Residents of Mumbai’s poorest slums know polls won’t change a thing for them – but they vote in hope

Elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, India’s richest civic body, will be held on Tuesday.

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Campaigning for the Mumbai civic elections reached a fever pitch on Sunday, the last day of canvassing. In the lanes of M-East ward in eastern Mumbai, the energy was electrifying. The streets were packed with rallies. Candidates and their supporters were out on bike and foot. Children ran around holding flags of various parties, and shouting slogans they perhaps could make little sense of. The campaign offices and booths of major parties buzzed with activity, and parties and candidates held street-corner meetings.

On Tuesday, people of this ward, and in 23 other wards across Mumbai, will vote for a new general body of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation – the country’s richest civic body with its budget for 2016-’17 standing at Rs 37,052 crores.

As the campaign ended on Sunday evening, promises flew thick and fast: cleaner and regular water supply, water connections in homes, repairs to school buildings and better education for “our children, tomorrow’s future”, more study centres to help students in high school and colleges, improved health centres and expansion of the lone civic hospital in the area, jobs in factories or small units that would be set up here, increased security, and reducing and eliminating drug abuse.

If electoral promises were kept, Mumbai’s M-East ward – the poorest, filthiest and most under-served municipal ward in India’s wealthiest city’s – would be transformed over the next five years. However, residents of M-East ward, especially of its many slums that house nearly 78% of its nine lakh population, know better.

When residents of M-East ward head out to vote for their 15 corporators in the new 227-member general body on Tuesday, they go with the knowledge that their vote has limited power to change things in this most blighted of areas in Mumbai. That, at the end of the day, it is the informal, underground, illicit network of service providers who will determine basic services like housing, water, toilets, schools, gardens and jobs in their communities. But the residents of this ward vote because they must.

(Photo credit: Venkatraghavan Rajagopalan).
(Photo credit: Venkatraghavan Rajagopalan).

Below par civic services

“Those who are asking for votes are not those who give us civic services,” said Zulekha, 29, in Sanjay Nagar, a slum in M-East ward. “Those who provide the necessities won’t come for votes, they don’t need to.”

A number of men and women here also speak off-the-record of how elected representatives, civic officials and what they call the “mafia network” are hand-in-glove and how they all share a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of below-par civic services in the area.

The M-East ward will have as many as 15 corporators – the highest for any ward in Mumbai – in the municipal corporation’s new general body. In the previous house, the ward had 13 corporators: four from the Samajwadi Party, three from the Shiv Sena, two Congress, one each from the BJP and Bharatiya Republican Party, and two independents.

Abu Asim Azmi of the Samajwadi Party has represented the area in the Maharashtra Assembly in the 2009 and 2014 elections. The face of the Uttar Pradesh-based party in Mumbai, Azmi is better known for his misogynist comments and noise in the Assembly than for his work in the lanes and gutters of M-East. The current MP is Kirit Somaiya of the BJP.

“Of the corporators who spoke up for this area, it was Rais Shaikh bhai who took our issues to the big guys,” said Sunil, 31, who is a resident of Govandi and recently landed a job in a mall. “But it’s an entire system that is either corrupt or uncaring of this area, perhaps both.”

The non-profit Praja Foundation, which works towards enabling accountable governance, issues an annual report card in which its ranks the city’s municipal corporators depending on their performance. In the past, this report has evaluated Rais Shaikh as one of the city’s best corporators. His effort to reconstruct lanes and small roads in Govandi slums to prevent water-logging and water-borne diseases is spoken of highly in the area. However, his ability and willingness to be vocal about pressing issues of his constituency has not translated into concrete and comprehensive action on the ground.

Haphazard development, if at all

M-East ward has seen haphazard development with local politicians and various non-governmental organisations doing independent work to fill in for the absent or negligent civic administration. Over the years, every local election has been turned into an event in which candidates make promises, lay new pipelines for water, open some centre and then forget about it. Of the 13 corporators in the ward, three to four represent the better-off middle class areas in it. But the rest are hardly heard on the issues facing their voters.

“It is not for want of money that there has been no development in M-East ward over the last few years,” said Sabah Khan who teaches at the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “It is for want of vision, want of willingness on the part of the civic system.”

The institute’s campus is located in M-East ward, at Deonar, and Khan is a key resource person in the institute’s Transforming M-East Ward Project, started in 2011 to document and facilitate development in the area.

Khan continued: “This is why we, in the project, had suggested to the assistant municipal commissioner of M-East that the BMC should undertake slum mapping. This would help create models, and there will not be a haphazard laying of pipelines left unfinished, or yet another small school constructed, or another badly-planned community toilet block. Each agency would know what civic services are required in which slum and which remain unfinished. But this needs a vision.”

(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).
(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).

Without a vision, the municipal corporation’s efforts become discretionary.

Residents said that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation administration, under assistant municipal commissioner Kiran Dighavkar, took a few initiatives such as opening study centres to stem the number of dropouts from the area’s 75 municipal primary schools, and allocating areas for makeshift playgrounds in the area that is starved of open spaces. But by and large, the municipal corporation was either absent or negligent in providing basic civic services such as sanitation and water, they added.

“We hold on to doors and slabs in the toilet blocks or fear falling into the septic tank below and dying,” said Akhtar Abdul, 40, a construction labourer living in the Shivaji Nagar slum. Once such mishap killed three people in this area earlier this month.

The Shatabdi Hospital in Govandi is another example of negligence. Constructed in 1986, its services need to be upgraded, especially considering that it serves a large low-income population. In 2006, corporators representing this area went on a hunger strike to demand that funds be allocated for its repair and maintenance. The municipal corporation unveiled a plan to renovate, expand and modernise it three years later. But the tenders for this plan were not opened till early this year, 11 years after the demand was first made. Neither the outgoing corporators nor the MLA Abu Asim Azmi made a noise about this.

Elections bring empty promises

Yet, candidates come around at election time to give assurances that have been given before – and broken. “There will be a change in this area, ” promised Samajwadi Party candidate Akhtar Razzaq Qureshim in Shivaji Nagar. “I will see to it that you all get water, good quality and good supply of water in your taps.”

Candidates hold out the same promises: water, power, better houses and schools every election – civic body, state Assembly or Lok Sabha. Only their methods of campaigning change. For instance, this civic election has seen a liberal use of mobile phones and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. In fact, there have been regular fights between parties over the addition of ineligible voters to WhatsApp groups. Some parties are adding Bangladeshis to voters’ lists, we won’t allow that to pass, said campaigners of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena candidate Satish Vaidya.

“Why things do not change in M-East ward is a deep question,” said Arun Kumar, chief executive officer of Apnalaya, a non-profit that has been conducting programmes for pregnant women and malnourished children, women’s empowerment and gender justice, education and livelihood in the area for the last three decades. “It boggles the mind because there is enough political representation at the BMC level as well as state and national level. This isn’t some far-flung inaccessible part of the country.”

What the elected representatives of M-East do – or not do – in the municipal corporation matters. Four of the 13 corporators elected five years ago were on the civic body’s Markets and Gardens Committee but the ward suffers from an abject lack of gardens and open spaces. Shiv Sena’s Rahul Shewale, a corporator from Mankhurd-Mandala in M-East, was ranked 223 out of 227 corporators in the Praja Foundation’s annual report card 2015-’16. He had not asked a single question in the corporation last year. He is also a MLA since October 2014.

Mohammed Siraj Shaikh, independent corporator from Shivaji Nagar, neither attended the municipal corporation proceedings nor asked questions in the House in 2015-’16, according to the report card. Shaikh scored a rank of 211 among 227 corporators. Neither Shewale nor Shaikh were available for comment. Their offices said they were busy campaigning.

Communalisation of non-development

M-East ward has a large presence of Muslims, overwhelming poverty, appalling social indices and lack of imaginative development initiatives. The Samajwadi Party has often run electoral campaigns that were communal in nature but this year, Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, conflated religious and development issues in a perilous way.

In his bid to dislodge the Samajwadi Party as the voice of Mumbai’s Muslims, Owaisi alleged at a rally in January that the city’s Muslim-dominated areas are deliberately denied development funds. “If Muslims are paying taxes to the BMC, it is their constitutional right to get amenities as well,” he said to thunderous applause. “The Muslim-dominated areas of Mumbai must get 21% of the BMC’s Rs 37,000 crore annual budget, that’s Rs 7,700 crore, because it matches the proportion of Muslims in the city’s population.”

(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).
(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).

Since then, Owaisi has fielded the largest number of Muslim candidates in the BMC election – 57 in all compared to 39 by the Congress, six by the BJP and five by the Shiv Sena – and has concentrated resources in the 15 civic constituencies of the M-East ward. The population of Muslims in the ward is close to 51%. In some areas such as Shivaji Nagar, it is closer to 85%, according to studies conducted by Apnalaya.

Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen won two seats in the 288-member Maharashtra Assembly in its first outing during the 2014 state election and has since won handsomely in municipal corporations in Nanded, Aurangabad, and Mumbai’s far suburbs of Kalyan-Dombivali. Owaisi is hoping to build on those gains.

However, not everyone in M-East is impressed by Owaisi and his party’s aggressive campaigning. “This kind of talk unnecessarily communalises the issue,” said Bilal Khan, a social activist who works in the realm of housing rights, “People need civic services because they live and work here, because they are citizens of Mumbai, not because they are Muslims.”

In the stinking bylanes of Rafiq Nagar adjoining the Deonar landfill, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and Samajwadi Party battle for the attention of voters with competitive posters and booths. Residents said that the youth were getting attracted to Owaisi’s party. “So many political parties have failed to do anything here,” said Kabir Husain Sheikh, 36, a technician. “The youth is now hoping that the AIMIM [All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen] can.”

The older residents of this area are wiser. “There’s so much attention and visits for a local election,” observed Dil Mohammed Qadri, 62, social worker. “Once elected, no one bothers. Abu Asim Azmi who claims to be the father of this basti hasn’t done anything in the last eight to 10 years. The saying ‘naam bade aur darshan chhote’ [grandiose reputation and inconsequential work] suits him very well, but it’s amazing how stupid slum-dwellers can be.”

Money is not a constraint

In the last six years, the municipal corporation’s annual budget has almost doubled – from Rs 20,417 crores in 2010-’11 to Rs 37,052 crores in 2016-’17. Budgetary allocations to health and schools have seen an increase too. The M-East ward gets its allocations on paper. Moreover, in addition to the civic body’s planned outlay, each corporator gets Rs 60 lakh as corporator funds. Additionally, each corporator can draw from the area development fund, which was Rs 40 lakh till two years ago but was raised to Rs 1 crore in February 2014. That makes Rs 1.60 crore available to a corporator every year to undertake development projects in consultation and coordination with the civic administration.

(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).
(Photo credit: Sanjeev Nair).

“There are people interested in keeping this slum as a slum,” said Arun Kumar. “And over the last few years as the rest of Mumbai got attention, got upgraded, there has been a gradual invisibilisation of the M-East ward.”

The M-East ward has all but moved out of the attention of Mumbai’s mainstream media and the average Mumbaikar’s consciousness – unless there is a major fire in the ward’s Deonar landfill, which threatens the entire city’s air quality. However, the unkindest cut is that it seems to have fallen off the radar of civic and state administrations too. With the citizenship of its residents ambiguous, their voices are unheard.

Elected corporators may not have done much for the makeover of M-East ward but they remain the residents’ hope and voice – however feeble – in the city’s municipal corporation.

With additional reporting inputs by Suryasarathi Bhattacharya.

This is the concluding part of a series on the poorest part of India’s wealthiest city. The first three articles can be read here, here and here.

This article was first published on



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