On October 2, 2014, barely five months after the Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power at the Centre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wielded a broom at Valmiki Basti, a colony of sanitation workers in New Delhi. He also collected the garbage near Mandir Marg police station before formally inaugurating the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) mission. In 2019, on October 2, the Prime Minister, while delivering his keynote address at Kartavya Path, said, “A clean India would be the best tribute that India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary.”
Yet, the high-stakes elections for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), scheduled to be held on December 4, are being fought over mountains of garbage that have collected over the last 15 years of BJP rule of the civic body.
The 250-ward MCD has an annual budget of Rs.15,276 crore and is said to be the second-largest civic body in the world after Tokyo’s metropolitan city.
The BJP has made the elections a prestige issue, deputing several high-profile leaders for the campaign. Among them are Chief Ministers Himanta Biswa Sarma (Assam), Jai Ram Thakur (Himachal Pradesh), Manohar Lal Khattar (Haryana), Pushkar Singh Dhami (Uttarakhand), Uttar Pradesh BJP president Chaudhary Bhupender Singh, Union Ministers Rajnath Singh, Meenakshi Lekhi, Jitendra Singh, Hardeep Singh Puri, and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, besides party MPs Ramesh Bidhuri, Gautam Gambhir, Manoj Tiwari, and national spokespersons Sambit Patra and Dinesh Lal Yadav.
In early November, a wall near a landfill site at the Mandi area of Gazipur collapsed apparently under the weight of garbage pressing against it. When Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia visited the site he faced resistance from residents. He accused the MCD of widening the spread of the landfill to reduce its height, which led to the incident. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal took a jibe at the BJP: “They are always desperate to visit schools run by our government. But why don’t they let us see their garbage mountains?”
As part of its campaign strategy, the AAP has rolled out a fleet of vehicles showcasing symbolic garbage mountains as a consequence of the BJP’s misgovernance “which has brought global shame to Delhi residents”.
The party started its campaign with a “ Kude Pe Jansamvad” (public discussion over garbage) campaign, targeting all 13,682 booths in the city. Earlier in April, the AAP had accused local BJP leaders of taking bribes to give the tender to a private company for collecting waste from homes.
The AAP, which has fielded women in 55 per cent of the seats, announced 10 schemes, among them beautification of Delhi, removal of three landfills, a solution to parking problems, freeing Delhi from stray cattle, better-equipped MCD schools and hospitals, development of public parks, and clean zones for street vendors. The party’s campaign song lays emphasis on the garbage mountains and corruption in the MCD.
The BJP’s campaign focussed on the Kejriwal government’s “failure” to clean up the Yamuna’s waters and Delhi’s air. In the past eight years, the party alleged, the Kejriwal government had not released funds to help clear landfills after cutting down on MCD’s general sanitation. At a media conference, BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia asked:
“In September 2018, Chief Minister Kejriwal, accompanied by Urban Development Minister Satyendar Jain, visited South Korea. The purpose of the visit was to learn how Seoul’s polluted Cheonggyecheon stream was transformed into a tourist destination. What did he learn?” He added that in 2015 the AAP had promised, during the State Assembly election, that the Yamuna would be cleaned if the party formed the government. This year too toxic foam was seen floating on the Yamuna on the eve of Chhath Puja.
The BJP highlighted the work done by the Centre. While it talked about the steps taken to remove garbage collection points in residential areas and lower the height of landfill sites, it attacked the AAP government for turning the Yamuna into a “drain” and Delhi into a “gas chamber”.
In its manifesto, the two-page ‘Vachan Patra’ (pledge letter), the party has promised houses for slum dwellers, improved civic amenities, and proper disposal of garbage, among other things.
According to Bharti Chaturvedi, founder and director of the New Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, the city landfills are not properly engineered. She cited the example of the Bhalswa landfill in northwest Delhi: “It actually sits on one of the Yamuna aquifers. It is not just poisoning water for people who live in slums nearby, but it’s likely that some of the leakage is going into the river too.”
Incidentally, the Bhalswa lake, once famous for water sports, is today a polluted mess. It is the city’s second largest garbage dumpsite after the one at Ghazipur, and the local children call it Black Everest. A part of the landfill collapsed in 2017, killing two people and injuring five. This summer, it hit the headlines for massive fires on several occasions that left surrounding localities under thick clouds of smoke.
The attitude of municipal workers and civic authorities is something that has engaged the attention of minorities, particularly Muslims. Kalyani Devaki Menon in her book, Making Place for Muslims in Contemporary India, reflecting on common stereotypes about Muslim neighbourhoods being dirty, quotes a Muslim interviewee talking about the attitude of municipality workers, “Most families here are like mine. They cannot always afford to pay her (sweeper) every month. So she does not pick up the trash always, and people just end up throwing trash on the streets. Even that they do not sweep up that often.... [Hindu areas] are very clean because they can all afford to pay the sweepers what they want.”
In fact, residents in Muslim-dominated Jahangirpuri had raised questions over the functioning of the civic authorities when a demolition drive was launched earlier this year. Speaking to reporters, the residents lamented civic apathy, asking why garbage was not lifted from the area.
Although the Congress campaign has been underwhelming, its manifesto, “Congress Vision MCD-Meri Chamakti Delhi”, listed 11 priorities, with initiatives to tackle air pollution and get clean water in the Yamuna.
The Congress manifesto underscores five principal themes: to make Delhi pollution-free, corruption-free, garbage-free, epidemic-free, and debt-free. It also proposes a drainage master plan and promises to double the salaries of sanitation staff.
After Narendra Modi inaugurated 3,024 flats built for slum dwellers at Kalkaji in Delhi under the Delhi Development Authority’s rehabilitation project on November 2, Congress spokesperson Alka Lamba said: “The BJP and the AAP made a scheme to rent out the 46,000 flats whose construction was started by the Congress government under the Rajiv Rattan Yojna for slum dwellers. The flats were to be allotted for free, but the plan to rent out these flats is a clear indication of the anti-poor attitude of both the parties.”
The Congress manifesto points to the ongoing power tussle between the State government and the Centre since 2014. “Municipal governance is the most critical tier of governance for the citizens, but unfortunately the AAP-BJP duo has neglected and derailed MCD for their own vested interests. The continued and unnecessary confrontation between Kejriwal and BJP-led municipal and the Central government has made innocent citizens suffer,” it states.
Civic elections are generally fought over issues that are of immediate concern to the people and attempting to polarise the electorate is a wasted effort. The BJP, however, did try to inject a communal element into its campaign, perhaps to counter the stink from the garbage.
On November 20, Himanta Biswa Sarma, during his road show, blamed Kejriwal for the riots in the wake of the anti-CAA movement and even brought up issues such as the Uniform Civil Code, the need for a law against love jihad, and even raked up the Shraddha Walkar murder case.
‘Marooned in garbage’
Indu Prakash Singh, an activist and observer of Delhi politics, put the election in perspective: “The MCD, under whoever’s rule, has done a very bad job—whether it is health care, school education or sanitation. The city seems marooned in garbage as though it exists without a municipal authority.”
He said that despite schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan “the civic body has failed to provide housing units to the homeless and slum dwellers. Moreover, there is no data available regarding the number of homeless in Delhi. And the condition of people like vendors and rickshaw pullers has gone from bad to worse.”
He also criticised the BJP for the backlog in payment of salaries to MCD employees. Referring to the office of the Lieutenant Governor, he said: “It is perhaps only in the Delhi model of governance that an unelected person controls the elected government.”
Commenting that neither BJP councillors nor MPs are visible on the ground, Prakash Singh, a member of the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee for urban homeless, said: “The poor and the common people of Delhi are now looking at AAP with a lot of hope.”
- The high-stakes elections for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), scheduled to be held on December 4, are being fought over mountains of garbage that have collected over the last 15 years of BJP rule of the civic body.
- The 250-ward MCD has an annual budget of Rs.15,276 crore and is said to be the second-largest civic body in the world after Tokyo’s metropolitan city.
- The BJP has made the elections a prestige issue, deputing several high-profile leaders for the campaign.
- The AAP, which has fielded women in 55 per cent of the seats, announced 10 schemes, among them beautification of Delhi, removal of three landfills, and others.