General Elections 2019

Democratic choice held hostage to cash: A tale of Odisha's urban poor

Though political parties deny such claims and these “incidents” often go unnoticed, the truth is that the poor consider elections to be the time to make some “extra cash”

By Sambit Pal
Published: Friday 19 April 2019

Hard cash is flying all around. Grab it and decide which button to press. This probably is going to be the norm of general elections in India.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) might have cancelled the polling in Vellore constituency in Tamil Nadu on allegations of stashing a huge amount of cash in a house related to local DMK candidate, but the menace is slowly engulfing other parts of the country as well.

The cancellation of an election on such allegations just before the day of the poll may be new, but the distribution of cash to buy votes is not. While the South comes up with an unprecedented example, here is a story from East Odisha on how poor voters are often held hostage to cash for vote.

On a mission to understand the issues over which urban poor are voting, I stop by a tea shop near Cuttack’s Deer Park at Madhusudannagar. On being asked which party they were going to vote, the men and women, who had gathered for the mid-morning tea, refuse to open up initially.

Realising the uncomfortable situation and their hesitation to talk about politics in front of a stranger, I ask them about the locality in general.

Around 1,000 slum dwellers have been living near the Deer Park, known as Fansidewa Kathgola (people used to be hanged here pre-Independence), for two to three generations. They have been occupying government land and built houses. The government has not done much to improve their living condition. Still, they don’t have an election issue of their own.

So is it going to be Narendra Modi’s nationalism or Naveen Patnaik’s developmental schemes? What will they vote for? A lady in her 50s, Sarala Nayak, who was standing nearby, said, “You come in the evening.”

Before I could ask why, she added, “The leader of our association (of the slum dwellers) is out on duty. He will come in the evening and can answer all your questions.” It seemed that they don’t have a choice of their own.

A brief conversation revealed that it is the association (not a formal one) which decides the candidate the slum dwellers will vote for en masse. The so-called association bosses apparently deal with the political leaders and tell the slum dwellers where to cast their votes.

The voters are happy with the arrangement. Kailash, a rickshaw puller who struggles to earn Rs 100 a day, said, “We don’t get to see the MLA or the MP in five years. I have heard the local MLA unleashes dogs on visitors and refuses to meet them. So what is the point in pondering over whom to vote for?” 

Still, I nudge them to think about the issues they face daily and the ones the public representatives should address this election. Chogola Nayak, who was born in this slum 45 years ago, said, “We need patta for the land and pucca houses.”

A few others echo Chogola’s views and say every election politicians promise them about the houses, but nothing happens. So they have to live in the makeshift houses they built on their own.

However, a policy document on ‘Housing for all in urban areas in Odisha’, adopted in 2015, states that there is a shortfall of 4,10,000 housing units in the state.

In the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar region alone about 3,60,000 houses will have to be added by 2025. Out of this, 75 per cent houses are required for the economically weaker section/lower-income group. Slum Development and Rehabilitation policy has been integrated with this very housing policy.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has also launched ‘Jaga’ scheme to provide patta or land rights to urban slum dwellers who are living on government land. Some of the dwellers have heard about these schemes, but the fruits of the schemes are yet to reach them.

The slum-dwellers, who once called for vote boycott about 25 years ago to protest water-logging in the area, face the same sewage problems even today. Instead of planning a poll boycott to voice their anger, now they simply listen to their “association bosses”. 

A walk around the slum shows that the drinking water problem has been addressed and a few tube wells have been set up. However, every monsoon they face waterlogging. Don’t they tell the association or the political leaders about these issues when they ask them to vote? Here comes the secret formula.

Brindaban, who works as a driver to feed his seven-member family, said, “We don’t have time to think about politics. My aim in life is to feed my family. I vote for whoever gives me money on the eve of the elections. That’s my extra income.” A bottle of alcohol and hard cash ranging between Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 is enough to buy their votes. 

Though the political parties deny such claims and these “incidents” often go unnoticed by the ECI, the truth is that these urban poor (and also the rural poor) consider elections to be the time to make some “extra cash”. 

Hard cash, easily up for grabs in return for a few votes, and poverty forces these hapless voters to opt for the money even as their democratic choice is held hostage.

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