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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17 things the proposed “Tulip” skyscraper that London mayor Sadiq Khan just scrapped definitely resembled

Artist's impression. See if you can guess which one The Tulip is. Image: Foster + Partners.

Sadiq Khan has scrapped plans to build a massive glass thing in the City of London, on the grounds it would knacker London’s skyline. The “Tulip” would have been a narrow, 300m skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, with a viewing platform at the top. Following the mayor’s intervention, it now won’t be anything of the sort.

This may be no bad thing. For one thing, a lot of very important and clever people have been noisily unconvinced by the design. Take this statement from Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, from earlier this year: “This building, a lift shaft with a bulge on top, would damage the very thing its developers claim they will deliver – tourism and views of London’s extraordinary heritage.”

More to the point, the design was just bloody silly. Here are some other things that, if it had been built, the Tulip would definitely have looked like.

1. A matchstick.

2. A drumstick.

3. A cotton ear bud.

4. A mystical staff, of the sort that might be wielded by Gandalf the Grey.

5. A giant spring onion.

6. A can of deodorant, from one of the brands whose cans are seemingly deliberately designed in such a way so as to remind male shoppers of the fact that they have a penis.

7. A device for unblocking a drain.

8. One of those lights that’s meant to resemble a candle.

9. A swab stick, of the sort sometimes used at sexual health clinics, in close proximity to somebody’s penis.

10.  A nearly finished lollipop.

11. Something a child would make from a pipe cleaner in art class, which you then have to pretend to be impressed by and keep on show for the next six months.

12. An arcology, of the sort seen in classic video game SimCity 2000.

13. Something you would order online and then pray will arrive in unmarked packaging.

14. The part of the male anatomy that the thing you are ordering online is meant to be a more impressive replica of.

15. A building that appears on the London skyline in the Star Trek franchise, in an attempt to communicate that we are looking at the FUTURE.


14a. Sorry, the one before last was a bit vague. What I actually meant was: a penis.

16. A long thin tube with a confusing bulbous bit on the end.

17. A stamen. Which, for avoidance of doubt, is a plant’s penis.

One thing it definitely does not resemble:

A sodding tulip.

Anyway, it’s bad, and it’s good the mayor has blocked it.

That’s it, that’s the take.

(Thanks to Anoosh Chakelian, Jasper Jackson, Patrick Maguire for helping me get to 17.)

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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