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Children in Dharavi outside their huts.
For the 10 lakh residents of India’s most famous slum, elections are often incidental events. For them, not a lot changes in the five years between changes in government. They hear impressive promises every election — better infrastructure, improved sanitation, more toilets and more schools — but after polling season passes by, usually, nothing ever gets done.
As Dharavi, at the heart of Mumbai’s South-Central constituency, goes to polls on Thursday, voters have heard more of the same promises. But this year one issue above all has captured their interest — a controversial Rs. 15,000 crore redevelopment project that will see the slum’s one lakh tenements razed to the ground and its residents relocated to apartment complexes.
In the lead-up to this election, much of the debate in Dharavi has focused on this plan mired in controversy since it was first mooted. Some residents feel the State government’s decision to give them 225 sq.ft apartments is a raw deal, given that many of their homes — for many here also their work spaces — are larger.
“The redevelopment is the most important concern for voters, but they face a tough choice as no party has done enough for them on this issue,” says Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers’ Federation, who has for the past four decades worked to improve living standards in Dharavi. An estimated 62 per cent of the 15 lakh voters in Mumbai South-Central constituency live in slums, and more than half of them live in Dharavi, according to him. Their vote could make all the difference this election.
Eknath Gaikwad, the Congress candidate for South-Central Mumbai and the sitting MP from North-Central Mumbai, initially supported the government’s 225 sq.ft proposal, but since changed tack after protests against the plan grew louder. The government now promises to give residents 300 sq.ft apartments. His main opponent, Suresh Gambhir of the Shiv Sena, has promised to give them no less than 400 sq.ft. His popularity is fast-growing.
Dharavi has traditionally been a Congress bastion — the party has won every Assembly election here except in 1978 and 1995. Mr. Gaikwad, the party’s only Scheduled Caste MP in Mumbai, is the firm favourite, but Mr. Gambhir’s strong stand on the redevelopment issue will ensure a closer contest this time around. The Sena candidate also has a reputation for inclusive politics and has made considerable efforts to woo Muslim voters. “The slum vote will go to whoever progressively captures the issue of redevelopment,” Mr. Arputham says. “And if the ruling party doesn’t join the bandwagon, they will be the losers.”
Dharavi resident Raju Korade, who has led the fight against the redevelopment plan, says voters in Dharavi are weary of hearing the same promises. “The government hasn’t done anything the last five years,” he says. “They have only constructed toilets, but the sanitation problems are still persistent. There are 10 lakh people living here, and there is no school, no college, and no open spaces. Every locality needs these facilities. We’ve heard the promises for years but nothing happens.”
He says Mr. Gaikwad “under-estimated” the importance of the redevelopment issue for voters here by hard-selling the government’s plan, but is fast trying to make-up for his earlier mistake. “Gaikwad is telling voters now he will ensure 300 sq.ft apartments and he will create heaven on Dharavi’s land with hospitals and schools,” he says.
The issue of rehabilitation is by no means unique to Dharavi. An estimated 55 per cent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, according to the 2001 State census. In several constituencies, such as South-Central Mumbai, their vote will be a deciding factor this election.
In North-Central Mumbai, three in every four voters lives in a slum. Here, the resettlement of around 85,000 families who live on land that will be consumed by a proposed airport expansion plan is the burning issue. Residents have protested moves that will relocate them to far-off suburbs. Priya Dutt, the Congress candidate, says the rehabilitation of slum-dwellers is a priority for her and has promised to resettle displaced residents in nearby areas. So has Mahesh Jethmalani, the BJP’s candidate here. This election, promises are plenty for the residents of Mumbai’s slums; whether they will be kept is another matter.
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