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How politics works for the poor

A grassroots politician and Congress party worker contests two of the AAP’s big assertions.


A grassroots politician and Congress party worker contests two of the AAP’s big assertions.

The electoral success of the Aam Aadmi Party has led to many claims about Indian democracy that should be put to the test on the basis of actual experiences of the poor. I am not an MLA or an MP. I am the head of a local NGO and live in an unauthorised colony in west Delhi. I am also a Congress party worker. My analysis is based on my experience of working for security of tenure, getting electricity, water and sewage treatment in our colony. Here, I take up just two of the AAP’s many claims.

The AAP’s first claim is that democracy has failed the poor because politicians make electoral promises and then disappear. But the poor are not so uninformed as to not understand that it is they who have put politicians in positions of power and that elected representatives thus have a responsibility to help solve their problems. We have been striving for the last 20 years to get our colony recognised as an authorised colony.

Since our colony has grown in a haphazard manner, till 2004 there were no proper street names or addresses for the houses. There were multiple claimants over the land on which our jhuggis and pucca houses are built. We have fought a court case against a powerful private foundation which had claimed that the land belonged to them. We formed an NGO (Punjabi Basti Sudhar Samiti) and its functionaries conducted a search of revenue records to establish that the plot numbers in revenue records did not match the area that the foundation was claiming as part of its land.

We subsequently commissioned an authorised map of the area and paid for it ourselves by getting contributions from every household. At each phase of the mapmaking exercise, we faced objections from various officials from the MCD and the ministry of urban development. But we pressed our case through the Bhagidari system established by the previous chief minister, in which our resident welfare association was represented. The point is that we did not establish our rights to the land we live on by receiving patronage in a mai baap system but by going to the courts, finding out what the procedures for receiving recognition as an authorised colony were, and creating networks of help and support both within the locality and with political parties, elected legislators and even some officials and lawyers who guided us. For us, democracy is measured by the spaces for action opened up and not by the free gifts we might be given as charity. We have worked to shift the perspective of our fellow residents from  one that expects charity to one demanding rights.

The second claim is that the AAP has established its pro-poor credentials by offering free water and by reducing electricity tariff by 50 per cent. In the early years after this settlement came into being, people had no option but to draw electricity from high-tension wires with the connivance of electricity board officials and the local mafia. At one meeting after electricity distribution was privatised, an official called us a “colony of thieves”. We vowed that we would remove this stigma. In 2006, we were successful in having seven transformers installed in our locality but it took more than 90 letters and mediation by local legislators and the chief minister’s office for our map to be recognised by officials, on the basis of which meters were installed. People have the right to regular electricity in unauthorised colonies and we are ready to pay fair prices.

Our needs for water are urgent. Although we have taps and water supply lines, water simply does not reach the houses on a higher elevation. We have evolved a system by which the Delhi Jal Board supplies tankers to households who have organised into groups that are registered with them. However, we want this tanker system to end. Though we have been able to keep the water mafia out, it is a hardship for women and children to carry cans of water up the steep streets. A pilot project to instal small reservoirs of water for a group of 10 households, which will pay according to use, was initiated by our previous MLA and is in the process of being tested. But we fear that these experiments will come to a halt as the AAP reverts to the old-style politics of treating us simply as recipients of state patronage.

We do not wish to receive patronage or political favours. We demand rights over public services and expect to pay for them at fair rates because that is where our dignity lies. In short, we strive to become the “unpoor”. We think our work in our localities has been an important component of Indian democracy and we feel ignored and slighted when people make pronouncements about the poor as if they are so naïve as to think that democracy is only about elections.


The writer is a political worker who has collaborated with local leaders to solve problems of public provisions in his area. With assistance from Veena Das, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, US.

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