The cause of the poor

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

A new formation spearheads successful initiatives to draw attention to the plight and rights of the slum-dwellers and other under-privileged sections.


THE month-long Jan Chetana Abhiyan, or People's Awareness Movement, which culminated in a massive rally behind Red Fort in Delhi on May 21, etched the broad contours of a political-mass movement that the nascent "new Third Front" will advance in the comi ng days. During the campaign, the Abhiyan essentially focussed on the problems of slum-dwellers in Delhi. More than a lakh men, women and children turned up for the rally, braving the scorching North Indian summer and demonstrating a resolve to fight for their rights and privileges.

Led by former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the Abhiyan included the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (Secular), besides some non-political and non-governm ental organisations. Expressing concern that the poor and underprivileged sections were increasingly being exposed to the vagaries of the market in the name of liberalisation and globalisation, the parties emphasised their collective commitment to combat ing the economic policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre and the Congress(I) governments in the States.

If the level of participation and the degree of intensity of feeling that were evident at the rally are any indication, the "new Third Front" appears set to capture the attention of the weakest socio-economic groups, which would form the bulwark of the m ovement that is evolving around the issues highlighted by the leaders of the Front. The rally also indicated that V.P. Singh, the leader of the Abhiyan, is regaining ground among the masses. In a manner distinctively reminiscent of his Jan Morcha days in the late 1980s, when he campaigned against corruption in high places, the ailing crusader put to work his considerable communication skills and mass appeal.

Addressing the rally, V.P. Singh said that the forces that have come together would not confine their activities to Delhi. He said that the travails of slum-dwellers in the national capital were not isolated experiences but related to the sufferings of t he poor all over the country. "We are not asking for the right to life and livelihood of the slum-dwellers of Delhi alone. The poor want not just Delhi, but the whole of India," he said.

Touching an emotional chord, the former Prime Minister reminded the gathering that it was the poor who toiled to build the big monuments, including the Qutab Minar, Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhavan. "And yet, when they create a space to stay for t hemselves, bulldozers are sent in by the powers-that- be. This is a situation that we cannot accept after 52 years of Independence."

Referring to the high rates of illiteracy and infant mortality and low levels of life expectancy, he said that the situation needed to be changed as ignoring social realities could be perilous. During the rally, speakers demanded a policy framework on ho using, and meanwhile on creating hygienic conditions in slums. V.P. Singh urged the Central government to come out with concrete steps in this regard within a year.

Several national and State-level leaders, including CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, former Prime Minister and JD(S) president H.D. Deve Gowda, RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, CPI national secretary Atul Kumar Anjan and former Lok Sa bha Speaker Rabi Ray addressed the gathering. Unmindful of the heat, people remained through the five-hour-long public meeting.

Both Rabi Ray and V.P. Singh mentioned that in the history of independent India this was the first rally organised by the poor that addressed issues concerning them in a concrete manner. "You have all been part of political rallies where your issues were also discussed among many other things. But for the first time you have come together to highlight your own plight," V.P. Singh said.

Surjeet said that the poor were in the vanguard of the freedom struggle against the British and added that a second freedom struggle against economic oppression would also be led by the poor. "It is your movement. We are here to play a supporting role bu t do not expect assistance from those like the current BJP rulers in Delhi who did not take a stance against the British even during the first freedom struggle," he said.

Atul Kumar Anjan said that the Abhiyan was directly linked to the growing chasm between the rich and poor in the era of liberalisation and globalisation. "And the BJP-led NDA and the Congress(I) are two sides of the same coin when it comes to economic po licy issues. One has to convert the fight for rights into a political struggle to correct these policy anomalies," he said. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh said that the lopsided political priorities that are evident in actions such as demolishing slums in the n ame of the rule of law even while allowing illegal construction by the rich and the powerful have to be corrected.

The rally marked the outcome of sustained interaction between the leaders and the masses since the last week of March, when the Railway Ministry issued eviction notices to the residents of the Wazirpur slum cluster. On March 24, V.P. Singh prevented the demolition of the slum cluster, which housed several lakhs of people. He sat in dharna at the slum, supported by activists of political parties, which helped launch the Abhiyan.

FOUR former Prime Ministers, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral, released a joint statement on March 28 that dealt with the larger political, economic and social issues raised by the "slum demolishing policies" of the governme nt as well as the efforts to undermine constitutional institutions by the supporters of the present government. The statement took note of major shifts in policy and practice that adversely affected the economically weaker communities. Commenting on the process of economic liberalisation, they said that "liberalisation must mean freeing people from cumbersome and burdensome bureaucratic procedures and widely spread corruption" and that it did not mean the withdrawal of the state from its basic responsib ilities. "It meant that development and administrative authority must be sensitised and made more productive."

It was also emphasised that setting up economic infrastructure facilities such as roads, railways, ports, irrigation systems, and social infrastructure facilities such as schools and hospitals, were primarily the responsibility of the state. The statemen t added that the government is increasingly ignoring this reality and relinquishing its responsibility.

While the agitation at Wazirpur addressed a concrete issue, the joint statement of the former Prime Ministers provided a policy perspective on the issues that confront the nation. The Abhiyan drew inspiration from both initiatives. Since the second week of April, political parties and non-political organisations organised meetings, targeting people in almost every one of the 1,180 slum clusters in Delhi. Nearly a hundred such meetings took place. Brinda Karat and Joginder Sharma of the CPI(M), M.M. Gope and Sahiba Farooqui of the CPI and Jainarayan Jatav of the Janata Dal and V.P. Singh himself addressed several of the meetings.

The Abhiyan located the slum demolition attempts in the context of Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees protection of life and personal liberty. It was pointed out that no government could evacuate people from their living spaces without prov iding alternative abodes. During its month-long campaign, the Abhiyan succeeded in stopping demolition squads in four more slum clusters in Delhi. The Abhiyan elucidated before the people how the slum dwellings were being branded as unauthorised while un authorised construction by some big business houses were being allowed to flourish. The fact that many slum clusters were being removed to give way to multinational corporations was also highlighted.

THE movement forced a response from the Central and State governments. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that the Centre would evolve a comprehensive slum and rehabilitation policy, while the Delhi government announced a policy of sorts on this qu estion. According to Brinda Karat, there were many redeeming features to the State government's policy, albeit on paper. "The government has shown no signs of implementing any of these positive policies so far. The struggle for that would have to continu e," she added.

With the May 21 rally, however, the Abhiyan has moved beyond being a campaign for the rights of slum-dwellers in Delhi. V.P. Singh and Surjeet said that the Abhiyan is all set to reflect the plight of the poor and the lower middle class, which have not g ained anything from the new economic policies.

In the midst of the confusion reigning in the Congress(I) and the BJP-led NDA over economic policy issues and their larger impact, the "new Third Front" seems all set to take a definitive position. The situation within the Congress(I), with various secti ons squabbling over the pros and cons of liberalisation and globalisation, is bound to be politically beneficial to the new formation. This can be gauged by the reaction in Delhi slums to the Abhiyan. The majority of the slums, which responded overwhelmi ngly to make the rally a success, were traditionally politically inclined either to the BJP or the Congress(I). However, the situation has changed dramatically in these couple of months.

At the organisational level too, the exercise to revive the Third Front has become more cohesive than it was two months ago. West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu welcomed the initiative of the former Prime Ministers. The CPI(M) provided much of the orga nisational strength to the Abhiyan. By all indications, the new formation is expected to widen its activities to include Mumbai and Chennai among other places. Talking to Frontline, Deve Gowda said that similar meetings involving various sections of the population would be held all over the country. He expected a more concrete action plan to evolve by June.

There are indications that V.P. Singh is in touch with the Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, N. Chandrababu Naidu and M. Karunanidhi, with regard to the agenda advanced by him. V.P. Singh's aides say that he is keen to rope in the Samajwa di Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to the formation. There are indications that he has made up with S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav, his one-time bete noire in the Hindi heartland, but there are no clear signs of a patch-up. S.P. had re fused to join the Abhiyan.

Two months ago, many political observers had seen the initiative of the former Prime Ministers as an attempt to evolve a new political orientation and bring down the NDA government (Frontline, April 28). V.P. Singh has made impressive strides towa rds realising the first part of the observation.

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