Politics and politicians

In the last couple of weeks I have been focusing more on the politics and politicians involved in slum resettlement.  Slum resettlement itself is not a very political issue.  The programmes for resettlement mainly come from the central government and are unaffected when the parties in power at the state or central level change.  The resettlement trend which emerged about 20 years ago is part of a more general vision to bring economic growth to Indian cities and to ‘beautify’ them so that they have the appearance of world class cities.  This involves building new infrastructure in cities, in particular expanding public transport and so, in order to make space for new bridges, roads and train tracks and to ‘clean-up’ the city, the slums are demolished and the people resettled to the suburbs.  The government claims its increasingly high value, city centre land back from the squatters to use for city development projects and the slums are no longer an eyesore in the city.  Killing two birds with one stone so to speak.

However, the reality of the resettlement process is that once the people have been relocated, they are no longer of much concern to the government.  The living conditions is Kannagi Nagar are far from adequate and so I have been investigating the role of politicians in bringing improvements to the area.  On the local level, I think that the political leaders have very little power.  Most have hardly had an education, some are even illiterate and many appear to be part of the ‘rowdies’ or yobs in the area.  I spoke to one lady who will stand for councillor in the upcoming local elections and asked her why she wanted to stand.  She said that the MLA (member of legislative assembly) from her party, for the constituency covering Kannagi Nagar, had chosen her to stand because she is a woman and from one of the lowest castes and so she fits the quota.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the MLA that she is illiterate and doesn’t appear to know anything about the problems or issues in Kannagi Nagar.  It just so happens however that her husband is also political representative for the area from the same party…  It is not uncommon apparently for the wives of (sometimes imprisoned) politicians to stand and win positions in local and even state governments acting as puppets for their husbands.

Despite all this, people in Kannagi Nagar still express a lot of faith in the local politicians and will ask them to take their problems to the slum board on their behalf.  Many admit that the politicians don’t provide immediate solutions but they prefer to do this than organise their own campaign.  The opposition leaders do sometimes organise a protest to demand improvements, such as a better water supply to the area.  This usually brings some temporary improvements since the protests attract media attention but the politicians’ ulterior motive is to damage the image of the ruling party.  While local leaders are not very influential, they are the community’s leaders and so they influence the way in which people living in Kannagi Nagar engage with the government.

On the higher level, the MLA responsible for Kannagi Nagar has more power.  He has government funds which he can allot to development projects for his constituency.  However, Kannagi Nagar is only a small part of the constituency and the MLA only shows interest in the area around election time. An even greater problem is that if an MLA is from the ruling party in the state, they do not confront their own party on issues in their constituency.  Both local and higher politicians are very loyal to their parties and generally do not seem to work to represent the people but to keep their party in power.  For this reason, one of the NGOs which does lobbying work in Kannagi Nagar approaches opposition politicians instead.  The opposition leaders are far more willing to confront the government since it causes problems for the ruling party.  Unfortunately, democracy in India is such that opposition leaders have very little power to influence the ruling party or government departments.  As a politics professor explained to me, if a road passes through two constituencies, the road will be very well maintained in the area where the MLA is from the ruling party but where the MLA is from an opposing party, the road will be left pot-holed and broken instead.

Sadly, for the people in Kannagi Nagar, unless they manage to organise themselves and campaign with determination for better public services, they will be left with only the politicians to make their voices heard.


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