The year was 1775. Grigory Potemkin – the military leader and a minister of the Russian Empire was at his most fragile. He had been recently appointed the Governor of the annexed region of New Russia. The province was devastated by war and its inhabitants—the Tatar people who harboured sentiments of animosity and disgust towards the Russians.
A humongous and intricate task of re-building New Russia and pacifying its people was ahead of Potemkin. But his consternations did not particularly emerge from these political errands. His reasons were more human than that, and certainly more primal. Potemkin was in love. He was in love with the then Empress of Russia Catherine II, who, to add to Potemkin’s amorous and political anxieties, had just overthrown her husband Peter III in a coup d’etat to seize power.
In 1787, months before another war was to break out between the Russian and the Ottoman empires, Catherine II planned a trip to New Russia. Accompanied by several noblemen and ambassadors from ally kingdoms, the visit was aimed at impressing the friends of the Russians by flaunting the prosperity and peace in the newly annexed region. As is usual with all monarchs, such a trip was unprecedented. It was rare for Catherine the Great (as she was known) to step out of the royal comforts and see her subjects. Yes, the kingdom was unhappy, starving, and there were whispers of rebellion, but the queen would rather indulge in her lavish life than step in filth.
The queen and her guests were to take a boat ride down the Dnieper River to have a panoramic view of the villages on either side and the terrible condition of her kingdom was not something Potemkin wanted the Queen to see. Having failed miserably at his political task and in a desperate need to impress his heartthrob, Potemkin devised an ingenious method of impressing the Empress and her elite guests. He ordered fake villages to be constructed alongside the river. Huts, bonfires, farms, barns and other buildings were modelled as empty shells and soldiers dressed as happy subjects added life to the theatrics. Historians disagree on whether Potemkin was successful in fooling the Queen with his tricks. Some say he did, others opine that Catherine II was an accomplice to the debauchery and the purpose was to fool the ambassadors. Potemkin did stay Catherine II’s lover throughout her life and went on to receive several titles and ranks.
Let us come back to India, and the year 2020. Following the novel ritual of bringing foreign dignitaries to Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi will be accompanying the American President Donald Trump for a visit to the city of Ahmedabad on February 24.
As sections of the border wall that Trump rallied behind throughout his presidential campaign fall off in some places and artists intervene in the steel fence along the Mexico border with provocative installations, the leader of the free world is in for a more opaque wall - the one that has been built along the road connecting the Ahmedabad Airport to Motera Stadium – the route that the royal convoy is scheduled to take.
According to reports, the 600-metre-long wall shields a slum that is home to over 2,500 people from the sight of Donald Trump, lest he sees the grave crisis of housing and poverty that we as a country are facing.
According to some more recent news, some 45 households of the informal settlement have been given eviction notices. The residents who have been living in the area for a decade are mostly tribal workers who migrate from places like Dahod in Gujarat, and Jhabua and Banswara in the neighbouring states. Majdur Adhikar Manch, an organisation of informal workers, organised a public meeting on February 20 in Ahmedabad and also submitted a memorandum to the Commissioner of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in protest.
These slums, or informal settlements, or shanties dot the vast expanses of not just Motera or Ahmedabad, but all of the Indian cities. Rapid urbanisation and a steep disparity between rural and urban economic growth have created a situation where, as per the latest census, one in every six urban Indians lives in slums. Researches show that a daily-wage worker in a city earns more than twice that of a worker in rural areas. As a result, the slum population is largely comprised of migrant workers who come to the city from nearby towns and villages in search of work. Displaced people – refugees of events such as riots and development projects are also forced into such living conditions. Various governments of the country, throughout its history, have failed at providing housing to their people. As surveys estimate a whopping 40.76% urban population to be in India by 2030, we are still running short of providing housing for all.
The wall hiding the slums at Motera from our guest reads ‘World Largest Democracy meets World Greatest Democracy’ (yes, without the apostrophe). It hides the failure of our government in providing housing to the most underprivileged sections of our society. To add insult to the injury, in the light of the recent upheaval against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the text on the wall blatantly lies about the government’s own attitude and the country’s own condition on the democratic front as well.
While the love between Potemkin and Catherine II blossomed, and their ambassadors were successfully fooled into believing that New Russia was prosperous and peaceful, the kingdom remained poor and war-torn as the monarchs continued to dine on serf labour - triggering several revolts and rebellions during the late eighteenth century. Catherine II ruled with the delusion of her kingdom’s affluence until her death in 1796 and history remembers her and her lover Grigory Potemkin through the stories of their deception.
What we see in Ahmedabad today in the form of a seven-foot-high wall is a hollow political construct devised to provide a fake facade to our crumbing housing infrastructure, is known as Potemkin effect in economics and politics. There have been many ‘Potemkin Villages’ across the world – across the skyline of countries like North Korea, the USSR and Nazi Germany. While chasing the dream of being a ‘superpower’, India joins the list in 2020.
(Views expressed are personal)