Ragpickers and camembert: Delhi’s divisive gentrification

A Delhi ragpicker, 2011. Image: Getty.

Several months ago, I found myself traipsing through India’s capital in search of French cheese. Foolishly I had agreed to supply some for an expat friend’s dinner party.

After several dead-end leads, I ended up in one of the Delhi’s gentrified hotspots. A refuge for the Delhiite intelligentsia in the south of the city, Khan Market is filled with posh brands, swanky jazz bars and artisan coffee houses. And there, in a quaint grocery store filled with olive oils, imported beers and Italian biscuits, I found it: a small selection of camembert and brie. It was priced at around £10.

That, I worked out, was over three times the daily wage of your average Delhiite. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I left the gentrified bubble, walking down the semi cobbled streets towards the nearest metro station. A hundred yards down the road I passed a ragpicker girl dragging a large bag of plastic bottles behind her. She had no shoes, and her hair was matted with filth.

A ragpicker is a waste collector, employed unofficially by the neighbourhood or the local administration to deal with the thousands of tonnes of waste that are dumped onto the streets every day. For their back breaking 12 hour shifts they’ll be paid around £1.50. To buy a soft drink in one of those fancy bars, this girl would have had to work for two days without food. The cheese would have taken her over a week. I felt ashamed for having even considered it.

Say what you want about the social woes of gentrification in the West, it’s nothing compared to Delhi or Mumbai.


Miracles and divisions

Over the last two decades, India’s economy has boomed, in what many commentators have hailed as an economic miracle. Fuelled by tech, textiles, two wheelers and never-ending construction, the great Indian Elephant is finally shaking off the wounds of imperialism and decades of bureaucratic mismanagement to emerge as a global power.

Today India is the fastest growing economy in the world: according to Deutsche Bank research, there are now around 300m middle-class Indians out of a population of 1.3bn. Economic migrants have flocked to the political capital from right across the subcontinent, with Delhi now boasting a population of around 25m: equivalent to around half of England. 

But wealth has never been shared equally in India, and in-between the roar of Delhi’s traffic and grinding poverty of malnourished millions, you’ll find small pockets of absurd gentrification and wealth. In Delhi districts like Khan Market, Lodhi Colony, Meherchand Market and the famous Haus Khas Village, or areas like Bandra and Churchgate in Mumbai, you’ll find a version of India with a distinctive Williamsburg or Shoreditch air: popup stores, craft beers, soy lattes, mac books and fashionably trimmed moustaches galore. It’s true, the gentrification is limited – but what it lacks in size it makes up for in absurdity, given what surrounds it.

In the UK gentrification causes social division – there’s no doubt about that. But house prices aside, just about anyone in London could partake of the wonders of Shoreditch. In Delhi and Mumbai, that just isn’t true.

Make no mistake about it, India has made strong moves to eradicate poverty. In 2015, 12.4 per cent of the population – 170m people – lived below the poverty line, defined as $1.90 a day. That sounds like a lot, but it’s down from a staggering 45.3 per cent as recently as 1993.

But the fact remains that, in Delhi, young professionals in search of a bit of edge can escape into another world – one which the street cleaner outsider will never in their wildest dreams be able to enter. 

Will Brown tweets as @_will_brown.

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Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.