Some judgements of the UPA’s three-year rule have come in through the various state and by-elections, but electoral results are only one dimension of reviewing government performance as citizens of the great Indian democracy well know.
The promise of the UPA was to bring the aam admi to the centrestage of the governance process, which was seen to be undermined in the bid to make ‘India Shining’. After three years, ‘Incredible India’ replaced Shining India, but what has happened to the aam admi?
An advisory committee with Sonia Gandhi as its head and champions of the proletariat such as Jean-Dreze and Aruna Roy as members promised to act like the government’s conscience. The Left also saw itself in this key role. The attempt to humanize the reform process, to protect the interests of the vulnerable—all seemed within the realm of the possible. Let’s look at some key issues against this backdrop.
The eviction of some 83,000 slumdwellers in Mumbai in 2003-04 was a most unprecedented, brutal act, demolishing lives and livelihoods, and was committed in contravention of an electoral promise. It took the intervention of Sonia Gandhi to call a halt to the relentless assault. More than two years later, the official resolution offering a tenure to residents of slums prior to 1 January 2001 is yet to see the light of day. The rehabilitation package for affected people is only being offered to settlers prior to 1995. Perhaps more importantly, city policies are being developed in such a way that there is no place for the poor.
The story of Mumbai is being repeated in several cities of the country. The process that makes it possible is, ironically, a policy framework under the UPA rule, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. While bringing into focus core urban issues such as deteriorating infrastructures and poverty, this framework suggests measures antithetical to the very existence of the poor in the cities. Privatization of basic services, public-private partnerships in core areas of development, formalization and consolidation of spaces and markets to incentivize entry of large players are some of the mission’s proposals. Their experience, as is being unveiled in several cities, has a both direct and indirect displacement effect on the urban poor. In the Capital, the war over Sports City vs Crucial Needs may be fought, but in the rest of the country, even ‘rehabilitation’ of the urban poor is being done in ways that are actually displacing.
Perhaps the most crucial testament to the concern of the scores of aam admi is the debate on SEZs. On one hand, the UPA has responded to one of the most crucial dimensions of poverty redressal by creating the Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Act. But the draconian nature of the SEZ legislation is a threat to countless livelihoods. The current focus is limited to land acquisition, while the governance dimensions of SEZs are of equal concern as they undermine all labour laws and bypass the principle of citizenship in valorising capital.
There’s much more—the in-queue bill for reservation of seats for women in Parliament, the pending but promised OBC quota, the yet undefined steps for mainstreaming of minorities. In some ways, steps towards resolution of these issues have been halting, understandably so as they focus on redistributive justice in a society where conventional opportunity sectors are changing and issues are complex. But it is the relentless assault on livelihoods, urban and rural, which symbolizes the unpardonable blot on the conscience of the UPA. It has not delivered so far.
Amita Bhide is an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org