By Eric Kasper and Deepika Pandey, PRIA
Many of the people inhabiting slums in India are illiterate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand what’s happening around them, and like you, they know when they’re being duped. In the slum of Tarun Nagar, in Raipur’s Kalimata ward (ward 30), PRIA encountered a strong reaction when meeting with residents to discuss organizing a slum improvement committee.
This slum was settled 40 years ago under the guidance of then-Mayor Tarun Chatterjee on Nazul department land around a pond called Kustha Basti Talab. Some of the residents are from Orissa and some are from villages near Raipur, but they all came here to make a better life for themselves. The men of the slum tend to be rickshaw drivers and the women tend to work in the colonies as domestic servants.
On 19th September, they got word that Raipur Municipal Corporation (RMC) is planning to evict them to make room for a new fish market. After losing sleep over this for some time, the residents decided to demonstrate in front of the RMC office and try to find out the truth of the eviction plans. With the help of the ward councilor they surrounded the RMC offices, but they were ultimately able neither to secure any meetings nor get confirmation about the eviction plans. The story of their demonstration was even published in the local newspaper, but they have yet to receive a response to their query.
It was in this context that we showed up, suggesting that they organize and learn about the new opportunities under current government schemes like RAY. The slum dwellers responded that they don’t want the “benefit” of any government schemes. One resident said that the government actually creates schemes for the poor in order to rob them. Mrs. Sushila shared her experience of the government’s Smart Card program. This insurance program, part of the “Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna” programme, provided poor people with a Smart Card for only 30 rupees, and this would entitle them to health insurance coverage for up to 30,000 rupees per family per year in any government hospital and select private hospitals. This means that, in a typical slum of 500 residents, the government collects roughly 15,000 rupees. However, when residents of Tarun Nagar went to the hospital for checkups or for treatment they got a variety of responses including that the card was only valid in instances of hospital admission, that it was not for minor diseases or checkups, or that the computer was down and could not process Smart Card transactions so services would have to be paid for up front. Thus, the slum-dwellers of Tarun Nagar came to feel they had been fooled, paying 30 rupees for a card that would ultimately be worthless.
Another resident, Smt. Rukhmani Chaturwedi, spoke from a position of “political society”. She reasoned that the slum was established as a vote bank and as long as it served this function, it would persist. No one, she said, will evict them before the next election two years from now. Of course, after the election, there is a good chance their homes might be destroyed without hesitation. Also, a privately owned office building, Singhania Complex, occupies the same land as the slum. If a new fish market were planned, this complex would also need to be removed, but it has not been given notice of eviction. It is obvious to the slum dwellers that it is only the power of private ownership that protects that complex, and their lack which makes them vulnerable. Perhaps this political value of slums is why, in spite of the supposed poverty-reduction schemes, the number of slums increases every year. Surely the well-educated bureaucrats could effectively implement a program if they wanted to.
Perhaps these slum-dwellers are right to be skeptical of any government scheme that makes demands on them in the name of helping them. However, the appropriate response to a hostile government is the same as to a friendly one: organize to have a strong voice, be your own advocate, and hold the government accountable. This is where civil society can play a role: helping motivated slum-dwellers to organize themselves, informing them of all the details of government schemes and activities so they can make informed decisions about the nature of their participation, and keeping close contact with government to continually urge them to efficiently meet their obligations. Meanwhile, the government should not approach the poor as helpless victims. They may not be educated, but neither are they fools. They are fully capable of being agents of their own development. In fact, the residents of Tarun Nagar decided to form a Slum Improvement Committee, and they selected 6 people to represent them, 3 women and 3 men. They have decided that, with the help of PRIA, they will use their committee to more forcefully demand in-situ housing from the RMC. PRIA, for our part, will try to bring the RMC and the Tarun Nagar Slum Improvement Committee together in one forum.
 Political Society is a concept coined by Partha Chatterjee wherein the poor are seen to understand that in all practical senses, they are not full citizens under the law, but rather occupy a space of exception outside of legal norms. They accept that they do not have legal rights but instead assert that they have moral rights to life and livelihood, and they base their hopes on pragmatic political expediency rather than the support of a just legal framework.