G20 summit and the lotus-eaters 

The two-day extravaganza was and expensive advertising blitzkrieg to inflate the image of PM Modi as an elder statesman, with the G20 logo for the summit displaying the lotus, the BJP's symbol

G20 leaders arrive at Raj Ghat to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi on the concluding day of the summit in New Delhi.
G20 leaders arrive at Raj Ghat to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi on the concluding day of the summit in New Delhi.

Sarosh Bana

The just-concluded G20 Summit in New Delhi was ‘organisationally’ successful. The marketing of the summit, we are told, was necessary because diplomacy in the 21st century needs branding.

The summit can also be said to have been successful because it adroitly glossed over the dismal, even desperate situation on the ground to make lofty commitments articulated in the 83-paragraph ‘New Delhi Declaration’.

The two-day extravaganza was rightly perceived as an elaborate—and expensive— advertising blitzkrieg to inflate the image of Prime Minister Modi as an elder statesman and to cast India as the ‘vishwaguru’ (guide to the world). It was also part of the build-up to the 2024 general elections, with the G20 logo for the summit displaying the lotus, the symbol of the BJP.

“The present government is deriving political mileage from the international event as no government has done before,” remonstrated Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. Newslaundry found Modi’s portraits adorning 236 of the 963 promotional installations along the 12-km-stretch between Indira Gandhi International Airport and the luxury hotels where leaders were put up.

The installations, which included billboards, flexiboards, banners, digital panels, art works and liveries, were everywhere from public toilets to petrol pumps, bus-stops to banyan trees, the façade of a metro station to flyovers and fences, reported the media outlet.

The cost of staging the event is still being computed although people have pounced on the figure of Rs 4,100 crore reportedly spent on sprucing up a small part of New Delhi, the Pragati Maidan and roads leading up to it, as well as the monuments. G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant informed a news channel this week that expenses were “still being compiled by our Logistics Division”.

Kant dismissed the Rs 4,100 crore estimate of the Trinamool Congress’s national spokesperson, Saket Gokhale. In a tweet, Gokhale had claimed the figure was 300 per cent (Rs 3,110 crore) over the Rs 990 crore allocated for the G20 Summit in the last Union Budget. It is doubtful, however, if the cumulative expenditure including the cost of hosting as many as 220 G20 events across 70 cities this year will ever be known.

The theme of India’s G20 presidency—‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The world is one family) One Earth, One Family, One Future’—rang hollow in view of ground realities. The sight of G20 leaders praying at Raj Ghat with PM Modi leading the prayer and the mandatory lip service to peace only served to underscore the hypocrisies of a government that has played deaf, blind and dumb to endemic hate and violence.

The 37-page Declaration, which reads like a constitution complete with a preamble, repeated what has been said so often in the past. ‘We, the leaders of the G20… meet at a defining moment in history where decisions we make now will determine the future of our people and our planet.

It is with the philosophy of living in harmony with our surrounding ecosystem that we commit to concrete actions to address global challenges.’ Empty words in the Indian context, where society is increasingly riven by ideological and religious extremism, human rights abuses, targeting of dissidents, income inequality, mounting joblessness, economic displacement, discriminatory policies and oppressive inflation that has rendered even staple food unaffordable to the poor.

‘Attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred in various Indian states,’ noted US state department’s Office of International Religious Freedom in its 2022 India report. US President Joe Biden, denied access to the media while in India, spoke to the media after reaching Vietnam, possibly to not embarrass his G20 host. “As I always do, I raised the importance of respecting human rights and the vital role civil society and free press have in building a strong and prosperous country with Modi,” Biden said.

A hunger-infested India repotedly splurged a whopping Rs 4,100 crore on the G20 extravaganza. (Photo: Getty Images)
A hunger-infested India repotedly splurged a whopping Rs 4,100 crore on the G20 extravaganza. (Photo: Getty Images)

Even as the Declaration duly registered ‘deep concern for human suffering’, the hosts—in their anxiety to showcase a pristine India to visiting dignitaries—despatched armies of workers and bulldozers in the runup to the summit to evict some of New Delhi’s poorest residents and tear down their dwellings in the name of ‘beautification drives’ and ‘clearing of encroachments’. Some of these demolitions were reportedly for clearing routes while others were to facilitate heritage walks for the G20 delegates.

What was also inhuman was the savage rounding up of stray dogs that were garrotted with metal collars, muzzled and hauled away, howling and yelping. The movement of ordinary people was curtailed by an unprecedented shutdown and seven-tier security involving 10,000 personnel, hundreds of CCTV cameras and drones. Ubiquitous road-blocks, overwhelming police presence, snipers stationed on top of buildings, including the Supreme Court, and 69 explosive detection dogs were deployed.

At least 160 domestic flights and more than 200 train services were cancelled during the two-day summit. Even as the G20 Summit was being held came the news of two infants in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, less than 100 kms from the financial capital of Mumbai, dying of malnutrition. The tragedy of these deaths was only heightened by the meaningless rhetoric of the Declaration that pledged to eliminate hunger and malnutrition and ensure access to affordable, nutritious and healthy diets.

Crippling inflation and extortionist taxation has devastated lives and livelihoods across the land. As Goods and Services Tax (GST) revenue rose 11 per cent to Rs 1.65 lakh crore in July, inflation reached a 15-month high of 7.44 per cent and food price inflation surged 11.51 per cent. Frequent hikes in petrol and diesel prices have only compounded the pain. Launched in 2017, the GST is estimated to have destroyed five million small businesses and decimated a fifth of the profits of 21 million others, hitting traditional craftsmen and artisans particularly hard.

The demonetisation of high currency notes undertaken a year earlier had already ruined millions. Even as Prime Minister Modi was being portrayed as the ‘voice of the Global South’, could the dignitaries have failed to notice the misplaced priorities and divisive hyper-nationalist politics which has seen India slipping precipitously on most human development indices since 2014?

The Global Hunger Index 2022 ranks India 107 out of 121 countries, behind Sri Lanka (64), Nepal (81), Bangladesh (84) and Pakistan (99). With a score of 29.1, India has hunger levels estimated as ‘serious’ with 224.3 million people, out of 828 million globally, who are considered undernourished.

While the G20 Declaration pledged to ‘accelerate strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth’, a recent Oxfam India report, Survival of the Richest: The India Story, found that 5 per cent of Indians enjoyed more than 60 per cent of the national wealth. The report added that 40 per cent of the wealth created in India between 2012 and 2021 flowed to just 1 per cent of the population, and the number of billionaires soared from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022.

Among all the emerging economies, India accounts for the highest number of poor (identified as those living on less than Rs 150 or USD 1.13 a day). More than 230 million Indians—16 per cent of the population—still experience poverty, per a UNDP report.

Since commitments do not cost much, the Declaration was ‘committed to inclusive, equitable, high-quality education and skills training for all, including for those in vulnerable situations’. It is a different matter that the government informed Parliament in February that “As many as 12,53,019 children across the country are out of school in the year 2022–23, with the number of boys greater than girls.”

The Declaration’s deathless prose also swore to ‘close gender gaps and promote the full, equal, effective and meaningful participation of women in the economy as decision-makers’. The document dutifully emphasised ‘the importance of healthy ecosystems in addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, drought, land degradation, pollution, food insecurity and water scarcity.’

The grim reality in the country, however, is that crimes against women have increased, more and more women are dropping out of the labour market or have ceased to look for work. The ill-advised expansion of highways and hydel plants in the hills has devastated the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Trees are being felled indiscriminately and environmental clearances have become ridiculously fast-tracked and green-lighted.

By passing the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021, and the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively, the government clipped regulatory powers enshrined in their parent laws, the Biological Diversity Act (BDA), 2002 and the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980. Jairam Ramesh, a former Union environment minister, observed that the legislations were pushed through in the absence of the entire Opposition, which was boycotting Parliament on demands that the Prime Minister break his silence on the Manipur crisis.

The new FCA revokes the protection previously accorded to ‘deemed forests’, thereby opening up a fourth of the nation’s forests to urbanisation, mining, polluting industries, and infrastructure development. This may also prevent millions of tribals and other forest-dwelling communities from securing their rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

The new law also allows permanent security establishments to come up in forested areas. The amended BDA disables criminal prosecution of violators. Besides, the National Biodiversity Authority will no longer be an autonomous regulator as it will now comprise 16 central government officials and four officials from state biodiversity boards. India’s year-long presidency of G20 ends in November and Brazil becomes G20 President on 1 December.

Prime Minister Modi is so keen for a last hurrah that he has proposed a virtual summit in November to assess the recommendations and resolutions put forth during the New Delhi Summit. To what end all the hype and hoopla.

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