Indian Decade

New Delhi’s Potemkin Village

The Commonwealth Games’ facades are well-designed to conceal a grim reality that lies beyond them.

In the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great, one of her ministers, Grigory Potemkin, organized a series of facades along the Dnieper River which showed a series of happy, contended villagers. These facades, of course, were designed to conceal a rather grim reality that lay beyond them. Now Potemkin's ruse has been resurrected in the world's largest democracy, India, as its organizers seek to prevent the many athletes and tourists who have gathered for the Commonwealth Games from facing a squalid reality.

Along many an overpass, beside major thoroughfares and arterials, the organizers have hastily erected large signs that present happy, larger-than-life images of Sheru, the tiger mascot of the games. Lurking behind those cheerful, welcoming boards are an ugly and tragic feature of much of urban life in India—a series of slums and shantytowns where an army of casual labourers live to serve India's increasingly high-class urban neighborhoods.

The numbers of these day labourers have dramatically increased as the Commonwealth Games have engendered massive construction projects across the city and on its peripheries. Yet the organizers, who were so intent on showcasing India's dramatic rise, have shown scant regard for the very individuals who toil and labor as the backbone of the much-needed infrastructure development.

Of course when the games began, these workers could not be simply coerced to leave. Unlike in China, where their tarpaper shacks might simply have been bulldozed, in India scores of well-meaning social activists along with an increasingly active judiciary, would not allow that to happen.

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So, faced with these structural barriers, the latter-day ‘Potemkins’ organizing the Games resorted to tactics that would please a tsar.