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Banning the majority from voting

By Darryl D'Monte

A recent petition in the Bombay High Court seeks to ban slumdwellers from voting. The argument would be that squatters don't occupy land legally and don't pay taxes and therefore deserve to be disenfranchised. The argument doesn't wash, says Darryl D'Monte. Surely citizenship and voting rights are not defined by the dwellings and structures one occupies?

We pride ourselves on being the world's biggest democracy, ousting the US , which likes to claim this prime status. This refers to numbers, rather than the functioning of the democratic system; to quantity rather than quality. In the May Lok Sabha elections, as many as 668 million Indians had the right to vote. It is another matter that some 40% couldn't read or write, or voted for parties or candidates because they were coerced or on the basis of caste or community. When one sees the curtailed democracies of our neighbours and, indeed, of developing countries around the world, we should not belittle our election system.

Unfortunately, some prominent Maharashtrian literary and film personalities and journalists are trying to undermine our electoral system on the eve of the assembly elections in the state of Maharashtra . Eleven figures, who include litterateur Subhash Bhende, former editor of Loksatta Madhav Gadkari and actor Sadashiv Amrapurkar have filed a case in the Bombay High Court, seeking to ban slumdwellers from voting. It will not apply to the October elections, for which the list was published in August, but set a vital precedent as a general principle for future ballots.

They argue that the slumdwellers were being molly-coddled by politicians who treat them as vote-banks and that in law, their illegal status prevents them from being voters. Their counsel stated: "It is necessary to revise the city's electoral list by deleting all names of encroachers on railway compounds, footpaths, playgrounds and other places reserved for public purposes."

Bhende has gone on record as clarifying that the petitioners were not "against slumdwellers, but against the unauthorised slums that are obstructing infrastructural developments", which appears to contradict what they are trying to assert in court: their case transcends the narrower specifics of infrastructure projects. Their stated claim in court appears, on the face of it, a rationalisation of their argument.

This is a restatement of the argument - then too, as one recalls, endorsed by some Maharashtrian intellectuals - in 1981 when Chief Minister Abdul Rehman Antulay sought to oust pavementdwellers along the Western Express Highway (which upsets the elite because foreign visitors have to pass by from the airport). Two journalists with two well-known Mumbai lawyers (both coincidentally women) fought the pavementdwellers' case from the High Court right up to the Supreme Court, arguing that the squatters were not drawn by the pull of the bright lights of Mumbai but were pushed out of their rural areas because their lives there were unsustainable. It was a powerful and convincing humane plea.

At the height of this controversy, the demolitions were supported by Durga Bhagwat, the late litterateur who had otherwise supported several progressive causes, and the erudite editor of Maharashtra Times, Govind Talwalkar. When this columnist interviewed the latter, he argued that the bulk of the squatters, who were known to graduate to occupying shanties illegally, came from outside the state and did not belong to the city. This reminds one of the forcible evictions of beggars from Mumbai during the infamous national emergency in the mid-1970s: they were packed into buses and sent off to the border of the states from which they hailed. As can well be imagined, they merely found their way back to the streets of a metropolis which, while not being inviting, ensured that they didn't starve. I had to point out to Talwalkar that surveys showed that half the slumdwellers in Mumbai at the time were from Maharashtra - displaced by "development" projects like dams or oppressed by perennial droughts. The argument doesn't seem to convince anyone suffering from a 'siege' mentality and subscribing to a sons-of-the-soil "mee-Mumbaikar" ("Mumbai for me") slogan.

The current case raises the crucial question, squarely, of who is a citizen? The petitioners would doubtless argue that since the squatters don't occupy land legally and don't pay taxes, they deserve to be disenfranchised. As Bhende believes, under the Representation of People's Act, a voter must fulfil two conditions: you have to be over 18 and ordinarily a resident of the area. "This means that you must be a legal resident," he says. "So how are election officials registering the names of slumdwellers in the voters' list without inquiring into the legal status of their residence? You can't register yourself as a voter by saying: 'I live under the lamp-post.'"

This assertion has very dangerous implications. The fact is that by official estimate, which some demographers believe is an undercount, as much as 55% of Greater Mumbai's 12 million people live in slums. In other words, they form the majority. It is the much-vaunted "middle class" (not to mention the minuscule upper class) which is calling for their disenfranchisement. Never mind, incidentally, that the proportion of voters in the country's richest Lok Sabha constituency of south Mumbai is notoriously lower than the rest of the city. Some two-thirds of Mumbaikars live in one-room tenements, which gives some idea of who is calling for action against squatters.

How can a minority call for a crackdown on the majority? This would invite the charge that it is introducing Bantustans , a la former South Africa , where the white elite deprived the black majority of their vote (and countless other democratic and human rights). The argument has found favour with Bal Thackeray and his chauvinist Shiv Sena, which would like to place restrictions on people coming into Mumbai, with 'entry passes' and other obnoxious restraints. It reminds you of Palestine . No one can control the entry into the city of fellow Indians, who have every right to vote under the Constitution. (Too much should not be made about the ubiquitous Bangladeshis, at least in Mumbai, as distinct from the border states . This is a figment of the fevered imaginations of nativist politicians.)

Indeed, there are endless misconceptions about Mumbai being flooded by outsiders or immigrants from other states and neighbouring countries. The truth is, as far as the previous census in 1991 is concerned, that only 300 persons (not families) entered the city on an average day in the preceding decade. What is more, contrary to popular belief, India isn't urbanising rapidly by international (African and Latin American) standards. Unlike many developing countries, we don't possess "primate" cities, which dominate an entire country (like Bangkok , Jakarta , Dhaka and countless other examples). Even Mumbai isn't growing rapidly: in 1991, natural increase accounted for 60% of the population growth, and migration only the remaining 40%. So the endless fears about being swamped by an influx of outsiders are entirely unwarranted. Even as sympathetic an observer as Suketu Mehta, author of the recently-released Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found (Penguin India) falls into the trap of envisaging Mumbai as a mega-city which is drawing hordes to it. Only the outlying townships of Thane and Kalyan are actually expanding fast: it is hardly any secret that land and tenement prices are a strong deterrent to immigrants in Greater Mumbai. Even a tin and burlap hovel commands a hefty price.

Let us take each of the charges levelled against the "wretched of the city" recently. The Marathi literati told the High Court that the slumdwellers were trespassing on government land and preventing it from developing infrastructure. Actually, this overwhelming majority occupies only around 8% of the geographical area of Greater Mumbai. As to the argument that they are living here "free" and are the beneficiaries of the revenue earned by taxpayers, it is common knowledge that direct taxes form a very small proportion of the government's revenues. Even property taxes, which have been largely frozen by the Rent Act of 1947 in Mumbai, earns the state a pittance. Income-tax payers form less than 2% of the entire country's population, although Mumbai accounts for more than its fair share of them. Mumbai's main revenue comes from indirect taxes, like excise, which is payable on everything one buys. A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation would reveal that the majority would pay substantial sums in toto as taxpayers. Finally, as regards living "free", it is obvious that a much higher proportion of slumdwellers' families is working - children included - than in the middle class.

All those who criticise the homeless for being a drain on the city ought to remember how many services these hapless people perform for the well-off. How many homes would remain unclean, without the labour of maids? Or meals uncooked, children not collected from school and cars idle for lack of drivers? Slumdwellers also double as roadside vendors who, while certainly not being permitted to set up shop anywhere, perform invaluable service by providing eatables and goods near one's work or homes at far cheaper prices than in shops. The Supreme Court, while dismissing the pavementdwellers' case after the 1981 evictions, ruled that they should not be shifted during the monsoons and ought to be given alternative accommodation in certain instances.

There is a more specific counter-argument in the current case before the High Court. Voting rights are in no way related to the structures one occupies, which is the defining criterion of slumdwellers. They have to be ordinarily resident, and most have occupied their sites for several years: even by the state government's norms, anyone living in a shanty dwelling in 1995 has legal status and enjoys the right to be rehoused or relocated properly. Does the Maharashtrian literati imply that this majority of Mumbaikars are 'extra-ordinarily' resident? Many possess ration cards and other proof of residence. So their entire allegation falls flat.

The harsh truth is that the middle class harbours a terrible prejudice against the homeless. This is borne out by the very words of the Supreme Court judges who, while ruling on the Antulay case with commendable fairness, intoned, with Victorian censoriousness: "They cook and sleep where they please. Their daughters come of age, bathe under the nosy gaze of passers-by, unmindful of the feminine sense of bashfulness. The cooking and washing over, women pick lice from each other's hair. The boys beg. Men folk without occupation snatch chains with the connivance of the defenders of law and order." Shades of Charles Dickens' London in this diatribe...

Some two decades ago, this columnist assisted Anand Patwardhan in a small sequence when he was making his award-winning and sensitive portrayal of Mumbai slumdwellers in Hamara Sheher. Asked to speak to a group called Indus , consisting of well-heeled ladies, I thought it would be a waste of time but alerted Patwardhan, who brought his camera. I steered the conversation around to slumdwellers and asked the assembly what they thought of them. The women were unsparing in their condemnation of them as criminals and good-for-nothings. However, a few admitted that their servants were exceptions to the rule. Here lies the rub: switch to the personal plane and everyone will concede that the homeless they encounter in their day-to-day lives are by no means anti-social. This ought to be extrapolated to the homeless as a class.

In the Mumbai assembly constituency where I live, voters will be faced with the choice, in October 2004, between voting for Shaina NC , a socialite dress designer and political neophyte representing the BJP, and Baba Siddiqui, a wily Congress wheeler and dealer. The result is a foregone conclusion, which is why no BJP or Shiv Sena leader worth his name would dare to take on Siddiqui, who has carved out his constituents from the slums in Bandra. Is this votebank politics and manipulation of the electorate? The homeless know that he is one hope, however tarnished and disreputable, that they have of getting a better deal, that he has delivered at least on some occasions. Is this a cynical calculation or the mass politics of promising the dispossessed a better future? I leave it to readers to decide. But, whatever we think, the poor will be with us for many more years to come, notwithstanding attempts to project Mumbai as a "world class" city.

InfoChange News & Features, October 2004