By Kalpana Sharma
17 October, 2004
give us journalists a chance to go out and talk to ordinary people.
We expect them, especially the poor, to tell us everything where
they are from, how much they earn, whether they are married, if not
why not, whether they have children, how many, why so many, why no children,
what are their dreams and who they will vote for. We take it for granted
that questions we would refuse to answer if a stranger asked us should
be honestly addressed by those poorer than us.
Sometimes we get
the truth, sometimes we do not. But the process of engagement is always
humbling. You realise you possess so much yet know so little compared
to people who own nothing but possess such an enormous treasure of wisdom.
Mumbai's other half
or more than half are the poor who live, or rather survive,
on its pavements, swamps, the seaside, along railway tracks, water pipelines
and on every bit of vacant land.
The middle class,
who would rather live in a city without poor people, hate the urban
poor. They make our cities dirty, they breed, they fight, they are preventing
the city from becoming truly global, say these "building-wallahs".
Plus, complain these well-heeled "citizens", because the poor
can vote, politicians pamper and cultivate them knowing that it is their
vote that decides who is elected. This is unfair, they argue.
them." This is the new cry of some middle class people in Mumbai.
The poor living in slums are "illegal" in that they are squatting
on land not meant for that purpose. So deny them the vote. This, they
believe, will solve the problem of slums because politicians will pay
no attention to the poor if they cannot vote and therefore will ensure
that they are removed. Made to vanish into thin air. Half the people
who hold up more than half the city with their labour should be asked
to make way for roads, shopping malls, cinemas, apartment blocks
for people who are "legal", who can pay for these facilities.
Incredible as it might seem, one set of Indian citizens is actually
arguing that another should not be allowed to vote for no fault of theirs
except that they have no place to live and are poor. And irrespective
of the fact that every citizen of India is entitled to vote.
The people our middle
classes would like to disenfranchise have names, histories and are probably
more committed to a democratic system than people who can take their
shelter for granted. Take Lakshmi, who was one of three families who
parked themselves on the pavement on Sophia Zuber Street in Mumbai's
Nagpada area. This is one of the oldest neighbourhoods, one that has
changed little despite the growth of the city. But Lakshmi's life has
changed. Today there are 50 families living on the same stretch of pavement
where she had erected a lean-to with tarpaulin in the early 1980s. In
those days she could cross the road without risking her life. The building
across the street, Taiyab Building, allowed her to sleep at night under
the staircase. For six years she slept there. Her son, who is now 21,
was born there. Today the traffic on the street is heavy and relentless.
You can cross it with difficulty. And it does not stop until way past
3 a.m. Lakshmi is immune to the sound and the fumes.
After living for
over 24 years in this spot, Lakshmi now has a six feet by eight feet
hut barely high enough for an average person to stand straight. Three
months ago she got electricity. This is an extension from a man who
has a stall extracting juice from sugar cane. He has an "official"
connection with a meter and he spreads the bounty by giving connections
at a price to the pavement dwellers living in the vicinity. Lakshmi
ends up paying a whopping Rs. 400 per month for this connection which
lights one bulb and a table fan. In contrast, people living in permanent
housing would probably pay only slightly more than this for multiple
As we sit in her
small hut, and breathe in the exhaust fumes that are abundant at street
level, Lakshmi explains how the street gets flooded every monsoon and
water enters her house from the overflowing gutter. When it is not raining,
she locks her hut and goes and sleeps at the gate of the compound whose
wall is part of her pavement dwelling. Needless to say, Lakshmi has
never had water and the toilet is a pay toilet run by the municipal
corporation. The women fought to lower the rate from Rs. 2 to Rs. 1
for women and children.
You would imagine
a woman like Lakshmi has plenty to be bitter about. Far from it. She
is a leader of her community, the only Hindu in a settlement of Bihari
Muslims. There has never been a communal problem. She collects money
from each family for a common saving scheme. And she has taught this
skill to women from near and far. At the end of the day, she says she
is proud that she can vote. She speaks fondly of her 21-year-old son
who loves music. His guitar is strung up on the wall. And she dreams
of one day living in a pucca house.
It is women like
Lakshmi who are the true "citizens" of a democratic society.
They expect little from the State and get practically nothing. Yet,
they contribute their labour. They fulfil their duty by voting. And
they participate in community process that help everyone to get out
of difficulties instead of just lining their own pockets. The question
is not whether a woman like Lakshmi deserves the vote. It is whether
the politicians for whom she votes deserve her vote.
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