In the hours of telecast time and acres of newsprint spent on the demise and the state funeral of Vilasrao Deshmukh, one piece of news got lost, almost. It was the death of Prabhakar Kunte, a former minister, at the ripe old age of 92. He died in Mumbai in his Shivaji Park apartment even as the VIPs had gathered in Latur.
Chances are most people under 60 and those not living for decades in Mumbai may not even know him and his good work. He was the one who, for the first time ever, conducted a census of the slums in Mumbai and told the then government, headed by SB Chavan, what the extent of the slum issue was.
But for him, Mumbai, which had only five percent of its households living in slums in mid-1950s, would hardly have an idea as to what the size of slums and their occupants were in mid-1970s. They later proliferated to house what the Census Commissioner said was close to 60 percent of the city’s entire population in 2001.
For one, he was a legislator elected to Maharashtra Assembly in 1972 by what then was known as the Dharavi Constituency. It extended beyond Khar and went close to Sion. He was aware of what it was like to live in a slum but felt that most of the people in the city, even long-time residents cared much about what a slum was, especially Dharavi.
One day, SB Chavan, under whom he was minister of Housing, returned from a trip to Delhi and travelled south to his official residence from the airport. He was struck by the sight of people squatting along the Western Express Highway – not as broad as of now – for their morning toilet outing. The stench and the sight were too much. He mentioned to Kunte that there seemed to be a problem. But, how big was it?
Kunte knew a thing or two about the slum-dwellers. When he presented the findings to the assembly, he predicted it with shockers. Some police constables had to find housing there; some graduates lived in the shanties, all of them were victims of slum lords’ whims. Some slum lords were benign, except that they charged rents for shacks on lands which did not belong to them.
Much before the survey, which he would anyhow had carried out even if the then chief minister had not enquired about those easing on the roadside in the morning, Kunte had walked the slums. As a minister, he would be accompanied by officials – a minister does not go on walkabouts without officials, petty or senior. None of them had earlier stepped into one or gone even close enough to know how they smelled.
When he started the survey, he was up against a legal issue. He could ask his officials to count the number of shacks and the number of people within each of them, but it had to be restricted to those on public lands – those of the railways, the state, the civic body, the central government and its arms. But it was a no-no when it came to private land.
In that survey, each household was assigned a number which they could put up on their doors, turning that into a kind of official stamp of recognition. Had his team, which swooped down on the slums one single day done so with the shanties on private lands then ownership issues would have cropped up and the state would have fiddled with the rights of the land owner and the slum dweller.
Not for nothing was Kunte known as a war horse. He just changed the nomenclature. The house and head counts on public lands became census. The same on the private lands was a survey – just finding out what was what and by how much. But he had a trick up his sleeve. In his pre-survey and pre-census walks, he just told the slum dwellers “don’t pay the slum lords”.
It progressed to issue of photo-identity for slum dwellers as the subject turned extraordinarily political because each and every political party and politicians began to develop them as vote banks. If they had some identity which was a substitute for a title deed, it helped. And Kunte was the one who started that process, though that process took different turns and twists with most slum dwellers continuing to live in hope of an eviction-free life in their shanties.