Even as Delhi is dressed up as never before, massive security measures will turn the city into a virtual fortress for the weekend summit with tens of thousands of police, paramilitary and commandos deployed along its streets, borders and at hotels that will house presidents and prime ministers. Anti-drone systems will deter aerial threats.
During its G20 presidency, India has tried to boost its global stature and authorities want the city of over 20 million to showcase a rising power.
Earlier this year, Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, Vinai Kumar Saxena, said the G20 summit was an opportunity to show “the best face of India.”
The summit meeting will be held at a revamped convention and exhibition center, named Bharat Mandapam, in the heart of New Delhi. Thousands of potted plants and flowers bedeck sidewalks along roads that VIP motorcades will zip by.
Cutouts of large monkeys called “langurs” have been installed to scare away smaller monkeys, a routine menace in the city. Workers are dowsing mosquito breeding sites with insecticides in a city where dengue cases have been reported in recent months.
The “beautification” drive, that carries a price tag of millions of dollars, is not without controversy.
Several demolition drives in recent months have bulldozed shanties, displacing hundreds of low-income workers. Authorities have denied any link between the demolitions and the G-20 summit, and said they were carried out against “illegal encroachers.” The government said they will help those who lost their homes.
But rights activists point out that these tenements had existed for decades.
“It is an attempt to conceal the poverty that is visible — that is why there was a frenzy of demolitions,” said Harsh Mander, a prominent rights activist. “That is because these shanties are a reminder of the fact that in the midst of India’s economic growth, huge levels of poverty persist. It is a sanitized version of the city that is being projected.”
The city’s homeless who live under bridges and sleep on footpaths have been shifted to shelter homes, according to local media.
Many pavement vendors who plied their trade along major roads have been moved to inner lanes. The opposition Congress Party has demanded financial compensation for street vendors, weekly market traders and others whose livelihoods will be affected by the summit restrictions.
“Since the last two days, I was asked to set up my cart in a lane about 150 meters away from the main road. But customers don’t come inside,” said Devki Nandan Pant, a street vendor who sells “kulfi”, an Indian version of ice cream in a South Delhi neighborhood. “It is creating a lot of hardship for people like us.”
Delhi’s usually crowded streets will be largely silent around the G20 venue with stringent traffic restrictions making it out of bounds for most citizens. Major markets in the vicinity of the convention center, schools and colleges have also been ordered shut from Friday. Offices have been told to work from home.
Many residents are simply leaving the city, choosing to take a break rather than navigate the restrictions.
New Delhi resident Vishaka Talreja took a flight on Wednesday to Kashmir with her family. “Everything will be shut down including food deliveries, so what would we do in the city? We left today itself because I thought it is better to leave before airport security etc. also becomes very stringent or flights get cancelled.”
The grand showcasing of the G20 summit is not just meant to underline India’s ambitions as a rising power, which wants to emerge as the voice of what it calls the “Global South” or developing countries.
It is also expected to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a boost domestically ahead of next year’s general elections. India’s G20 logo features a lotus, the symbol of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — posters have been plastered along roads, not just in Delhi, but in other cities that hosted a series of G20 events in the past year.
Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai pointed out that G20 summits, whose presidency rotates between members, have been held for many years but have never been scaled up to the level as they have been under India’s presidency.
“Among Modi’s biggest backers are the great Indian middle class and urban India. For them, this grand showcasing and fanfare projects the image that we have arrived on the international high table. So, taking the G20 summit from a somewhat routine event to a high profile one does yield political dividends domestically also,” he said.