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Watch out! Development coming up behind you

Grace Boyle

I had a very strange journey to work this morning. I walked out of my apartment in Bangalore, along the pavement at the side of the road, and to the cab rank where the autos were all in a neat row, out of the way of other traffic in an area designated by painted lines. I saw three (different) traffic policemen before I reached the bus stop. I was stunned.

Bangalore is changing incredibly rapidly. When I first came here a year ago, even the road I work on – an upmarket residential street in the centre of town – was made of cement lumps and potholes. Now, the spread of thick glossy tarmac, streetlights and shiny air-con buses across the city is so fast you can go away for the weekend and be startled by the changes when you come back. (Ironically, each slick new glass and chrome building is constructed by poor migrant workers, men and women with no shoes and not much choice, whose children live on the building sites with them as they move from project to project).

Of course, these changes haven’t made it too polished. It’s still India. I was still very nearly run over by a car reversing the full length of the wrong side of the road this morning (perhaps this could work as a double negative?), and the bus braked so hard that a couple of people fell on the floor, but I quite like that. It makes the journey to work kind of a jungle gym for body and mind. A friend from New York who used to live here would lament that it was impossible to switch off in Bangalore, because you could never predict exactly how much a journey would cost, how long it would take, or if you would put your leg through a hole in the pavement and into a pool of sewage. I like being part of the huge surge of people and traffic, though, a mass so great that you’d better keep an eye out and fit in, or you’ll get swallowed. Such reams and reams of people that often the only way you can be alone is by putting a paper bag over your head and shutting your eyes.

In India, the place where such “development” has really made an impact – and met a lot of criticism for doing so – is Delhi. In preparation for displaying Incredible India in all its neat (and oddly westernised) glory for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, food stalls have been cleared, streets widened and thousands of slum dwellers moved on. India’s Minister of Home Affairs, P. Chidambaram, chose the inauguration of a police station to announce that Delhiites should “seize the opportunity“ of the Commonwealth Games to “change their behavioural pattern,” and “behave as [residents of] an international city.”

Well, London is an international city and its graffiti is well known both for its artistry and its political messaging. Delhi’s walls have remained fairly paint-free to date, but the Commonwealth Games seem to be spurring residents to express their dissent on and around the new infrastructure they feel so ignores the needs of the city’s many poor.  Urban sports!  I saw my favourite one in Dehli at a bus stop near the centre, sprayed in very simple block capitals. The first word was in a different colour, as if the protester had written his initial message in a fit of anger, and then had a pang of guilt and gone back later to augment it. Lurking behind two women in sari waiting blankly for the bus, it read:

SOMETIMES
I WISH THE GAMES WOULD FAIL

Still, I doubt the bus stop will be there for long.

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