AHMEDABAD, Gujarat — “What will I say to Trump? They have made a wall to block us from his view. It is Trump who does not want to see us,” said Kaisi ben, a resident of Saraniyavaas slum in Ahmedabad, the evening before U.S. President Donald Trump was scheduled to land in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat for his first official trip to India.
“They think we are rubbish on the road. They can just throw us here and there,” said the 65-year-old woman, as her friends and relatives urged her to carry on speaking on their behalf.
The poor residents of Saraniyavaas, living in cramped quarters without proper access to proper sanitation, would have much rather the government build them more toilets and taps for running water. Instead, the Gujarat state government has constructed a six feet cement wall to block them from view when Trump’s cavalcade crosses them later today en route to the Motera stadium, the largest in the world, where the Namaste Trump event will take place.
The now infamous wall and the greens meshing used to conceal the poor is a tragic, a sadly comical, reminder of the inequality that plagues India despite its growth over the past two decades. The 2019 United Nations’ Human Development Report said that income inequality in India worsened between 2000 and 2007, and is now only second to Russia. Prime Minister Modi has vowed to end the scourge of poor sanitation when he came to power in 2014, but the women in this slum in the capital city of his home state say they still have to bathe in the river.
The residents of Saraniyavaas said they don’t mind the wall, especially if it stops their children from running on to the busy road that runs parallel to where they live. What they do mind is made to feel — in words of Kaisi ben — is being made to feel like “rubbish.”
In addition to building the wall, the state government run by the Bharatiya Janata Party has demolished the shanties that had mushroomed on the side of the road over the years.
“What is the point of celebrating rich and powerful when you show no respect to your own people. How does it matter if we are poor? Trump should see us and we should see him,” she said. “Progress can only happen with real development, not by putting up grand shows.”
Kaisi ben said that on the day her shanty was demolished by the local police, she was away to mourn a death in her extended family. Her daughter was out for the day, washing dishes to earn money. Her three sons who wash dishes, pull rickshaws and sharpen knives to make a living, were also out.
When they returned in the evening, the shanty and its few possessions were gone.
Now, Kaisi ben has to sleep with 12 of her family members in a small house that barely has space for two people.
When it is time to sleep, some of them have no choice but to lie down in the narrow bylanes where they bathe, wash their own dishes and sometimes even cook during the day.
Kaisi ben said, “Honestly, I’m not angry. I feel sad. Did the police speak to us before demolishing our shanties. Did they say, ‘Look, we have to remove these for a few days, but don’t worry.’ No. They can do as they please because we are poor. That is what makes me sad.”
The residents of Saraniyavaas slum vote for the BJP, which first came to power in Gujarat in 1995. Modi was elected Chief Minister thrice. He was Chief Minister when Gujarat was engulfed in religious violence shortly after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in February 2002. Around 1,000 people were killed in the communal riots, most of them Muslim. The BJP won Gujarat for a sixth time in 2017, but with the smallest margin in the past 22 years.
In Saraniyavaas, people criticise the BJP government and its officials, the lack of basic facilities, but they do not censure Modi.
Kaisi ben said that Modi “putting on a show” more than any prime minister of India that she knew of.
“We are the reason that Modi is in power today. We have always stood by him,” she said. “If he goes forward today, he should take us along with him. If the government had spent on us the money he has spent on Trump’s visit for a few hours, it would be a very different story.”
The Gujarat state government has spent an estimated Rs. 85 crore on Trump’s three-hour long stay in Ahmedabad.
When Kaisi ben was not speaking of Trump and his visit, she spoke of water shortages in the slum, and the fights that ensued every morning and evening when the crowded slum gets running water for 30 minutes.
The residents of Saraniyavaas slum said they used to defecate on the road, but stopped in 2014, when the government made four common toilets for them outside the slum, and then four more in 2019.
But these barely suffice.
Kaisi ben fights for a bucket of water at six in the morning, waits in line for 30 minutes to use a toilet, and then goes to bathe in the river.
For Kaisi ben, who has no peace or privacy even when she performs her ablutions, her shanty was the only place where she could own her space and have her dignity restored.
Even now, when it’s nightfall, she makes her way back to where her shanty stood and goes to sleep under the stars.
“Trump or no Trump, this is my space,” she said.