Atithi Devo Bhava – the guest is God! While it is cited ad nauseam in both academic and popular conversations on Indian culture, never does the concept become as real and palpable as when important heads of state visit us. Cities are decked up like a bride on her wedding day; streets get cleaned, riverfronts along the route are beautified, walls and facades are decorated with paintings depicting the culture of the two countries…and so on.
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We have seen it in Varanasi ahead of the 2015 meet between Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi, or when the French President visited in 2018. We saw it yet again in Guwahati when the Japanese leader came back in 2019 or in Mamallapuram as it prepared to host the Chinese President in 2019. In fact, we have seen this happening so many times now, that we should not be surprised if cities start praying for the visit of some global VIP whenever the civic scenario appears to be beyond redemption!
Predictably, therefore, over the last one week and more, there has been an overload of news and features on the preparations underway to welcome the American President, the one and only Donald Trump. The news that has created the most buzz, of course, is over “the wall” — a four feet high structure built along the route from Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport to Indira Bridge, painted with faces of the leaders and symbols of Indo-US bonhomie.
Municipal Commissioner of Ahmedabad Vijay Nehra says that this wall had been planned two months back, and is meant to stop encroachments, not to hide the Saraniya Vaas slums on the other side from the view of the POTUS, as critics have been continuously alleging. The fact, however, is that the slum in question has been around for six decades and the local government has not been able to find a permanent, humane solution for rehabilitation of the families living here in all these years. In fact, while the ‘wall’ may be a novelty, there have been countless reports of green cloth being used to distance the poor and hide any signs of poverty or decrepitude from the sight of visiting dignitaries. The people have seen it before the Vibrant Gujarat Summit of 2017, just as they have during Shinzo Abe’s 2017 visit.
Another piece of news from Ahmedabad doing the rounds is about the deployment of the Cattle and Dog Nuisance Control Department (CDNCD) to capture all stray animals within a 2.75 km radius of the VIP route. The stray dog menace in Ahmedabad, and in fact in many Indian cities, is nothing new. Those who do not like dogs or have been victim to stray attacks want them removed from streets at any cost. Animal lovers on the other hand have repeatedly stressed the importance of a more humane and systematic approach — most essentially a well-thought out immunization and sterilization programme followed by proper care in a state-run pound or shelter. Effective municipal waste management that reduces street side garbage for dogs to feed on can also go a long way. The above measures can lead to a stable, non-breeding, non-aggressive and rabies-free stray dog population, which will shrink to negligible proportions in time.
Evidently, Ahmedabad has failed to implement any of this despite long-brewing discontent over the stray problem in the city; in fact, the High Court, hearing a PIL filed on the matter, recently issued notices to the respondents, who include the state home department secretary and the commissioner of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). The result of such failure: habitual kneejerk action before a VIP visit to avoid embarrassment of any sort.
A facial for the Taj?
Now, a look at the other favourite destination of most visiting world leaders – Agra, the city of immortal love, the city of the Taj Mahal. Reports indicate that the monument is undergoing a mammoth beautification drive in anticipation of Trump’s visit, complete with mud pack treatment to remove dark spots! Several studies and reports in recent years have underlined the reasons behind the discoloration of the Taj, the primary being air pollution, caused largely by industries and vehicular emissions.
Ironically, as early as 1984, the Supreme Court had heard a case filed by environmentalist M C Mehta seeking protection for the Taj from air pollution. The Court had given a clear roadmap then by issuing various directions; today, more than 35 years later, we find the city still grappling with the label of one of the most polluted cities in the world, and prepping its iconic landmark for the imminent VIP visit with Band-Aid fixes again.
Water for the Yamuna
Perhaps somewhat bizarre even by our standards of trying to get the house in order for guests is the release of 500 cusecs of water into the Yamuna river from the Ganganahar in Bulandshahr by the UP Irrigation Department. This has been done purportedly to improve the river’s “environmental condition,” something that we haven’t been able to do in years despite pressure from environmentalists and green courts. This sudden infusion of water ahead of the US President’s visit will still not do anything for the river ecology or potability of its water, but it is expected to reduce the stink as Trump comes home.
The pollution of the Yamuna has been a cause of national concern for over two decades, as the river and its floodplains have been prey to dumping of sewage and industrial effluents and rampant encroachment. Successive governments and authorities entrusted with cleaning the river have been able to make little headway in cleaning the river, as recent data collected by the CPCB and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) shows that the water quality has only become ‘critically worse’ in the last five years.
In summary, therefore, a lot of what has been done in view of the Trump visit commencing today, (and has earned a fair share of scorn from detractors), would have been completely unnecessary if we had well thought-out strategies to solve the festering civic problems in our cities, along with efficient implementation and governance. Not surprisingly, citizens have raised questions over how a city (Ahmedabad), which has been unable to meet residents’ demand for basic amenities, is now spending crores on beautification of pockets to be visited by the President.
There can really be only one explanation: we just don’t care for our cities as much as we care about creating an impression for Mr Donald Trump.