General Elections 2019

Live in Mumbai, work in Mumbai, but these workers can't vote in Mumbai

Ragpickers, DNT members and construction workers in India's financial capital don't possess the most powerful tool in democracy

By Gajanan Khergamker
Published: Monday 08 April 2019
Photo: Gajanan Khergamker__

The one issue that affects Mumbai, India’s financial capital and home to 22 million residents (official figures), is that it is home for the undocumented millions who are deprived of electoral representation. And this repeats, year after year, owing to a flaw in the electoral model.

For the imminent Lok Sabha elections of 2019, about 35,000 of the city’s rag-pickers — mostly Tamil women — are expected to travel back to their villages along Tamil Nadu’s coast to exercise their right to franchise following fervent calls from their families back home. And, even as WhatsApp messages and posts in social media underline the “women’s sense of independence’ and ‘freedom of choice’ to do so, fact remains that they do not exercise any electoral muscle over the powers that affect them directly — in Mumbai itself.

The Tamil ragpicker, who is affected the worst in the civic scheme of things in the city with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) worker bullying her the most, has little by way of bargaining power in Mumbai. “I have a jhopdi (shanty) here in Mumbai, an Aadhar Card with my Tamil Nadu address and a Tamil Nadu state Voter ID,” says ragpicker Valli who has lived for the last 21 years in India’s financial capital. Valli, who lost her husband to the December 2004 tsunami which struck her village, wreaking havoc across the region, has a son and daughter-in-law back in her village.

Issues of water supply, housing, sanitation and safety plague Valli and her lot but she lacks the power to press for her rights as a voter. “The corporator continues to promise us and while local safai kamgars working for the BMC have a mukadam who represents them and a local political party union to fight for their rights, we have nobody to stand by us,” she says.

A case in point being, while the city reeled under a water shortage towards last year-end, she had to ‘buy’ the five containers of water she needed for daily consumption at a premium of Rs 20 per handi (container) every day, making a hole in her pocket. The issue was resolved swiftly for neighbouring high-rises who could order huge tankers for their members and other Marathi-speaking slum-dwellers who could arm-twist the local corporator into providing a ‘free supply’ of water through tankers from the BMC itself.

Much like the Tamils are members of the De-notified Tribe (DNTs), the Pardhis, Banjaras and the Waghris, who form a sizeable lot in Mumbai. The Sassoon Dock, Mumbai’s prized wet dock, itself employs the service of about 25,000 Banjara women to clean prawns on a daily basis and live in nearby slums. Apart from that, the Pardhis who live on the streets in Mumbai easily number around a lakh in the city, and have Aadhar Cards, PAN cards and Driving Licenses but no Voters’ Cards.

“We do not have a permanent residence in Mumbai. We live on the streets for six months and then travel back to our villages in interior Maharashtra where we work as landless labourers at farms as human scarecrows to drive away the birds,” says 36-year-old Dhanu Pawar, mother of six and grandmother of four.

Dhanu, like thousands of others, face immense issues of safety, sanitation and housing in the city that houses the richest, a stone’s throw away at Bandra. Devoid of voting rights, even reservation rights guaranteed by law, the Pardhi goes through life on a day-to-day basis, silently enduring the travails without any representation.

And then, there’re landless workers in the construction industry, working in sand and gravel, lifting rocks and building materials at sites across North Mumbai and yet have no home of their own. Numbering about 50,000 or more, this mostly-South Indian community lacks political representation even a collective voice.

The absence of a voting right in the city puts them at direct risk from the local authorities such as the police and other law-enforcing agencies. “At the mercy of the local police or lumpen elements, the workers have no voice of their own even to ensure they obtain basic human rights,” maintains social activist P Valankar.

Most of Mumbai’s daily service providers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Odisha, who work as domestic helps, watchmen, plumbers, tea vendors and in general stores, have Voters’ ID cards of their respective states. They have been living in Mumbai for years together but continue to exercise their right of franchise in their home-towns, while suffering from issues of social injustice and inequity in Mumbai where they live and work all year round.

They do not form part of the 22 million whose futures will be decided by the electoral fates of the six Members of Parliament they vote to power. They have no voice and concurrently, no right to defend themselves — with the most powerful weapon of democracy — their votes.

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