Elections give us journalists a chance to go out and talk to ordinary people. We expect them, especially the poor, to tell us everything where they are from, how much they earn, whether they are married, if not why not, whether they have children, how many, why so many, why no children, what are their dreams and who they will vote for. We take it for granted that questions we would refuse to answer if a stranger asked us should be honestly addressed by those poorer than us.
Sometimes we get the truth, sometimes we do not. But the process of engagement is always humbling. You realise you possess so much yet know so little compared to people who own nothing but possess such an enormous treasure of wisdom. Mumbai's other half or more than half are the poor who live, or rather survive, on its pavements, swamps, the seaside, along railway tracks, water pipelines and on every bit of vacant land.
Some middle class citizens who would rather live in a city without poor people, hate the urban poor. They make our cities dirty, they breed, they fight, they are preventing the city from becoming truly global, say these "building-wallahs". Plus, complain these well-heeled "citizens", because the poor can vote, politicians pamper and cultivate them knowing that it is their vote that decides who is elected. This is unfair, they argue.
'Deny them the vote'
"Disenfranchise them." This is the new cry of some middle class people in Mumbai. The poor living in slums are "illegal" in that they are squatting on land not meant for that purpose. So deny them the vote. This, they believe, will solve the problem of slums because politicians will pay no attention to the poor if they cannot vote and therefore will ensure that they are removed. Made to vanish into thin air. Half the people who hold up more than half the city with their labour should be asked to make way for roads, shopping malls, cinemas, apartment blocks for people who are "legal", who can pay for these facilities. Incredible as it might seem, one set of Indian citizens is actually arguing that another should not be allowed to vote for no fault of theirs except that they have no place to live and are poor. And irrespective of the fact that every citizen of India is entitled to vote.
The people our middle classes would like to disenfranchise have names, histories and are probably more committed to a democratic system than people who can take their shelter for granted. Take Lakshmi, who was one of three families who parked themselves on the pavement on Sophia Zuber Street in Mumbai's Nagpada area. This is one of the oldest neighbourhoods, one that has changed little despite the growth of the city. But Lakshmi's life has changed. Today there are 50 families living on the same stretch of pavement where she had erected a lean-to with tarpaulin in the early 1980s. In those days she could cross the road without risking her life. The building across the street, Taiyab Building, allowed her to sleep at night under the staircase. For six years she slept there. Her son, who is now 21, was born there. Today the traffic on the street is heavy and relentless. You can cross it with difficulty. And it does not stop until way past 3 a.m. Lakshmi is immune to the sound and the fumes.
As we sit in her small hut, and breathe in the exhaust fumes that are abundant at street level, Lakshmi explains how the street gets flooded every monsoon and water enters her house from the overflowing gutter. When it is not raining, she locks her hut and goes and sleeps at the gate of the compound whose wall is part of her pavement dwelling. Needless to say, Lakshmi has never had water and the toilet is a pay toilet run by the municipal corporation. The women fought to lower the rate from Rs. 2 to Rs. 1 for women and children.
But no bitterness
You would imagine a woman like Lakshmi has plenty to be bitter about. Far from it. She is a leader of her community, the only Hindu in a settlement of Bihari Muslims. There has never been a communal problem. She collects money from each family for a common saving scheme. And she has taught this skill to women from near and far. At the end of the day, she says she is proud that she can vote. She speaks fondly of her 21-year-old son who loves music. His guitar is strung up on the wall. And she dreams of one day living in a pucca house.
It is women like Lakshmi who are the true "citizens" of a democratic society. They expect little from the State and get practically nothing. Yet, they contribute their labour. They fulfil their duty by voting. And they participate in community process that help everyone to get out of difficulties instead of just lining their own pockets. The question is not whether a woman like Lakshmi deserves the vote. It is whether the politicians for whom she votes deserve her vote.