An audacious sense of hope is surging through the soft spring sunshine in Delhi, following the unprecedented victory of AAP in the recent polls. That people of every class, caste, religious community, age-group and gender joined hands to place their futures in the hands of a fledgling and still mostly untested political formation, represents a resounding endorsement of a new style of politics, as much as a longing for a new kind of governance.
AAP daringly overturned all long-settled cynical political certainties to rewrite, I hope forever, the rules for the functioning of Indian democracy. It demonstrated convincingly that without big money or a famous surname, elections can be fought and won instead on the shoulders of young dedicated volunteers — by actually listening to people, never taking them for granted, and by kindling faith and aspiration for real change. It also showed other political parties how to deal with political adversity, by going back to the people, admitting with humility one’s errors and seeking support for another chance.
Its far greater challenges lie in establishing equally brave new rules for good government. Whereas middle-classes also weighed in with AAP, what decisively drove their dizzying flight skywards was the massive support of Delhi’s poor working people and migrants. They lead hopeless lives in the squalor of slums, condemned to fouled water, cesspools and disease, poorly functioning schools and absent health clinics, highways in which gleaming cars edge out cycles and public transport, and no security in illness and old age. Women voted in hope of safety and dignity, and young people in anticipation of jobs. Delhi’s religious minorities voted in AAP because of their dismay at the declining climate of communal amity through the politics of deliberately manufactured hatred.
The greatest challenge facing the new government will be to actually transform Delhi’s government to one which works for the poor. The entire administrative culture is irreconcilably anti-poor in Delhi. Traditionally the government in the capital city operated as if masses of impoverished migrants who make this metropolis their home — who build, clean and service this city in innumerable ways — are illegitimate interlopers. The government feels responsible only to its middle-class residents. To its indigent residents, it acts as if it only has duties against them, to demolish, displace, exclude and block them.
A strikingly new leadership built on robust convictions of social solidarity, equity and justice alone can transform this culture, for the poor to believe the government is their own. This would require, as Amartya Sen counsels, for AAP to be clear who the ‘aam aadmi’ or common person is? Is she the one who wants cheaper water and electricity, or she who does not have any water and electricity?
One in four Delhi residents has no access to piped clean drinking water and is forced to spend far more money than their better-placed neighbours for much poorer-quality water. An estimated 40% is not connected with sewerage, and more than 10% have no toilets in their homes. Instead of committing large sums of public resources in subsidising those who have legal water and electricity connections, the foremost commitment should be to ensure that in the next five years, every single Delhi resident has access to clean water, sanitation, drainage, decent secure housing, primary health services and electricity.
The cruellest State policies have been brutal slum-demolitions since the 1990s, punishing and pauperising Delhi’s poorest residents for the state’s failures to ensure affordable housing. There should be a complete moratorium on such demolitions. Only 3% of Delhi’s residential land is occupied by slums, a lot of this is marginal low-lying land, yet this provides home to anything between 20 and 40% of Delhi’s residents. They must be given security of tenure, and a legal guarantee to clean water and sanitation.
Delhi’s working homeless need not just dignified shelters, but working men and women’s hostels and rental housing. The most unsafe women in the city are homeless women, or those forced to leave home due to extreme domestic violence. Places of safety for all such women is a very high imperative. Fifty thousand sleep on Delhi’s streets, and for their protection and education, all schools should double up as residential schools for these children, and other children condemned to work. The quality of government schools should be raised to match the best in the city.
With the runaway privatisation of health services, Delhi’s poor have nowhere to go when they fall ill, except undertrained private practitioners. Another high priority for Delhi’s new government is to create a network of dedicated primary health centres offering free health services, including drugs and diagnostics, catering each to a population of 50,000 persons.
Nine out of 10 workers in Delhi, and an even greater proportion of women workers, have no legal labour protections, as they toil without job security for long hours in unhealthy work conditions for wages well below the statutory minimum wage. Women undertake home-based work for large companies in their slum homes for daily wages as low as Rs 30. Construction is a boom employer, but builders do not build labour colonies of creches for workers’ children. A much more effective regime of labour protection, starting with compulsory registration of all employers, would be another paramount priority.
Delhi’s new government would need to rapidly restore communal amity, which was gravely ruptured in recent months by communal violence, hate speeches and torched churches. Muslim ghettoes tend to be disproportionately underserved with basic municipal services, and this must be reversed. But also creating safe spaces for mixed living, together with people of diverse religious faiths, North-eastern residents and African students and workers, needs to be defended.
The list is long, the journey hard and uphill. But AAP has the historic opportunity not just to rewrite the rules of Indian politics — which it has already done — but also of running a government which is authentically responsible and responsive to its most disadvantaged residents. A government which cares.
(Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.)