India’s elites have a ferocious sense of entitlement
A revealing set of US studies has got Urvashi Butalia thinking about how the rich behave in Delhi.
My office is located in an urban village in the heart of Delhi. Originally surrounded by fields where people grew crops, these areas now house apartment blocks and shopping malls. All that’s left of the old village is the cluster of houses in which many of the erstwhile residents live, and where a few small traders have set up offices and shops. Some old practices remain though, and there’s a strong sense of community. Come evening, houses in Shahpur Jat empty as women and children spill out on to the narrow streets where a village haat – a market where you can get fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, eggs, plastic goods and virtually anything else you care to name – springs up. Or at least, that’s how it was until about a year ago. I still remember the day that marked the beginning of the end of this little daily ritual.
It was around 6 o’clock on a late summer day, not yet dusk. As people shopped and went from cart to cart selecting the best and sometimes the cheapest, cars and auto-rickshaws negotiated the narrow gaps between them, taking care to avoid children and animals.
Then along came a large SUV, driven by a young and obviously wealthy man. He honked loudly for people to get out of his way; no-one really bothered. He tried again, he leaned out of the car and shouted, he revved up his car. No effect: the cart standing nearby was doing brisk business, another one went past and gently grazed his car. Suddenly, before anyone could realize what was happening, this young man leapt out, caught hold of the cart laden-with-onions standing in front of his car, tipped it over, spilling its contents on to the road, lifted the heavy metal scales and hurled them at the vendor, who just managed to duck and escape being badly injured. People scurried away, the young man stalked off, climbed unhurriedly into his car and drove off. Since that day, the village market has disappeared, the people are too frightened to come on to the road, children don’t play there and cars can now drive freely down it.
This isn’t an unusual scene in India and it’s not about road rage. It’s about being rich, and the privilege, callousness and arrogance that comes with it. It’s something I’ve always wondered about: the rich have so much, what does this wealth do to their minds that they always want more, they don’t want anyone else to have anything? Indeed, why does wealth make them lose all sense of humanity and compassion?
Let me tell you another story: my neighbour in the upper-middle-class area where I live is a man who owns luxury hotels. His house is huge, but no sooner had he moved in than he appropriated about half of the pavement space to the front and side of his house, claiming it for his own. This means less parking for others, less pavement for children, less walking space for everyone. Of the 400-odd houses in this area, at least half have done this. At the same time they have also collectively seen off the only roadside tea stall in the area that served all the service providers – the guards, the drivers, the domestics, the sweepers.