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India slugfest over Mumbai slum votes

With elections round the corner, political parties train their eyes on filth-ridden slums to woo residents for votes.

Last updated: 12 Mar 2014 08:30
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According to latest data, every second person in Mumbai lives in a slum with minimal amenities [Subhash Sharma/Al Jazeera]

It is election time in India and political parties of every hue are doing everything they can to woo voters.

The Congress party government in the western state of Maharashtra has also followed suit. It has sought to win over more than 6.6 million residents who live in Mumbai's slums by hastily passing a new law that makes families living in more than 400,000 shanty dwellings eligible for free housing.

Roti, kapada and makaan - bread, clothing and housing - have always been the basic issues for the common man in India.

The new Slum Protection Bill is promising housing also to families living in hutments that sprang up between 1995 and 2000.

Though the nobility of the move is not in dispute, the immediate motive is: In Maharashtra's capital city Mumbai - where skyscrapers stand high alongside sprawling areas of impoverishment - slum dwellers play a decisive role in deciding outcomes in each of its nine parliamentary constituencies.

It was therefore no surprise that Maharasthra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan puffed his chest and played to the gallery the day the bill passed into law late last month.

"The fact of the matter is that people want decent homes and better civic amenities," he said. "Our decision to grant protection to pre-2000 slums stems from our eagerness to provide basic amenities - good roads, electricity and
healthcare to the urban poor."

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About 30kms from where Chavan spoke, Sampat Rambhaji Karad shared little of the chief minister's optimism.

Having been relocated from a city slum and rehabilitated in a one-room apartment within a trash-strewn complex in the eastern suburb of Mankhurd under an earlier scheme, Karad has only despondency to keep him company.

Paralysed waist down, Karad is dependent on his wife, Suman. She works as a domestic helper, but earns little and cannot help much. For one, the family has had to move far away from the city hub. "These houses are in the middle of
nowhere. Where do I find work?" she asked.

Owning a flat has meant dwindling income and soaring costs. She earns roughly $35 a month, but $20 goes towards maintenance costs, electricity and water.

In the slum, they would pay about $5 for all of the above.

Ironically, the Karads are mulling giving out the government flat for rent and moving back to a slum in the city, where there is more opportunity. "This scheme is good for people who already have money, not people like us," Suman said.

Slums as political capital

In a city where, according to data from the 2011 national census, every second citizen lives in makeshift housing, introducing concessions for slum dwellers is electoral tradition. Slums make for enormous political capital.

A resettlement flat for Gulabbhai Sheikh has brought him
fresh troubles [Subhash Sharma/Al Jazeera]
 

In 1996, a government led by the right-wing Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) introduced the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, which entitled slum dwellers who had arrived in Mumbai before 1995 to free housing. Chavan's bill
simply extended that to 2000, allowing more people to benefit.

"A significant inflow of people will keep coming to Mumbai and other urban centres until we address the issue of providing livelihoods in rural areas. Extending cut off dates is not a solution, the problem needs to be tackled at the root," said Shailesh Gandhi, an activist and India’s former Central Information Commissioner.

"But who is listening? These are all election gimmicks."

According to the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, for each free flat of roughly 20 square metres a private developer builds for a slum dweller, an equivalent area can be built and sold for profit.

The Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA), a body set up to implement the plan, can begin rehabilitation with the concurrence of 70 percent of slum dwellers.

"Mumbai has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme depends on the milk of human kindness of private builders to ensure low-cost houses for the poor," Gandhi said. "In all these years, the
scheme has failed to make any significant contributions to housing the poor because there is scope for corruption at every step."

According to local reports, less than 13 percent of projects initiated under the scheme have been completed in 17 years.

Pushed to the periphery

If the rehabilitation drive has largely failed, it is also because those rehabilitated such as the Karads have been uprooted.

In the slums, their shanties doubled as business hubs where they manufactured and traded in goods from textiles to food and leather products. In their new places, these economic ties have been abruptly broken.

Kisanabai Kamble, 65, is now a resident of Lalubhai compound, a cluster of 65 buildings with more than 9,000 rehabilitation tenements on the eastern edge of Mumbai.

During the day, she sits at a nearby traffic island, selling small plastic packets of water for about one cent. Back in the slum, she along with her brother ran an embroidery business.

"This is all I can do here," she lamented. "The government gave me a flat but took away the ability to earn and eat."

Her next-door neighbour, Gulabbhai Sheikh, 78, with a family of 11, has not fared any better. If bliss was something he was hoping for when he was allotted the government apartment, he received the exact opposite: the flat was too small and family discord broke out, prompting one of his sons to move out with his wife and daughter.

Yet, unmindful of the hardships facing those rehabilitated, political parties are pursuing slum dwellers and fighting among themselves to win their votes.

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest and one of Asia’s largest slums, is not immune to such a slugfest. The ruling Congress party with its "secular credentials" is hoping to retain the vote of Muslims, who make up a sizeable section of the grimy neighbourhood.

But its hold over the slum is being challenged by rivals such as Shiv Sena and BJP. "Every slum dweller, whether Hindu or Muslim, is fed up with high food prices, corruption, scandals. We will come back to power with this election because we will improve the economy and give all our brothers jobs," said Baburao Mane, a former Shiv Sena legislator.

With elections just weeks away, the fight for slum votes has begun in earnest.

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