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Avatars in India

The Guardian, Comment is free
12 January 2010

Visiting friends in Delhi, I found the local media celebrating India’s performance at Copenhagen, from which it had emerged unburdened by the slightest commitment to reducing carbon emissions. This “climate nationalism” seemed particularly grotesque given that north India’s river systems are threatened by receding Himalayan glaciers and its coastal areas by inundation. The front pages were eagerly looking forward to the resumption of 9% yearly GDP growth, while you had to look hard for reports of the 18% rise in the price of pulses – a traumatic development for the several hundred million who already live on the brink of malnutrition.

The highlight of my visit was supposed to be a cricket match, a one-day international between India and Sri Lanka at the recently rebuilt Feroz Shah Kotla ground. The teams boasted two attractive batting line-ups and there were a number of in-form Delhi lads – Sehwag, Gambir and Kohli – which promised to add local spice to the occasion.

I was curious to see the new Kotla. For decades, the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) had been a byword for factionalism and incompetence. Its assets were tied up in the courts for years as various cliques sued and countersued each other. The Kotla was a mess: raggedy terraces, rickety benches, barbed wire fences, primitive facilities. The capital of cricket’s capital (though Mumbai has much the greater cricket pedigree) lacked a fitting stadium. Finally, I was told, that had been remedied.

The new stadium seats several times the capacity of the old, but it’s hard to find anything else positive to say about this concrete oval bereft of the slightest architectural distinction. It is very much of a piece with the current phase of Delhi’s endless makeover. The city is girdled in vast swathes of cement, with new flyovers leapfrogging the diminished inhabitants. Much of this is in preparation for the Commonwealth games later this year, promoted as a big chance for India to shine on the global stage (not so much as a competitor, but as a host). It’s been a boon for the notoriously corrupt construction industry, whose indifference to workers’ safety is legendary. It’s something altogether darker for the poor who are displaced to make way for temporary showpieces.

These days much of Delhi’s built environment feels stark and oppressive. It is pedestrian-unfriendly in the extreme.Still, the long queues outside the ground were patient. Their admission was slowed by a security process worthy of an international airport. Spectators were searched. No bags were permitted, nor were food or drink. Since food and drink were on sale inside the ground this policy seemed to be about something other than security. At least in the old Kotla you could bring in your packed lunch and a flask of tea.

Our seats costs Rs500 each (£7), the cheapest available. That may sound like a steal, but in India it represents a serious investment. To put it in context, it takes a cashier at a Delhi McDonald’s 36 hours to earn the price of a ticket to the Kotla. It takes a cashier in a London McDonald’s ten hours to earn the price of a ticket to Lord’s.

Our Rs500 entitled us to seats in the back of the lower tier, square to the wicket. From here, and indeed from much of the ground, there was no view of the scoreboard and no information about the state of the game. Ever tried to follow a cricket match with no way of telling the score? Spectators called friends watching at home to find out what was going on.

As it transpired, none of this mattered because in the 23rd over – with Sri Lanka already five wickets down and the ball rising off a length – the pitch was declared unfit for play and the match was abandoned.

A small section of the crowd vented their discontent by throwing paper and plastic on the field. Some then marched off to the nearby offices of the Times of India to chant slogans and have their pictures taken. But the great majority sloped off fatalistically, resigned to being let down once again by Delhi’s cricket big shots.

For an international match to be abandoned because of an unfit pitch is a rarity and a clear dereliction of the host’s most basic duty. The papers the next day called the affair a “national disgrace”. It was certainly a monumental embarrassment for the Delhi and District Cricket Association, and by reflection the BCCI. It seems that the pitch had been recently relaid and then introduced into international competition untested, without so much as an over bowled on it.

The whole farce – with the DDCA true to form, despite the hype – felt like a metaphor for India today. At huge cost, a vast concrete superstructure was erected while the little patch of earth on which the whole enterprise rested was neglected. The soil had been taken for granted, and the soil had its revenge.

Having been denied the cricket, we sought relief at the cinema, where (after another security check) we enjoyed an afternoon screening of Avatar, whose title comes from the Sanskrit word for successive reincarnations. Even without the 3D, the film proved an engrossing and often vertiginous spectacle; it works because it has faith in its simple story line. In a future world, a recklessly greedy corporation and its brutal, state-of-the-art military wing plot to seize a valuable mineral resource from under an indigenous people living in harmony with nature. The allusions in the film to the history of our own times are obvious: the “war on terror” and most of all the western conquest of the Americas, Australia and Africa.

But sitting in a Delhi cinema what this anti-imperial, anti-corporate, eco-conscious fable most suggested was Operation Green Hunt, the rubric for the Indian government’s current military offensive against the Maoist-led tribal insurgents who control significant swathes of territory in the heavily forested belt running from West Bengal and Bihar in the north to Andhra Pradesh in the south. Prime minister Manmohan Singh has identified the tribal rebels as the “biggest internal security threat” facing the country – bigger even, it seems, than the separatist struggles in Kashmir and the north-east, or the terrorist attacks from Islamist and Hindu supremacist elements.

Like “the people” in Avatar, the tribals (adivasis) are sitting on mountains of valuable minerals – iron, bauxite, coal – not to mention timber and water. Corporations want access to these resources, and the state sees its job as providing that access, even if it means the displacement of millions of people and the destruction of their economy and culture. As with the climate crisis, the national interest has been closely and uncritically identified with private corporate interests. Resistance of any kind is dubbed “anti-national”.

Conscious and compassionate citizens who oppose the state’s offensive without in any way supporting the Maoists are denounced as terrorists and subject to harassment. Human rights violations proliferate. In Operation Green Hunt, there’s little inducement for the police or military to distinguish civilians from combatants. Historian Romilla Thapar noted the repetition of “the pattern that was followed all over the colonial world in North America, Australia, and Africa. Are we now internalising a colonial history to repeat it on our own citizens?”

In Cameron’s film the innocent, long-faced, narrow-waisted blue people win the day – with the help of some “self-hating” humans and, crucially, the planet itself, as all its creatures mobilise in solidarity against the human invader. We should be so lucky.