Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Phool Mandi, Delhi

Today in the morning my flat mate, Arthur Dudney (http://www.columbia.edu/~add2115/writing.html) and me were hosted by Himanshu Verma (himanshu@redearthindia.com; www.redearthindia.com; www.thegendaphoolproject.com) for a trip to morning phool (flower) mandi (wholesale market) in South Delhi’s Lado Sarai.

This is one of many daily phool mandi in the capital temporarily organized in the mornings at various localities of the city. Phool mandi like many of the informal sector activities in the city (cycle rickshaw, hawkers, peddlers, small scale industry, etc…which are been condemned to the peripheries of the city, devoid of basic facilities like electricity and water) is under threat from the city government that is committed to the skewed development of the city, which is about beautification, is completely anti-people. The people in question are urban poor who lead a marginalized life in the margins of the city, make a livelihood by efficiently transforming the leftovers of the development process into life sustaining enterprise (Delhi has the biggest ‘informal’ urban recycling industry in the world).

These informal activities come up where there is a market for it; with, without, despite of the government. In that sense they are the purest form of fundamental principles of capitalism that was elaborated by Adam Smith in his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

The city is changing fast, thanks to the last years Commonwealth Games that acted as a catalyst. This change is not planned for, even if it has some semblance of planning, the planning is not about people. The fact that more than half of the people in Delhi reside in unauthorized dwellings, many thousands don’t have any dwelling at all, and more than 60 percent of the denizens are directly dependent on the informal sector, says a lot about the planning process, that it is a sham. The urban poor are a numerical majority, town planners try hide them from urban landscape as if they do not exist, but they are there, in the way they always were: poor and marginalized. Their existence dubbed as unauthorized, and their occupation categorized as illegal. The shallow concept of how urban spaces should look and function is completely divorced of the prevalent ground realities. The ugly imitation of the West as a development model is just unsustainable.

I am absolutely amazed and disturbed by the terminologies used to describe urban poor and their existence. How is it permitted in a welfare state like India governed by a liberal constitution which makes ‘we the people’ sovereign? How can citizens, under any circumstances, be described as unauthorized?

The urban planning, not only in Delhi, has a very land-centric approach. Land is where the money is, it is the scarcest and limited resource unlike people who are in plenty with no inherent cash value attached to them. The Delhi Development Authority (belongs to the government of India) functions opaquely; is dubbed as the biggest land mafia of Delhi. Multiplicity of authorities that run Delhi has been used as a ploy to shun accountability.
As far as the informal sector or the unorganized sector is concerned, by providing sustainable employment to the teeming Indians, it has actually prevented a revolution from happening in this country that would have demolished the prevalent system that allows flourishing rich to build their empire of wealth by denying the poor. Government has been a party to it, has been a miserable failure in effecting a move towards a more equitable society.

At the phool mandi in one of the shacks a middle aged woman was weaving a garland with some other girls. I asked if I could click a picture. She raised her eyebrows to ask: “why do you guys insult poor?” People come here to take pictures, show the rest of the world that poverty can also be glamorous. “They exhibit and sell our poverty to get rich,” she explains. Yes, their life, their interaction with the state, and the way they are treated is best described by the word: insult.

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