On her campaign trail on Sunday, Varsha Gaikwad, the sitting MLA and Congress candidate from Dharavi Assembly constituency, was stopped by a 62-year-old angry Jamunabai Vatkar. The senior citizen chose Gaikwad to vent her ire about an uncleared garbage dump right outside her house. Caught off-guard, Gaikwad fumbled for words, as this was no ordinary voter.
Vatkar, who has been living in the Parsi chawl slum for 46 years, is the niece of former Maharashtra chief minister and veteran Congress leader Sushilkumar Shinde.
“Some people came and dumped all this trash here a little before the Navratri festival. Tell me, does this look good? I want this cleared by tomorrow, otherwise I will not vote for the Congress,” Vatkar told Gaikwad.
Gaikwad mumbled an apology, trying to soothe Vatkar’s nerves. “I know you can go all the way to Solapur (Shinde’s constituency) with your problems. But, we will get it sorted here. The debris is from all the gutters we had cleaned recently. We are done with 90 per cent of the work. Only 10 per cent is left now,” she told Vatkar.
For Vatkar, whose family of 14 members lives in four small rooms of the Asia’s largest slum sprawl, this was not a one-time lament against the Congress leaders here. Despite being a Congress supporter, she is shy of being vocal about her complaints against them.
“My uncle has been very good to us always. But, if I am voting for the Congress, I have the right to ask their leaders why things are not being done. The local leaders of the party have not worked for us. They only visit us before the elections. Whenever I get the chance, I catch hold of them to complain. Congress lost from here during the Lok Sabha elections. It is clear if they work, people will vote for them. If they don’t, how will they win?” Vatkar told Mumbai Newsline.
Dharavi, spread across 240 hectares and home to people from different states and religions, had been a Congress bastion for the most part of the past two decades. However, just like it is losing its hold over slums across the city, the Congress’s grip on Dharavi has also been slipping due to anti-incumbency and resentment over the delay in the ambitious Dharavi redevelopment plan.
According to Vatkar, her neighbourhood gets water for just 2-3 hours a day and garbage from slums is cleared only once a week, besides the constant mosquito menace.
“Nothing has happened in the Dharavi redevelopment plan the government keeps talking about. They have been telling us about it since 2002. No party is going to do anything for us. The Shiv Sena is also prominent in Dharavi, but even their leaders will do nothing. They are polite but simply dismiss our complaints, saying we are from a Congress family,” says Vatkar, sitting on a pink-and-white straw mat, the only furniture besides a television, a fridge and a cupboard inside her small room.
A large photograph of Shinde hangs on a wall that partitions the room from the cramped kitchen.
Vatkar moved from her Solapur house, where she had 14 siblings, to the Dharavi hutment in 1968 after being married to the now deceased Manjuraj Sambhaji Vatkar, who used to make table pads. She now lives here with her four sons, daughters-in-law and five grandchildren.
“The only thing that has improved here is the toilet. It used to be very dirty earlier till the former Congress MP Eknath Gaikwad built new toilets for us. However, he didn’t install any lights in the toilet blocks. Finally, the Shiv Sena MP got light bulbs installed,” Vatkar says.
Looking out at the still uncleared garbage dump on Tuesday morning, she adds, “Now, I wonder when they will clear this.”