January 23, 2005

Ambujwadi 6: Solemnly Declared

Before I left for Ambujwadi, this report in the Times of India told me that the Bombay Municipal Corporation has asked the Election Commission to "delete from the voters' list those slumdwellers whose illegal shanties have been razed." That's on my mind as I arrive in the place.

When they go off to get the pieces of paper they want to show me, most of Ambujwadi's residents also bring me their Election ID Cards, all of which have their respective photos and their address -- again, with "Ambujwadi" listed.

These are the legacy of an apathetic attempt, about a decade ago, to issue such cards to all Indians. It was done so shoddily as to be a useless exercise, a truth all of us who have cards know. They are not even useful while voting, because what matters is whether you are in the rolls, not whether you have a card. Yet those of us who have cards hold on to them tightly, because we know that perhaps half the country did not get them, and we also know that the back of the card says it might be used in other Government schemes.

(But wait a minute, do I really want to be part of "other Government schemes"?)

But really, how shoddily? In Ambujwadi, Shivajirao Jadhav shows me his card. And what's his "age as on 1.1.95", as printed on his election card? 100. Yes, one hundred full years. Funny, I'm looking at him and he doesn't look a day over 35. Must be the bracing roof-less air in this place over the last month, it's given him a second youth.

Among much else, these Pardhis showed these cards to the Municipal and police officials who came to demolish their homes. One official accused them of forging the cards. Others pointed out that the cards are dated -- all such cards are -- 15.10.1995, and thus were not sufficient proof that they were here before the 1.1.1995 cut-off date.

So I'm guessing, these residents must have been clever and industrious indeed, to forge cards down to the dogeared laminated plastic and the grime on them. I'm guessing, these officials have no memory of the several months the Election Commission took to produce these cards. I'm guessing, these officials apparently believe that these 500+ huts all plonked down here between January 1 and October 15, 1995. Sure.

But I'm also wandering around with that Times of India piece on my mind. And this is the thought I'm thinking. Ten years ago, we gave these people their right to vote: these cards. Today, because we have decided that their homes are illegal, we want to take away that right, take away what we gave them then.

What a charming way to tackle slums: find ways to pretend the people in them don't even exist.

Umadevi Gupta has a file filled with papers: card, ration card, letters and so forth. The ration card is dated 3.12.91. She also has a pink Government form called "Record of Enumeration" -- clearly some kind of form to get listed in the rolls -- and it is dated 10.11.01. It has her name and her husband's, Radheshyam Gupta, listed on it. On the back, under the word "DECLRARATION" [sic] and signed by a Government official, are these lines:

I solemnly declare that all the persons whose particulars are mentioned overleaf are citizens of India, are of the age of 18 years or above on the qualifying date and are ordinary [sic] resident at the given address.

Take away their right to vote, those cards. But how long will we pretend that these citizens of India don't even exist?

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