Days before the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, Lucknow saw a "birthday celebration" for the BJP politician Lalji Tandon. At this function, Tandon and colleagues distributed saris to "poor" women. An AFP report from then said the organisers "threw saris into the approximately 5,000-strong crowd of poor women crammed into a small park."
There was a stampede. Twenty-one poor women died.
Why this memory from nearly eight years ago? Because a report from a few days ago tells us that the mayor of Bombay, Shraddha Jadhav of the ruling Shiv Sena, "allegedly distributed free saris in her constituency." There is even a photograph, in which at least 10 women are seen wearing identical saris.
What politicians do, of course, at election time. Municipal elections in this city, of course, are only days ahead of us. And ironically, such distribution speaks loudest of such politicians' real achievements.
Not long ago, I took a leisurely walk along the Bandra "skywalk", one of those caterpillar-like structures that are themselves held up as political party achievements. The need or otherwise for them apart, the city's skywalks are good places for reminders of some of what our city fathers and mothers have done, or not done, during their time in office.
Here are three from my walk.
First of all, there's a nice view of the Mithi River. Seeing it gleaming in the morning sun, you might remember its role, or maybe its alleged role, in the horrific flooding of July 2005 (the famous 26/7). In the years since, the municipality has frequently told us it is cleaning up the river so it will not flood again. There have been frequent photo-ops of various Thackerays and Singhs and Kamats on its banks, inspecting the clean-up and issuing further directions. Maybe it has been cleaned, I don't know. But the faint odour in the air (stronger if you happen to be nearer than the skywalk), suggests that little has changed; that the river is as filthy as it has been for decades. Besides, you can also visit places upstream — Kurla for example, where I was just a half hour before climbing onto this skywalk — where the view of piles of trash and rubble dumped on the Mithi's banks, about to subside into the water, is not encouraging at all.
Speaking of subsiding into water, from this height I notice exactly what a number of children in a small patch of bare ground are doing. It's something hard to realise at ground level, without being right there. They are playing in an open pit filled with black water, clambering all over the rubble that surrounds it. One ventures a little deeper and sinks to her chest, then hurriedly scratches her way back. Why is this pit left this way?
A little further, we cross over the large pipes that bring the city's water supply from distant lakes. Several women sit almost directly below, washing clothes in the water spouting from a leak. There are two simultaneous stories here, neither complimentary of the Municipality. One, think of how many people in this city are reduced to getting water from leaks in pipes. Two, think of the waste from such leaks.
Such are the sights, by no means uncommon, by which we must measure the performance of a Municipality, election or not.
This Municipality knows this. Which is why several full-page ads appeared in the January newspapers, filled with photos and paragraphs about some other municipal achievements. Each ad also had prominent pictures of a Thackeray cutting some ribbon or the other, so you knew exactly what these were really about.
Here now is a sampling of what's in these ads. In Goregaon, "the sculpture of Lion has been built". In a renovated Worli garden, "visitors don't have the feeling of walking through the valley". At Shivaji Park, some stone-pillars "would be beautified with electricity rays." The Fire Brigade was "recently [given] 'Hero of Animals' award for saving the life of one cat hang-held on the tree. The Six combatants of fire brigade did hard work for saving life of the cat."
I swear I am not making any of this up. I also swear these nuggets are only, and accurately, representative of what's in these ads.
And what's in these ads, of course, comes from the same impulse that drives the distribution of saris. When you go to the electorate with a record that's embarrassingly empty of real achievement, you are reduced to talking about a cat and "electricity rays", and distributing free saris.
So if you're planning to vote in the coming Municipal election, here's a tip: on your way to the polling booth, take a stroll along one of the city's various skywalks. Good way to learn about the incumbent Municipality's record for yourself.