Why India votes: Paradox of promise

Right in the national capital, those who don’t have access to drinking water and pay to use toilets are the very people who never miss voting. Why?


Jasleen Kaur | November 20, 2013

Jamna selling old clothes in a mandi near Raghubir Nagar
Jamna selling old clothes in a mandi near Raghubir Nagar

Jamna, 34, has been living with her husband and their two sons in a jhuggi in Raghubir Nagar for 17 years. To earn a living, Jamna and her husband go door to door in various residential colonies of west Delhi, offering steel utensils in exchange of old clothes. Twice a week she comes to the mandi near her house to sell the old clothes, watches, shoes and other paraphernalia that they have collected. She manages to earn a few thousand rupees a month. But much of it goes in paying the electricity bill and accessing even basic amenities like toilets.

Every day everybody in her family pays Rs 2 for using the common toilet in the neighbourhood and Rs 5 for bathing. Her monthly expenditure, thus, comes to Rs 240 for using the toilet and Rs 600 for bathing. This is true for most people in the locality, she says. Jamna, however, saves Rs 10 every day. “My mother lives in ‘the plot’ and has a water connection. I wash my clothes there,” she says.

Their hopes of some solution to their daily woes are rekindled every time there is an election, as candidates come and promise land plots and water connections, but the hopes fade after the votes are cast.

And yet that has never stopped Jamna and her husband from going to the polling booth again and again. She has voted in each and every election since she got her voter’s card at the age of 20.

“Election is the only time when we are counted, just one day in five years. It’s my right, why shouldn’t I use it? Vote is very important. Every single vote matters,” she says. “If we do not vote, if we do not use our right, with what face would we ask the politician to work for us?”

Jamna says that her regular voting in every election was perhaps the reason why she finally got a water connection at home three months back. This has ended her daily struggle to fetch potable water for her family from a tap in the neighbourhood.

She hopes that the candidates would listen to her problems this time. “There is no space to build toilets in our jhuggis (hutments). But I just want them to do something about the open drains. It becomes really difficult during rains,” she says.

Like Jamna, her neighbours in the lower middle class jhuggi cluster in Raghubir Nagar have had their own share of problems and challenges but that has never stopped them from participating in the electoral process.

For them, elections are not just a matter of casting votes, but the very essence of their citizenship. For them, the election is the only occasion when they are counted equal to other citizens.

Delhi goes to assembly polls in two weeks. Chief minister Sheila Dikshit of the Congress has completed three consecutive terms, and is seeking a fourth, claiming all-round development of the capital, including its slum clusters. But there is little change on ground, says slum-dwellers here.

Pappu Kumar, a 45-year-old who is in the same business as Jamna’s, lives in an 8-by-6-foot, one-room jhuggi with his wife and the youngest daughter. (Two of his daughters are married.) He has been living here for 35 years and is a regular voter too.

Unlike Jamna, Kumar is still waiting to get water supply in his hut – something he was promised during the last election. But he is hopeful. “If not today, they will fix it tomorrow,” says Kumar. Till then, apart from paying for toilet and bathing, he will also continue to pay Rs 10 thrice a week (Rs 180 a month) for washing clothes at a spot near the colony.

Still, he would go and vote this time as well. Why does he vote at all? “Why do we vote? It is our right. Why shouldn’t we?” he replies with a laugh.

“A lot of political parties come and assure us that they would help us get plots or that they would put taps in our houses. But in the last 20 years, hardly anything has happened. But this doesn’t mean we would not vote. Voting is our right – the only right that nobody can deny us,” he says.

“We are counted because of our vote. Our vote has significance. This is probably the only way we contribute in governance,” he adds.
Living in sub-standard conditions, people here constantly hope for a change, for a better life. One can easily see why people in such colonies are wooed by political parties.

"There is no drainage, no drinking-water facilities. In every election, politicians come and promise us all that, and that is why I go and vote. Those promises are rarely fulfilled but we cannot stop hoping for better," explains Maya Devi, Kumar’s next-door neighbour.

On the other hand, elections are also the time when at least some promises are partially fulfilled, a tantalising demonstration of what politics can still secure for them. Devi, 45, cites the water tap fixed in some jhuggis as an example. “They promised us during the last elections that they would give us water connection. And just three months back they started the work, which has been stopped now.”

“We do not get drinking water. Earlier the tanker used to come here to supply drinking water. There were so many people and so little supply that it was difficult to get your share and people used to fight. The new water connection is definitely some relief,” she says.

For Devi, too, voting is an essential right and she has never missed it. “If we do not vote our names would be deleted from the voters’ list. We won’t get all the benefits and facilities we get on the basis of our identity card (that is, voter’s card),” she believes.

“Political parties make various promises to get our votes. I vote for the party which works for us. Even if they will put a tap, it is more than enough for me,” says Devi, who shares her jhuggi with her husband and two sons.

Though each of the jhuggis owners have an electricity connection and a cooking-gas cylinder in their names, they have to live with the hard reality of paying for common toilets, bathing and washing clothes and collecting drinking water from common taps. But even if they are denied all the basic amenities, they would still go and vote with the same enthusiasm. After all, that is their only right which no one can take away, says Vitthal Bhai, 55.

During his last visit to his ancestral village in Gujarat in June, Vitthal lost his voter’s card. But, he says, he had a photocopy of it and he quickly submitted the required document with a copy of an FIR to get the replacement. “I am yet to get it but they have assured me that I would be able to cast my vote with this copy,” says Vitthal, who has voted in every election during the last 35 years. “We did not have pucca jhuggis for many years. But we have got them because we continued to vote all these years.” On a different note, he adds, “I have been staying here for 40 years. I have seen political leaders changing. All come with promises during elections. But my vote is not based on the greed.

“Obviously it is difficult for us to manage our expenses. We have to pay a lot for using toilet and bathing facilities. But this doesn’t mean we would not vote. Vote dalna to niyam hai, woh kaise chhod sakte hai? (Casting your vote is a rule, how can you not do it?),” says Vithal, who shares his jhuggi with his wife, while his four sons, with their families, stay in jhuggis next to his.

Surprisingly, most people in Raghubir Nagar voice their support for the Congress government. Voters' turnout in ‘jhuggi jhopri’ (JJ) clusters and slums is much higher compared to middle and upper-middle class localities of the capital. Also, the unauthorised colonies and JJ clusters in Delhi have traditionally been Congress strongholds.

So, there is this paradox of promise: people seem to be rooting for those who could have ensured basic amenities for them, but would promise do so now.



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