Thus far, this column has analysed politics and the political economy. When it has departed from that self-imposed norm, it has experimented with two alternative formats: Conversations with leading specialists, who know more than I on a given topic; and travel reportage.
My travel reports have thus far been from China. This column debuts reportage on my India travels. There will be more in the upcoming election cycle, when I follow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign, especially in Uttar Pradesh, a state I grew up in — in towns like Shahjahanpur, Faizabad, Rae Bareli, Hamirpur, Agra, Aligarh, Allahabad. These were my habitats before I moved to Delhi and later to the US, from where I have routinely come to India for three months a year.
Over the last 12 months, my research project on urban governance — on determinants of urban public services (water, sanitation, electricity, roads, education, health, policing) — has taken me to Chennai, Kochi, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Bhavnagar, Mumbai and Hyderabad. Next year the project will move to the north and east. Before we commission large quantitative surveys on urban governance, we do qualitative work for a few days in each city. We talk to the elite (politicians, bureaucrats, police officers, NGOs) and the masses (primarily slum dwellers). We have now covered 21 slums in southern and western cities.
While statistical results based on representative samples will be analysed later, observations on some of the key programmes of the Modi government are worth registering. Election specialists believe that Modi was extremely popular among the urban poor in 2014. While that claim cannot be extended to Chennai and Kochi, where the BJP was a minor player, it applied to western and northern cities and even southern cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore. That is not true anymore. Modi critics far outmatch Modi supporters. I am not simply talking of Muslims living in slums, but also Dalits and OBCs. Scepticism and disappointment are widespread.
Why is that so?
First and foremost, demonetisation was extremely painful. Poor households ran out of money, the lines were too long, and at the end of the wait, banks would not have enough legal currency for exchange. Children went without enough food, and the older folk often did not have adequate medication. It remains an enduring mystery how the BJP won UP so decisively soon after demonetisation. But one must also quickly recall how close the Gujarat results were in December 2017 and how the BJP was defeated in its strongholds of Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh in December 2018. In the last three, the data show that the BJP’s urban vote declined, not simply its rural vote. Urban middle classes might still want Modi, but the urban poor have almost certainly played a big role in Modi’s declining performance. Demonetisation inflicted untold misery and suffering.
The Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign also does not come out looking good in the slums we covered. It might have done well in rural India, as the available independent analyses clearly suggest. But in urban India, the results appear to be highly mixed. Whatever Swachh Bharat has done for garbage removal, its toilet scheme can’t easily work in the slums of large cities like Mumbai and Hyderabad. If you live in a one-room dwelling, a family toilet simply cannot be built. Community toilets, not family toilets, are your only recourse, and as far as we could tell, Swachh
Bharat funds were either not available for community toilets, or our slum communities did not know about them. Can more community toilets be built, can they have more water, can they be cleaned more regularly? These are the basic challenges of high-intensity slums — Dharavi or Ghatkopar, for example. We found only a few instances of toilets built with Swachh Bharat funds. Moreover, while open defecation is clearly waning in cities, the declining trend began before Swachh Bharat was launched. And depressingly, even after four years of Swachh Bharat, one can find enough slums without toilets.
The Jan Dhan Yojana, another signature scheme of the Modi regime, has not been an unmixed blessing either. It was acclaimed as a pathbreaking idea for financial inclusion. By forcing banks to open accounts for the poor, without a minimum balance requirement, it certainly had that promise in theory. In principle, the subsidies and the government’s income support, if available, could directly be transferred to such accounts, and the welfare of the poor thereby enhanced. But in reality, neither believing the government nor the banks, nearly half of our slum-dwellers did not open such accounts. And of those who did, some received subsidies in those accounts, but most remained “zero balance”, a term almost all slum dwellers have heard of, even if they did not utilise the option. Far and away, the most troubling aspect of such accounts for our slum dwellers was that the government did not transfer any funds to them, let alone the Rs 15 lakh that PM Modi had announced as a near certainty, if black money could be recovered. Few believed Rs 15 lakh would come to their accounts, but “do teen hazaar bhi nahin aaye (even Rs 2,000-3,000 did not arrive)”. Analytically, the issue here is not that the idea was wrong. It is simply that the Modi government, according to our poor informants, made jhoote vaade (false promises).
Let us end on a happier note. It is generally believed that at low levels of income, cities can’t be slum-free. Kerala defies this development dictum. To be in Kochi is such a relief. A little over 1 per cent of the city’s population is officially classified as slum-dwelling (as opposed to nearly half in Mumbai and almost a third in Hyderabad), and the slums that do exist don’t look like slums. The notion of the right to public services has gone deep and wide. Public service delivery — water, electricity, sanitation, roads — does not generally falter, and when it does, the municipal corporator, whose mobile phone number is known to everyone, is available for redressal. If Kochi did not leave so much plastic on its beaches, it could be called India’s most remarkable city. It has won the battle against squalour and poverty. But that is Kerala’s achievement, not Prime Minister Modi’s.