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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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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