Durga Sahu is shining tiles outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The swanky Delhi venue is the location for the opening and closing ceremonies of the two-week Commonwealth Games that began this week, an event that was supposed to see India stepping onto the international stage the same way Beijing did when it hosted the 2008 Olympics.
Curious to see how one of the thousands of workers involved in preparing the venues feels about the event, I ask one worker I see while I'm on a guided media visit what he thinks about an extravaganza the government has dubbed the ‘pride of the nation.’
But Sahu doesn’t really want to talk about the Games and I have to press him to respond.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘What pride are you talking about? This stadium is being built on the graves of poor people like me,’ he says. ‘I want to move away, but where will I go? I have two sons and a daughter to feed and there’s no way I can sustain them without working part-time here as well.’
While much of the international media’s attention in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony Sunday was on the sometimes woeful conditions of the athletes’ village and speculation was rife over whether the Games might in fact be cancelled, Sahu is just one of an estimated 3 million people who will have been displaced by the time the event closes.
‘I’ve been living in this area behind the stadium since 1968 and have been supporting my family by selling fruits from my cart,’ Sahu says. ‘But they demolished the whole colony and so overnight we were left homeless. I had to send the family back to my village in Orissa.’
He’s far from alone. Among the 3 million are between 1.2 and 1.5 million migrant workers as well as an estimated 100,000 families whose homes were bulldozed to make way for bridges and parking lots needed for the Games.
The colony where Sahu and his family used to live was located near the Sewa Nagar railway crossing that now overlooks the glittering Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. It was home to more than 600 families for decades.
‘Now buses and cars are staying where my home was for more than 30 years. I feel as if some earthquake came and my whole family perished,’ says Mantu Chand, a fruit seller just outside the stadium. He’s been forced to move his family to rented accommodation in Khajuri, some 40 kilometres away in the north-east of the city, where he says he visits them once a week.
Indeed, as I travel around the city, it seems every venue I visit seems to have a story of displacement or destruction attached to it.
‘The Delhi government isn’t removing poverty, it’s removing poor people,’ says Sarita Devi, who saw the Madrasi jhuggi (slum) she lived in near Barapullah Nallah Bridge demolished to make way for a flyover connecting the Games village in the east to venues in Central Delhi.