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.