As the world’s most powerful leaders descend on New Delhi for the Group of 20 summit, India is pulling out all the stops, deploying fighter jets around the capital, painting murals on underpasses and chasing away packs of monkeys from government buildings.
(Bloomberg) — As the world’s most powerful leaders descend on New Delhi for the Group of 20 summit, India is pulling out all the stops, deploying fighter jets around the capital, painting murals on underpasses and chasing away packs of monkeys from government buildings.
The moment is a long-awaited milestone for India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is selling the world’s most-populous nation as an emerging superpower with the clout to navigate geopolitical tensions, economic slowdowns and rising food and energy prices. Over the weekend, he’ll test that thesis by welcoming US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and other heads-of-state for one of the most important global gatherings of the year.
But pulling off a successful G-20 summit is about more than smart diplomacy. For months, Indian officials have plotted out the best way to fortify Delhi, a cramped and polluted city of more than 20 million people, where the crumbling beauty of ancient Mughal-era forts borders pot-holed highways jammed with buses, cars and rickshaws.
At the heart of the project is locking down New Delhi, the city’s small bureaucratic center, where the summit will take place Saturday and Sunday. The 16.5 square-mile area (enough to fill three-quarters of Manhattan) is known for its acres of manicured parks, sandstone monuments and stately bungalows for India’s elite.
To ease traffic, the authorities have ordered schools, banks, most private businesses and all government departments to remain shut. Borders to neighboring states will also be sealed, and over 100,000 police and security personnel are expected to patrol the streets.
Among the tools at their disposal: heavy artillery, advanced AI-based cameras, jamming devices and sniffer dogs.
“There’s a tremendous amount at stake for Modi with this G-20 summit,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
Read: Modi Turns G-20 Summit Into Not-So-Subtle India Election Kickoff
Delhi’s history spans empires and has survived some of the subcontinent’s most monumental inflection points, from the fallout of Partition to deadly religious riots. The police are keen to quell the city’s activist bent and prevent protests around hot topics in India, including ethnic violence in the northeastern state of Manipur and communal clashes in some towns neighboring the capital region.
Ultimately, carrying out a successful summit could boost Modi’s reputation as a competent administrator. It may also bolster his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s chances in five looming state elections this year and a national vote expected by next summer.
“New Delhi takes its presidency extremely seriously, and it has linked it not only to core national interests and foreign policy objectives, but also, even if indirectly, to domestic politics,” Kugelman said.
The location for this year’s G-20 summit is as grand as they come. The world leaders will meet in a refurbished convention and exhibition center that’s larger than Australia’s Sydney Opera House and was designed by the international firm Aedas, which created Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. The entire renovation took four and a half years at a cost of 27 billion rupees ($326 million).
Reminders of the summit are everywhere in Delhi. Posters depicting Modi and the G-20 logo line the roads. Sculptures, fountains and flowers decorate roundabouts, and officials have strung lights on trees to illuminate them at night. Gray, drab flyovers and railway bridges have gotten similarly colorful makeovers, with murals depicting Hindu gods and different dance and crafts traditions.
The Indian authorities are also attempting to push less vaunted wildlife out of view. To scare away thousands of small monkeys that hang out near government offices and steal food from pedestrians, officials have dotted the sidewalks with life-sized cut-outs of the larger, black-faced langur species.
The G-20 summit is one of the highest-profile international events New Delhi has hosted in years. It’s also an opportunity to push past governance missteps further from memory, including one from 2010, when the capital hosted the Commonwealth Games. Among several issues, officials were accused of corruption in how they chose firms to provide sporting equipment and of using child labor to build facilities.
Ahead of the G-20, the authorities seem to have considered every conceivable safety risk, sketching out rules for the most obscure of details. Until Sept. 12, hot air balloons are banned from sailing above the city, one order from the Delhi police reads. Another prohibits paragliding.
India’s security apparatus is robust: To protect visiting leaders, the armed forces will deploy commandos, snipers, bomb disposal squads, explosive detection teams, anti-drone technology, a “quick reaction” crew for chemical and nuclear threats, long range surveillance aircraft, and fighter jets, according to people familiar with the plans.
“To contain protests and gatherings, multiple domestic agencies are giving us real time information,” Dependra Pathak, Delhi’s special police commissioner for law and order, said in an interview.
By Friday, access to New Delhi will be particularly difficult. Though the city’s metro will continue to run, traffic police will prohibit most other travel near parliament and government ministries. The restrictions will effectively seal off the area, where elite G-20 guests are mostly populating five-star hotels.
Ahead of the summit, Modi apologized to Delhi’s residents for the inconvenience of so many restrictions. But for many Indians, the G-20 summit, though abstract in its goals, is more exciting evidence that the country is an unmissable shaper of world affairs.
“The hosting of the G-20 summit is a responsibility of the entire country,” Modi said in a speech late last month. “We need to show the world that Delhi can handle this responsibility without any glitches.”
–With assistance from Sudhi Ranjan Sen.
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