Delhi Every conversation Dharmendra Kumar, ACORN India’s Delhi Director, and I had about our communities in East Delhi and especially about our emerging unions of informal workers, kept running into the up coming Commonwealth Games to be held starting October 3rd a little less than 6 months away. This was especially the case when he briefed me on the one group of workers where our organizing is making the quickest progress: bicycle rickshaw drivers. Everywhere we turned our people found the Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Indian government had decided that there was a fundamental conflict between their view of modernity and our ability to have a livelihood and a place to live. Our members are as excited about the games as anyone in India, but none of them are willing to live or die for them.
Let’s step back for a second. The Commonwealth Games have gone through a lot of names starting from the point when they were called the British Empire Games, but no matter the framing, the games are part Olympic style events and part English old school sports like lawn bowling and of course the rapidly watched cricket contests. Pretty much if the British Union Jack ever flew over your soil, and you are still speaking to them, then you are eligible to participate. The Games come together every four years and move around the old cities of the empire, mainly in Australia and Britain, making this the first time for India. As I’ve hinted earlier, it’s a big thing with huge levels of construction much of which is focused on traffic – 100 flyovers (overpasses) have built. It’s a race to the finish.
Bicycle rickshaws are ubiquitous in India. There are 100,000 licenses in Delhi alone but an estimated 300,000 bicycle rickshaws. There is a union among the 10000 odd rickshaw pullers in Old Delhi, but otherwise, it’s every man for themselves and fertile ground for our organizing. Especially now because the police and the traffic obsession have begun not simply fining a driver when there’s a traffic problem, but physically breaking up the bike and the seats, effectively taking the bread out of the driver and his family’s mouths.
Frankly, it’s too late already for Delhi to pretend it’s London or Sydney or some such. This is the capitol of India! If the government had been this worried about their image, they could have spent the money on slum upgrading and work improvements, rather than concrete stadiums and asphalt roads.
The more we talked, the more it seemed there was no choice but to put out the “Not Welcome” sign for the Commonwealth Games for poor workers and poor communities fighting for their livelihoods. We grabbed the web domain. Within a short time we will have our Facebook site. We’ll launch our on-line petition and hope it goes viral.
But, first, we’re going to be talking to our members today to see what they feel safe and strong in doing. Then we’re going to reach out to ACORN Canada, ACORN Kenya, and our friends in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere and see what support and help they can give us in both keeping the Indian government responsive to the poor and helping make sure that the Commonwealth Games are really about Humanity and Equality, like they say, or just another excuse to bulldoze and manhandle the poor.
Depending on what they all say, then we’re going to make this as big and bad as we can!