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The unbearable lightness of seeing

By P. Sainath

How agonised we are about how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live.

NUMBER OF homes damaged by the tsunami in Nagapattinam: 30,300. Number of homes destroyed by the Congress-NCP Government in Mumbai: 84,000.

How agonised we are about how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live.

Maharashtra's Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, says every Chief Minister would like to leave behind a legacy. His own, he believes, will be that of the man who cleaned up Mumbai. Mr. Deshmukh, in short, wishes to be remembered.

He will be. His Government wiped out 6,300 homes on a single day. A record the Israeli army would be proud to match on a busy afternoon in the occupied territories. It is a figure their bulldozers, with tanks and air force support, have not quite notched up yet.

The Mumbai mass evictions — now in pause mode — demolished a lot more than slums. They reflected well an elite mindset towards the deprived that fully matured in the 1990s. It is a lot about how we see the poor today. About a view marked by contempt for the rights and suffering of ordinary people. Unless that suffering is certified as genuine by the rest of us.

Mr. Deshmukh now says the destruction of "some" houses was "an accident." Not intended. Which perhaps places his Government in the category of natural calamity. However, most of Mumbai's beautiful people, some of whom attended `tsunami dinners' after expressing satisfaction over the city's mass demolitions, are firmly with their Chief Minister. No one from that fraternity has `adopted' a demolished slum for adoring cameras. Nor organised relief operations for people, including many babies shivering without shelter, in one of the coldest winters.

Instead, Mumbai's elite now feels the need to carry the logic forward. Last year, 11 prominent Maharashtrians moved the Bombay High Court to bar slum dwellers from voting. This year, the city's Municipal Corporation itself asked the Chief Electoral Officer to drop residents of the demolished slums from the voters' lists. (A curious move in a society contemplating voting rights for NRIs and PIOs.) No one uses the real word — disenfranchisement. But it is what they mean. One way or the other, take away their vote. That should teach them they cannot live amongst us.

It would also blunt the one weapon ordinary Indians have and use. Unlike, say, their American counterparts, the Indian poor have the audacity to believe their votes can change things. They certainly did that right here. Mumbai's slum dwellers played a critical role in defeating the BJP-Shiv Sena in the 2004 Assembly polls. (Quite a few local leaders of the Congress know this well and are fearful of a backlash. What if slum folk attempt similar adventures the next time around?)

Of course, excluding large numbers from voting involves minor problems of constitutional rights. But the avant garde amongst the elite have found the answer to that one: criminalise them. That would be a good start. "Book them for trying to steal public property," is one bright idea. The Mumbai police have obligingly promised criminal trespass cases against dazed victims hanging around their razed homes. Satisfying, but annoyingly it would still leave them with the right to vote.

Maybe India will move towards — as on most other things — the American model. As a Human Rights Watch Sentencing Project report shows, 1.4 million African-American men — 13 per cent of their total number — are denied voting rights because of their criminal records. As many as 15 American States bar former felons from voting even after they have completed serving their sentences.

In Alabama and Florida, nearly one in every three African-American men is permanently disenfranchised. In six other States the ratio is one in four. All this in States with significant African-American minorities. As the report notes, no other democracy denies as many people the right to vote because of their criminal records. A feat that could be eclipsed in India if the current mindset towards the poor goes the distance.

America has around two million human beings behind bars — more than any other nation in the world. Of these, 63 per cent are African-American and Hispanic. Consider that these two groups together form only 25 per cent of the population. You are far more likely to go to prison — and lose your vote — if you are African-American. Substitute poor for African-American and it is an idea much of India's and Mumbai's elite would go for.

Total disdain for even the foreseeable future is another element of this mindset. According to a UN Habitat report, one in every three human beings could live in a slum by 2030. Many of them Indians. Imagine how many voters we could do away with by criminalising slum dwellers. Just `reform' the laws. Adopt the Mumbai idea nationwide — and India will be demolishing more homes than it has ever built.

"Many people will be inconvenienced and will have to make sacrifices if the city has to develop..." says the Chief Minister. The city's builder and real estate mafia will not be amongst those inconvenienced. The sacrifices are to be made by the poor. The power of those driving the process is immense. The protests and appeals of the slum folk themselves are simply dismissed. Those of some 28 slum dwellers organisations, housing rights and human rights bodies, political parties and trade unions are sought to be played down. It was anxiety over the fallout (at far higher levels of the Congress in New Delhi) that led to some slowing down of the demolitions. And to Mr. Deshmukh's admission of "accidental" evictions.

Class interests are asserting themselves across the major parties here. The Congress elite is far more in tune with Bal Thackeray on this issue than it is with its own panicking base. The Sena chief has praised the Government for the terror visited on the slum populace. This is also one issue that unites the otherwise bickering Nationalist Congress Party and Congress. Hopefully, the coalition of a large number of organisations protesting the action will create a basis for some relief and resistance.

A crucial part of the mindset is the idea that promises made to the poor have no meaning. It matters little that millions of such people in Mumbai helped the Congress win a State it would surely have lost. At the Centre too, that party came to power riding a wave of popular anger against the policies of the National Democratic Alliance Government. And then quickly buried its anti-`India Shining' campaign. Today, a Montek Singh Ahulwalia can signal moves towards the privatisation of water without batting an eyelid. All earlier assurances on not making life harder for the deprived mean nothing. That was an election. This is reality.

That is why the better off — anyway miniscule in numbers — hardly bother to vote. The rich run governments by other means. Not by electing them. When governments have reneged on their most fundamental promises in the past 15 years, the media have welcomed this as "pragmatic." It is pragmatic to lie to the poor. It is also pragmatic to break your commitment to the 1993 United Nations resolution which terms forced evictions "a gross violation of human rights."

A vivid symbol of the pragmatic new world was the Sensex soaring to a record peak — at the height of the tsunami damage. This phenomenon was repeated across most of the tsunami-hit nations as "markets sensed" a windfall in reconstruction spending.

The mindset is visible in our dealings with tsunami-hit citizens, too. We are now in the process of converting people's entitlements into our charity. Health care, access to clean water, sanitation, schools — all these might now happen because of our generosity. Not because human beings are entitled to them. You might get a house because we feel sorry half your family was washed away. Not by right of your citizenship of a decent nation and society.

There is one thing larger than Mr. Deshmukh's bulldozers: The process by which millions are uprooted from the countryside and forced to seek a living in the nearest city. What India is building is not an employment guarantee but an unemployment guarantee. As agriculture collapses and people vote with their feet, the Deshmukh Doctrine is the best we can think of. Mopping the floors with the taps all open and running.

The Indian elite wants a society geared up to deal with disasters that may or may not strike once in a hundred years but shows no urgency at all when it comes to ongoing misery not caused by nature. Towards the destruction of the livelihoods of millions by policy and human agency.

We want effective and advanced planning for events distant and hard to predict. But reject planning for the near future in favour of `the market', which alone should be the one true guide. We want to build walls against the sea all along the coast after having done away with nature's own — the mangroves and sand dunes. Maybe we will build walls around Mumbai next to keep the plebeians out. Mr. Deshmukh's legacy would then be forever secure.

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