For This 1,50,000-Strong ‘Vote Bank’, Elections Are All About Hollow Promises

By Bharati Chaturvedi:

Every morning at around 9, an autorickshaw slowly crawls by my home, a few lines of Vande Mataram blaring out loud. A voice on the loudspeaker promises us heaven. Our drains will be cleaned; everyone will get a fair hearing for everything. The auto stops for about two minutes outside my home, from where several people can listen to the preaching. One of them is Dinesh, who sits crouched outside the giant dhalao right across. He is much too busy to pay attention to what the voice from the auto is advertising. He has to pick out the plastics and paper from the trash of the 140 people who hand him mixed waste every morning. This is Delhi, just a few days away from electing our new councillors, the people who will run 3 out of 5 of our municipalities for the next half decade.

If the Swaraj Party is elected, Dinesh is promised a cycle-rickshaw. He laughs. “I already have one, why do I need one more? I only have two arms.” I tell him they will formalise him. “How does that help, if they don’t stop these large companies from taking away my gatta (cardboard),” he asks, gesturing to the large private concessionaire who has been contracted for 12 years now, to pick and own the waste.

Jai, another waste worker from East Delhi, concurs. “They can give us anything they want to, but it will only make them feel good…we will only feel good when we are allowed to take waste and given one small place in a corner for chatai (segregation).” Jai has been following the elections with amusement as much as interest. “My voter ID is from here, but no one is promising us anything much.”

Both Dinesh and Jai have a point. The election manifestos for the municipal elections this time have ‘waste’ on them firmly, but not the city’s biggest and most important recyclers. Every party wants to create a Garbage-Free Delhi. To do this, both the Congress and the BJP are hoping to stop dumping at landfills. And both of them, along with the AAP, are wooing sanitation workers, who are a significant vote bank. With the exception of the Swaraj party’s token cycle-rickshaw, no other manifesto speaks of the one force that keeps Delhi clean – its 150,000-person strong recycling sector. But it seems that the right hand of the Swaraj Party will provide the rickshaw while the left hand will take away what can go into these rickshaws. The manifesto explicitly speaks of waste-to-energy, a terrible, toxic technology that thousands of citizens of Delhi have angrily fought against. Now, the party wants them to try it again. Waste-to-energy is also notorious now for displacing waste pickers from their livelihoods, with the result that children had to drop out of school and begin to work.

One assumes some other aspects of Swachh Bharat will automatically kick in if the BJP comes to power. “Not only the BJP, anyone who comes to power should be following Swachh Bharat,” says Santu, a waste worker and former councillor candidate who lost his feisty bid for the Trilokpuri seat to the Cylinder Party, the last time. “But,” he says flatly, “even if it is the BJP, they will work only if we push them to. No one will do anything if we don’t shout out our demands loud. Look how much attention the safai karamcharis are getting… they kept going on strike.”

We are on a call – the kind where we chat about all manners of stuff. “Safai Sena will protest- there is no other way,” Santu says, “but you – you all at Chintan, you have to write to everyone with all the data, the numbers. We have to fight together.”