a person’s new address or refuse to do so, the all-important number would be worthless. As the Delhi-based human rights lawyer Usha Ramanathan explains, how long a person has stayed at a place will determine certain rights. If the authorities don’t register the changed address, then, as has been the case with voter identity cards, people’s rights can get denied. They will lose rights, too, if their previous address was demolished as being illegal. “This is what we understand as double jeopardy, and sociologists call exclusion, and it is beyond the law,” she says.
Indian courts have ruled for the poor—the Olga Tellis case of 1985 prevented the state from evicting even illegal slum dwellers without due process. More recently, in the Sudama Singh case, the court upheld the rights of slum dwellers to humane relocation where their lands were being acquired for public purposes.
Yet, impunity prevails. London-based journalist Amelia Gentleman, who reported out of India for several years, had interviewed some of the 5,000 people whose homes were destroyed to make way for the athletes’ village. She noted in The Guardian: “Few had enough money to rebuild their homes. The poorest were living beneath plastic sheets, draped, at shoulder height, over a framework of wooden sticks.” The new site lacked water supply or transport to take them back to their jobs in Delhi. “There was a particularly depressing absurdity in the amount of misery triggered during the planning of the athletes’ village—a construction that would only be operational for a short period,” she writes.
What’s supposed to distinguish India from China is not the economic growth rate, but how the system treats its people. In India, the individual, not the state, is supposed to be at the centre; instead, the state is increasingly towering over the powerless.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com
To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi
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First Published: Wed, Sep 29 2010. 09 27 PM IST