Spare a thought for the urban poor

Spare a thought for the urban poor
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First Published: Tue, May 19 2009. 12 52 AM IST
Updated: Tue, May 19 2009. 12 52 AM IST
JJ colony is the somewhat grand-sounding abbreviation used by the English language media to refer to unauthorized residential slum colonies in Delhi, locally known as jhuggi-jhompri kloni s. The colonies have come up sporadically to meet the needs of a vast and ever-growing crowd of migrant labour for a roof over their heads.
Though illegal, such shanty towns live perennially in the hope of becoming legalized around election time. That is the only time when politicians looking for big vote banks arrive in these areas with an armload of populist packages.
Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan (LNJP) colony is one such. It came up around 1975 after the first major non-Congress coalition, the Janata Party, replaced Indira Gandhi’s government and the leaders swore at Gandhi’s samadhi (memorial) to serve the daridra narayana—the poorest of the poor.
Recently, the slums, panning the distance between Connaught Place (New Delhi-1) and the old Delhi areas of Turkman Gate, Delhi Gate and Ajmeri Gate (Delhi-6), were undergoing a survey by the municipal corporation of Delhi before legalization. It is an intricate proposition, complicated by the fact that the official team of surveyors will usually visit a site for 3 hours to survey a total of some 120 homes. The team will spend just a few minutes to sift through a mass of papers and verify claims, and stamp the papers that make a shack legal, and complex family and house-ownership patterns among the very poor, most of whom are missing in daytime since they work long hours. Pitted against red tape and official apathy towards the inhabitants’ convenience, logic seldom survives.
In 1994, for example, Hasina Bai was living in the colony with her family and mother-in-law. Her husband, a rickshaw puller, was the family breadwinner. When surveys began, the family discovered that, as per rules, the widowed mother-in-law was deemed poorer and entitled to a bigger plot of land than her son. Overnight, the family was split into two units and the son quickly put together another smaller shack next to his mother’s. Today, they own two legal shacks.
They had rented out the smaller shack. When the surveyors came calling, the tenant claimed he was the owner. Meanwhile, Hasina’s original papers of purchase, which she had put in a bag and hung from a nail, were reduced to pulp in one particularly bad monsoon. Although the whole slum knows who the real owner is, the tenant is threatening her that the papers are now in his name. He, too, is poor and, unlike her, had the magical poverty-proving deck of cards handy: a pink V.P. Singh card, a yellow ration card for those below the poverty line, a voter’s identity card and several receipts for electricity bills duly paid. He told the surveyors that Hasina and her mother-in-law had sold him the shack for Rs1,000, and were shamming bewilderment.
Then there is Mukim and Vishnu’s equally complex case. They had decided to remove the tiny partition wall between their courtyards for more breathing space. But the survey team unfortunately landed in the men’s absence. They refused to accept that two homes can share a courtyard and listed the two shacks as one dwelling. Vishnu was livid when he and Mukim came back from work and found the papers had been confirmed in Mukim’s name, and would not be mollified even when Mukim’s mother cried and swore she had done nothing. She just happened to be the only person present when the team came.
According to estimates, the urban poor are 10% of India’s billion-plus population. The National Family Health Survey has horrifying statistics about the health of urban slum dwellers, without whom most services would grind to a halt. Almost half the children in slums are born at home amid exceedingly filthy conditions to anaemic and malnourished mothers, and one in five dies before reaching the age of 5. Alcoholism and drug addiction are common, and every kind of proof for being genuine-poor comes at a price. They know the parties, which visit them at election time, will overlook all this and use the the same touts to contact voters. So they pay touts amounts ranging from Rs500 to several thousands for a shanty, a ration card, and more to get the leaders to bless them and get their huts legalized.
None of the manifestos released by big national parties in the general election offered any clear and structured plans for helping urban poor such as Hasina and Vishnu. The United Progressive Alliance government announced in Parliament that it would write off farmer debts running into several thousand crores; the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Telugu Desam Party and the Akalis promised poor farmers all kinds of concessions as well but as soon as voting ended, the bulldozing of shanty towns from Mumbai to Delhi began.
The other half of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai that builds those marvels of new architecture, cleans homes, washes clothes, scrubs pots and sells fruit and vegetables by the wayside, mostly lives in illegal colonies.
Shining India and Jai Ho India would both grind to a halt if slum dwellers were to be evicted for sanitizing and beautifying cities. Will the new government spare them a thought?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Comments are welcome at theotherside@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, May 19 2009. 12 52 AM IST