Slums in the limelight

Print edition : November 05, 2004

THE infamous Dagdi Chawl of South Mumbai is sparing no expense to celebrate the victory of their local hero, underworld don Arun Gawli alias "daddy". Gawli really had no cause for worry, the constituents of Chinchpokli had declared even before the polls that Gawli was their choice. "He is the only one who helps the common man," said Asha Kurudkar, who lives in this area, which comprises mostly lower income group houses and slums. "If we tell `daddy' about water shortage, by evening the problem is solved." Gawli, who faces several criminal charges, apparently runs some sort of a parallel municipal corporation. From water connections, building repairs to sanitation or garbage collection, his men ensure these civic amenities are provided. "It doesn't matter if he is accused of criminal activities. He takes care of us. That is more important," said Asha Kurudkar.

At a polling station in Central Mumbai.-PAUL NORONHA

Mumbai's electorate is one of the most diverse and disparate in the country and the issues on which the campaigns are conducted are equally wide-ranging. Infrastructure, housing, sanitation and water supply are some of the basic issues, and employment opportunities and state benefits are a few specific areas. Like other parts of the State, caste and community factors are also at work.

All these make the results in Mumbai virtually unpredictable, as the present round of Assembly elections proved yet again. The BJP-Shiv Sena combine won just 16 of the 36 Assembly seats in Mumbai, down four from 1999, while the Congress-NCP alliance won 18 as against 13 last time.

A staggering 60 per cent of the city's population, which is fast crossing the 15-million mark, is classified as urban poor. This includes a massive number of migrants and a large section from the minority communities. With every Assembly constituency having pockets of slums or some form of informal housing, the urban poor play a particularly crucial role in the elections.

In an attempt to woo this section of the electorate, the Democratic Front (D.F.) government declared - just before the elections were announced - that it would regularise the slums that came up until 2000. Predictably, housing became a major poll issue. Not to be outdone, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in its manifesto promised houses to 40 lakh slum-dwellers and pucca structures for slums built until January 1, 1995.

The migrants have become a powerful vote bank in recent years and currently 60 per cent of the city's population is non-Marathi speaking. Employment is a valuable commodity for all sections of Mumbai's populace, but the city that once ensured jobs can no longer boast of this service. According to Economic and Political Weekly's research wing, owing to neo-liberal policies and poor political leadership, industrial growth has decreased and the employment rate has dropped by over 5 per cent. In the city of the working classes, political parties know it would serve their purpose to address this problem.

The Shiv Sena's "Me Mumbaikar" (`Mumbai is for Maharashtrians') campaign last year was an effort to tap the unemployment issue. Their sloganeering, however, boomeranged in the Lok Sabha elections held earlier this year, with the alarmed north Indian community expressing their opposition through the electronic voting machines. "The Sena was in a tight spot in this election," said Datta Isvalkar, general secretary of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, a trade union in the textile sector. "They had not fulfilled their promises to the Maharashtrian community, specifically those on employment. By courting the north Indian voter, it will alienate its most loyal and largest voter base."

In a city that is bursting at its seams, civic issues can make or break an election. Parts of Mumbai, particularly the suburbs and slum pockets, are reeling under a massive water shortage for the past couple of years. "Water is our main demand," said Salim Khan, a taxi driver from Govandi. "Nobody has done anything about the water situation in these five years. We depend on the City Corporation water that comes for a few hours every week. Not even one tanker has come here. That is why the sitting MLA from our constituency did not have the courage to campaign in our locality," said Salim Khan.

Mumbai's elite and middle class play a small but vital part in bringing parties to power; they are the moneybags after all. Yet, going by the surprise results in each election, the bottom line for success seems to be the candidate's will to do something for the people, a la Gawli, his criminal background notwithstanding.

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