Sun, Oct 03, 2010 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Village prepares to be ‘face of modern India’

CHARM:A community 50km from New Delhi tidied up before visits by Commonwealth Games athletes and tourists, but not everybody is happy

The Guardian, SULTANPUR, India

Manoj Kumar, the head of Sultanpur village, strode through its narrow streets.

“I want it really clean,” he bellowed in guttural Hindi at a sweeper lifting muck from a drain.

The man redoubled his efforts, sweating in the early morning sun.

Sultanpur, in northern India, is expecting great things this week. The 300 families in the community, set amid green rice and sugarcane fields about 50km northeast of New Delhi, are looking forward to what will be their first Western guests.

The village is being promoted as “the face of modern India” to tourists and athletes here for the Commonwealth Games, which open today with a spectacular three-hour ceremony in New Delhi featuring a celebration of Indian rural life.

“If they visit our village, our children will learn good things from them and be inspired, we will welcome them as guests and they will have an idea of the real India,” Kumar said. “All the houses are now very clean inside and out because no one knows which one the foreigners will want to visit.”

The scheme is the brainchild of Zuhair Sabir, a bureaucrat charged with developing the area around Sultanpur.

“Tourists are interested in the Taj Mahal and the historical things but there is another side to India that they should see,” Sabir said. “India is developing so fast. India is taking off. In spite of all the problems, India is fast moving forward.”

The villagers are enthusiastic, claiming that Sultanpur can be reached in 20 minutes from New Delhi “if you know the right roads,” though it took the Guardian almost two hours to negotiate traffic, potholes, buffalo carts and unsignposted lanes.

“When they come, we will give them sugarcane and juice,” said Chowdry Rajpal Singh, 72, a farmer in the village.

Sultanpur is not entirely typical of the half-million villages in India. It is fully connected to the electric grid and has new concrete roads. Most houses even have outdoor toilets — unlike 70 percent of the rural population. There are three primary schools and a secondary school.

“We are a very modern village,” Kumar said.

As for the Games themselves, the villagers’ views vary. The elderly Singh confessed to being more interested in local sports, such as kabaddi, a rough-and-tumble team game. Kamel Pal, 30, said he had never heard of the Games, prompting a sharp reprimand from Kumar.

Others are not enthused either by the Games or by the prospect of visitors. In crowded — albeit now clean and concreted — lanes in the center of the village live those on the lowest rung of India’s ancient social hierarchy, the so-called dalits or “untouchables.” It is unlikely that visitors will see this face of modern India.

Kumar and the other wealthy farmers are from the “higher” jat caste. The dalits work on their fields for about 100 rupees (US$2.20) a day and complain of systematic discrimination.

“Our children cannot go to the same school as the other caste children and we are not allowed to use the same wells as they use,” Rajwati, 65, said.

“They decide themselves who will get work and the state benefits,” said Sheesh Pal, a 30-year-old laborer. “We cannot even share the charpoy [rope bed] with the higher caste men. We sit on the floor.”

Sabir admitted caste discrimination was a problem but said that government initiatives were improving the situation.

The question of which side of modern India visitors to Sultanpur see may be academic. Serious flooding and a lack of funds have meant that publicity and luxury coaches have not yet been organized.

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