Amchi Mumbai, but they can’t vote!

Polls for India's richest municipal corporation exclude a huge section of the city's residents – the 'outsiders'
Gajanan Khergamker Mumbai

Life isn't fair. But, going by the fact that Mumbaikars live in the world's largest 'cosmopolitan' democracy, and in a 'financial capital' that contributes a fourth of the nation's income tax, we would expect the popular view to be reflected in real-time politics. One would expect those Indian citizens who have been targeted repeatedly for their 'foreign' antecedents by muscle-flexing fanatics to be protected after the civic elections as is regularly preached during pre-poll campaigns.

The Shiv Sena-BJP combine's return to power in the country's richest municipal corporation, blamed left, right and centre for corruption, came as a huge surprise. A bigger surprise was that Dadar was wrested by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and Congress-stronghold Colaba suddenly registered the maximum number of votes for MNS, although the party lost by a whisker in South Mumbai's plushest residential complex.

Mumbai's civic polls of 2012 brought to power candidates of parties whose poll planks range from "ridding the city of outsiders" to loud proclamations of "tackling corruption... by refusing to support the Lok Pal Bill in Parliament"; indeed, they conveniently ignored a whole sea of people.

The man who fetches your daily newspaper home, the doodhwala who delivers that packed milk, the taxi-driver transporting you to and fro in a rush, your neighbourhood sabziwala, the watchman standing guard below your housing society, the sandwich stall worker from across the road – all found themselves twiddling their thumbs on February 16, and for all the wrong reasons.

Many of Mumbai's daily service providers from Bihar, UP, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Rajasthan have Voters' ID cards, but their names are not on any voter's list in Mumbai. Irrespective of the fact that they have studied in schools here, lived here eternally, worked here for several generations, they have no voting rights. Indeed, many have no Voters' ID at all – they are not citizens of Amchi Mumbai.

They mostly live in slums, sharing shanty space with Marathi-speaking 'sons of the soil' who have all their identity paperwork complete to the 'T'. For all practical purposes, their grouses are the same: water shortage, power crunches, security issues etc. However, even as one segment of dwellers have the right to voice their concern and bring to power a political candidate of their choice, others are left to scrounge for a 'local' friend's favour and paperwork every time they are asked for 'croup' (as they commonly pronounce 'proof') when they try to get a new phone, gas or power connection.

For the entire next session of the corporation, the candidates who have won these polls will play a role in meeting the demands of locals, comprising residents of high-rises and the politically active 'local' slum-dweller, while completely ignoring the needs of a huge urban population of 'outsiders' – poor and unorganized – which does not have the right to vote. So, for those who cannot exercise their voting rights, civic rights, just like human rights, go for a toss.

Issues of wider relevance are swiftly ignored. Water shortage, for one, has led to exasperating levels of corruption at the grassroots as elected civic corporators play slumlords, 'renting out' amenities that are supposed to be basic and guaranteed by law and the State, making a killing on the way.

Among the lures available to the voter this time around, property evolved as a distinct decoy. For the middle-class pagdi resident, there has been the lure of redevelopment and the chances of being relocated to a 'tower' with all expenses of maintenance paid for life, while for the slum-dwelling voter, there has been the temptation of being able to redevelop the coastline by a relaxation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules.

A lot of residents in older parts of Mumbai, especially in South Mumbai, are keen to shed their old, dishevelled environs and old unwieldy homes for smaller, smarter homes like in the suburbs, but are downright reluctant to move out of their cozy environs. The option of redevelopment has now become a huge lure for house-owners, who tend to sway in favour of parties and candidates assuring them of swift deals with 'redevelopment' developers and builders.

Along the coastline of South Mumbai are a string of slums – from Machchimar Nagar to Gita Nagar, and the trio of Sunder Nagri, Azad Nagri and Sudam Jhopdi, which are bordered by the sea and concurrently face hitches in development owing to stringent environmental laws and a CRZ caveat. Local corporators and aspiring candidates have been dangling the 'redevelopment' carrot before people to sway decisions in their favour.

It is not uncommon for a South Mumbai fisherman to harbour hopes of being able to redevelop his shanty and move into a 'tower' in a fully furnished higher floor flat at no extra cost and get to pocket a few crores. A lot of house-owners in middle-class localities in Central Mumbai, too, have been vying for redevelopment as if it were a magic wand that would cure all their ills. "How on earth can anyone simply wish away their problems like this?" asks retired banker Vikas Gokhale. "It isn't all that easy."
Instead of educating the masses and focussing on actual issues, local-level politics seems to be attempting only to mislead the people during the civic elections. "There is no basis for house-owners to hope that a developer would simply arrive, pay you a fortune, and give you a plush, luxurious home," says Gokhale. All that, however, is of little consequence to political parties that fought these civic polls fiercely in these areas, dangling these lures blatantly.

With the elections over, it makes sense to call for an amendment of the law to ensure that all winning corporation candidates sign a bond indemnifying the public affected for damages that may occur due to any decision taken or not taken by them during their tenure. Right from the introduction of mobile towers to the clearance of restaurant licences, every civic issue is known to go through local corporators who make a killing in the process. That is why money is pooled in during polls to ensure that the splurging parties are spared of legal action once the candidate comes to power.

The fact that the collective view of all 'outsiders' is ignored, works to the benefit of everyone across the spectrum of political parties. For chauvinistic political parties, it does not make electoral sense to cater to the needs of a population that has no voting rights. This leaves Mumbai's 'outsider' residents – those actually responsible for the city's growth – with little option but to divert their loyalties to the state they came from. This tragic situation, ironically, makes them significant to the chauvinistic parties in an inverted sense: they are put to optimum use as targets of hate ideology and virulent poll campaigns for emotionally luring the votes of the so-called Marathi Manoos.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2012