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What The Urban Poor Want: Challenges of Governance For AAP

11/02/2015 8:51 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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Cut out photographs of Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, leader Arvind Kejriwal, adorns the cart of a street vendor ahead of Delhi state elections in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015. Delhi goes to the polls on Feb. 7. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

The writing's on the wall. The AAP's landslide victory not only puts the brakes on the Modi juggernaut but the trouncing of the Congress undeniably makes it the voice of the urban poor in the city. Is the party up to the challenge? Populist promises such as free wi-fi and CCTVs might have made for catchy campaign slogans, but these mean little to the weary urban poor electorate in Delhi that has consistently experienced only neglect and misgovernance.

A majority of the urban poor live in slums, jhuggi-jhopri (JJ) clusters and resettlement colonies, often in constant fear of eviction. Before the poll results were announced, I spoke to residents at three JJ clusters in a southeast Delhi constituency to understand how they thought these elections could transform their lives. Most of them are daily wage workers. Across the clusters, as interviews turned into impromptu focus group discussions with women, I heard woes about poor service provision, unsanitary living conditions and a completely apathetic system. None of the three settlements has access to a functioning toilet. The buildings exist in complete disrepair, without electricity, water or sewerage connection. Repeated complaints to ward councillors and MLAs have yielded no improvements, although all parties without fail make election time promises about spanking new facilities. Open drains run through the narrow lanes outside the jhuggis, carrying garbage and waste water; one such drain empties into an open yard right next to the settlement, creating a sanitation crisis. Neither are the open drains cleaned nor is garbage collected with any regularity. Even when the women organised groups to visit the MLA, nothing consequential ever came from these meetings. Moreover, such collective action comes with a price tag. A day away from work means lost wages that could have otherwise bought a week's supply of grain or milk.

I asked the women what finally having a functional government after nearly a year of President's rule might mean to them. "Nothing at all" was the refrain. The voters were supremely confident that politicians, desperately making door-to-door visits until a few days ago, would never be seen again once the results were announced. Why not use their strength as a vote bank to bargain with the politicians more forcefully, I asked. It's hard to convince the residents to vote as a single bloc, they argued. "Apna kaam banta, bhaad main jaaye janta (As long as our work is getting done, let the people go to hell)," a woman summed up. Anticipating cash and liquor to flow freely the night before the election, the residents admitted unabashedly, "Why not enjoy the freebies, it's not like our vote will change anything for the better anyway." One woman, really stressed out about the future, said she never knows when she might be evicted or her jhuggi demolished. She cannot get her son married because no one wants to send their daughter to live in a house without a toilet. All things considered, she said she'd vote for whoever distributed foreign brand liquor this time. I put the same question to another woman in a JJ settlement 4 km away. A migrant, she moved to Delhi 25 years ago, and saved up every month to pay Rs 50,000 in order to "own" a 10 sq m room with a kuccha roof that leaks terribly when it rains. She told me that she chats with her neighbours every evening about water problems and voting decisions. The consensus was that the jhadoo might just do the trick this time, she said with a sly but optimistic smile.

AAP's election manifesto certainly set the bar high, but Delhi is a hard city to govern. It is a confusing maze of local municipal bodies, state-level departments and autonomous agencies. Garbage collection and the cleaning of streets and drains fall under the municipal corporation. In contrast, water and sewage connections have to be built and operated by the Delhi Jal Board, which answers to the state government. Many of the unauthorised settlements often exist on land owned by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which falls under the purview of the union government. All new policy decisions bring forth a host of coordination problems between various levels of government. This is further complicated by the fact that ward-level councillors, MLAs and MPs, even when they belong to the same party, are antagonistic, thus hampering service delivery.

AAP's manifesto makes lofty promises about restructuring the MCD, DDA and the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), building new toilets, creating new sewage networks and expediting in situ improvements in slum areas. Can the party succeed in overhauling governance where others have miserably failed? One doesn't need a crystal ball to predict that the road ahead is going to be a tough one.

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