BMC Election 2017: Patronage from corporators brings slum-dwellers to the polls in droves

When votes are counted on 23 February to determine who will represent which civic ward in Mumbai, the chances are more slum-dwellers will have cast their votes than those who don't live in slums, either in absolute numbers or as a proportion of the registered voters in either segment. They may have do it for several reasons, the foremost of which is the need to earn the right to patronage.

This patronage from the corporators is something those in the segment comprising voters upwards of the lower middle-class can do without. To these voters, who could be categorised loosely as the ‘silk stocking’ citizenry, elections, including Assembly and parliamentary, are matters of drawing room concerns and conversations. Mostly, that is.

A corporator via his network of ‘workers’ of the political parties to which they belong, is the first line of defence against any official action, including overzealous policemen, or the civic officials who can invade their lives and even destroy their dwellings. Although, of course, demolitions are less of the norm now. It is a grim reality hidden from the ‘formal’ Mumbai view. The ‘formal’ Mumbai is the non-slum region where people live in proper, not makeshift housing. They do not depend on their luck for toilets, water, and even occasionally cleaning up. They can step out of the buildings without having to cross the over-spilling garbage in a gutter at the threshold of their dwellings. Like their tiny gated societies, their minds too are gated.

 BMC Election 2017: Patronage from corporators brings slum-dwellers to the polls in droves

Representational image. Reuters

Yet, despite the traditional allegiance to the principle of voting, the slums are the least of the beneficiaries of the civic activity. The slums, virtually non-existent in Mumbai of the 1950s, not only exist, but have reached the stage where every second resident is a shanty-dweller. The claim that they shrank in proportion, as per the 2011 Census, is doubtful. Officialdom may take comfort in the ‘reduction’ of slums.

It is ironic that the political class, vowing to end the growth of slums, then reduce them with free replacement housing, actually appear to have a vested interest in their existence. To them, it is a hugely rewarding political capital. Keeping them in the hope of an improvement in their living conditions than ending their miseries is the politician’s way. Promises are what the slum-dwellers subsist on.

Dharavi, incorrectly touted as Asia’s largest slum — there are at least three others bigger within Mumbai itself, while the UNDP has been reporting Karachi’s Orangi Township as meriting that status — is a monument to the inability of the government to tackle the issue of replacing slums with small but proper and free housing. It is a policy in existence since 1996 and it has barely benefitted the slum-dwelling segment.

A belt comprising merely shanties in the Kurla to Ghatkopar belt, another in the the Mankhurd-Govandi belt, those situated on the slopes of the Yogi and Yeoor abutting and even encroaching into the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), and those of Dindoshi, dwarf Dharavi. If Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) projects cut the slum-dwellers’ size, enlargement of those in other areas along even mangroves have neutralised any nominal gains.

Every vote has a value, and the politician values the slum vote most because the helpless citizens there have to necessarily tie-up with one or the other politician. The slums are where a shadow administration works where the corporator could well be at the apex. Often, if a slum-dweller wants to improve his shanty even as he waits for the SRA scheme, a bribe to the corporator or his henchman is quite the tradition. The water supply mafia, the toilet operators et al form the shadow administration.

The city government couldn’t care less because slums are not part of their plans for the city, only the lands they occupy are for they are what the developers want to build SRA housing, and with extra FSI, build better quality and fancy prices for sale in the open market. The reality is there are more lands the builders have been squatting with approved SRA projects than those built since 1996.

Even here, the local politician, often the corporator or somebody on whose behalf he reigns over the slum swaths, are a critical element in the process of getting the SRA projects on to the drawing boards. That they languish is another matter, but the claim that he got it there itself is a matter of relief to many a slum resident. Corporators are the most influential in the area and are not averse to the carrot-and-stick means of keeping control.

That explains why during elections the politicians focus on the slums to woo the voters. It is known that Sunil Dutt had more faith in the slum-dwellers as the tribe that would walk to the polling stations than the middle-class gentry would. This is something every politician knows, and exploits. And helpess but hoping for redemption from the misery of lives in the slums, the shanty population pins its hopes on the corporator who may, however, play games.

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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2017 10:43:59 IST