Bengaluru’s poor want better amenities, smarter policy

“I won’t vote this time. What’s the point?”, asks a flustered Siddalakshmi, 55-year-old Bengaluru’s slum-dweller in Koramangala’s Rajendranagar, referring to the now over-due BBMP council elections. Siddalakshmi’s anguish is shared by her neighbours, as she urges them not to vote as well. “Even if we are not voting, we should all decide to not vote. Not just one or two people”, quips Sujatha S, 33, another resident of the area.

55-year-old Siddalakshmi. Pic: Vaishnavi Vittal.

Siddalakshmi, Sujatha and the others explain the various problems in their area, which remain unheard till today. “The toilet chamber overflows and everything comes into the house”, says 40-year-old Lakshmamma P, while Padmamma, 50, complains about the water that flows into her house during the rains. Padma M complains about the low wages she earns at the house where she has been working as a domestic help for the past four years, while Siddalakshmi says old people should get some pension.

“See, they should solve all our problems. Giving us money does not help. During elections, they come with joint hands. They don’t bother about us otherwise”, says Sujatha, as she voices the sentiment of lakhs of Bangaloreans who live below poverty line.

Sujatha lives with her husband and two sons, in a rented house. “We have a gas connection. So they refuse to give us BPL cards. Don’t our children have to study?”, she asks as she explains how she was refused a BPL card. “Around two months back an officer came. I kept asking him. He refused. He said he’ll drink coffee and come back. He never came back. They talk to us sarcastically. What’s the point of the system? If I knew his name, I would have told you. I’m not scared”, Sujatha says, clearly frustrated.

To be eligible for a BPL card, a person needs to be earning less than Rs 17,000 per year, or less than Rs 1,500 per month.

Premkala also faced a similar problem. “The BPL card is in my mother-in-law’s name. She died about a year back. All our names are on the card. But they still refuse to let us use it. We have shown her death certificate as well”, says the 27-year-old.

K Prakash, Secretary, CPI(M), Bangalore district committee. Pic: Vaishnavi Vittal.

This is the condition of Bangalore’s urban poor – a stark contrast from high-rise buildings, swanky cafes, information technology, medical tourism and art galleries.

Prakash K, Secretary, Communist Part of India (Marxist) – CPI (M), Bangalore District Committee, says, “Bangalore is being projected as a finance capital. Everything they project in view of MNCs, businesses, IT, BT. But actually Bangalore is not all of these people”. He states from a government document prepared for Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) projects, “The Greater Bengaluru which is emerging as an important centre of global capital is experiencing a greater earning. However, the increased amenities created from this increased wealth are cornered by 20 per cent belonging to the top income group. They enjoy 63 per cent of the amenities, while the lowest 20 per cent have access to a mere 1.5 per cent of the amenities”.

Politicians respond

In response to the Sujathas who complain about the eligibility criteria for the BPL card being too low, politicos cutting across party lines agree that the bar should be raised.

Dr Ashwanth Narayan

Dr C N Ashwath Narayan, MLA, Malleshwaram constituency. Pic: Vaishnavi Vittal.

BJP’s Dr C N Ashwath Narayan, MLA, Malleshwaram constituency, says, “Even in BJP manifesto we have said that we want to increase it Rs 30,000. Right now only about 15-20 per cent of people has BPL cards in the urban areas. We should reach a target of about 70 per cent”. He adds that it would be good to have two categories for BPL cards, one with Rs 30,000 as the threshold and another at Rs.60,000 for housing, health insurance, subsidised grains. Narayan says he plans to bring up the same in the Assembly as well.

Former Bengaluru Mayor and Congress party member P R Ramesh, also says, “The government has said they’ll increase it to Rs 30,000. I think today with the living conditions and cost of commodities, it is very important. It can even be increased to Rs 50,000”.  His colleague and BTM Layout MLA, Ramalinga Reddy agrees but refuses to comment on how much it should be increased to.

Prakash of CPI (M) says, “Rs 17,000 a year is about Rs 50 a day. Even a dog cannot live with Rs 50 a day, how can a family of four or five live? So we say remove this BPL category”, he says.

“It shows a clear picture of differences and inequalities. This is what we look at. A majority of Bangaloreans have been neglected. This has to be changed. Change policy perception”, says Praskash. When asked about the work that the CPI (M) has done in Bangalore, Prakash stated instances of agitating against development tax when the state government planned to introduce it several years ago. He also says that they have carried out relief work in Bommanahalli (in South Bangalore) when it was flooded about three to four years ago.

Narayan agrees that income is the biggest challenge with regard to upliftment of the urban poor and says raising the minimum daily wages for workers will help. Ramesh also says that the minimum wages should be increased to Rs 200 from the current Rs 127.

P R Ramesh, Former Mayor and Congress member. Pic: Vaishnavi Vittal.

The newer breeds of politician-aspirants, especially those wanting to serve on the city council, strike a deeper and critical tone.

Partly addressing Premkala’s problem of not being allowed to use the BPL card after a family member’s death Dr Meenakshi Bharath, member of Lok Satta, the Andhra Pradesh-based political party which launched its Bangalore chapter a few months ago, says, “The biggest challenge is to identify the really poor people who need help from the government. They have no single agency that looks at their concerns in an integrated way”. She explains that poverty is a ‘condition’ that results from many different deprivations – education, skill, health, sanitation, and so on – and so the normal structure of government, which functions in silos, cannot address this complexity.

“We need to have a single over-arching agency that tackles poverty. Within this agency, its officials can figure out how to deal with the different departments, but it is ridiculous to expect the poor themselves to deal with each one”, she adds.

N S Ramakanth, member of Lok Satta, is critical of donations to the urban poor and refers to vote bank politics. “The present policy is, keep the poor as poor as possible because of the vote bank. Because they feel if the urban poor start thinking, votes will go. This should change”.

The charter demands the effective implementation of existing legislation including a three-tier structure in the municipal corporation. It also mentions setting up of the Metropolitan Planning Committee, preparing bottom-up city development plans by involving communities in ward sabhas, among other things. You can read the complete charter here

K R Venkatesh Gowda, General Secretary, Karnataka Pradesh Youth Congress Committee, also feels that the urban poor are only a votebank. “Politicians misuse them. They go distribute funds, money and material at the time of elections”, he says candidly, adding that the “urban poor are a votebank for politicians, problem for the public and a subject for journalists!” Gowda, who plans to contest from Kathriguppe in the council polls, feels that it is not so much about economics as it is about attitude.

Enter NGOs and push for decentralisation

At a recent meeting, held by Citizens Voluntary Initiative for the City (CIVIC) and NGO Collective of Bangalore city, a citizen’s charter of demands of the urban poor was presented to political parties as a run-up to the ‘impending’ BBMP elections. The parties present included the Lok Satta, Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and CPI (M).  The charter was prepared after focus group discussions were held with people from the lower income group.

The charter demands the effective implementation of existing legislation including a three-tier structure in the municipal corporation. It also mentions setting up of the Metropolitan Planning Committee, preparing bottom-up city development plans by involving communities in ward sabhas, among other things. You can read the complete charter here.

One of the points in the charter is about setting up ward committees in municipal corporations with more than three lakhs population, a requirement under the 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India. (This assumes that city council elections are held first of course. The lack of holding city elections itself is a violation of the Constitution by the state government.) The setting up of these committees could be a step towards decentralised governance and an increase in people’s participation.

Is this then the answer to working towards the upliftment of the urban poor?

Kathyayini Chamaraj, Executive Trustee, CIVIC, says, “We should have elected ward committee members for every few thousand population, which would ensure that the urban poor get their representatives to sit on the ward committee and take part in decision-making for their areas”. She adds that one of the functions of ward committees is to also look at urban poverty alleviation. Comparing wards to villages in rural areas, Kathyayini says that ward sabhas should also be held for (identification of) beneficiaries (for various schemes) just like the grama sabhas in the rural areas.

Residents of Rajendranagar complain about the lack of basic amenities. Sujatha S (extreme left) questions the criteria for giving BPL cards. Pic: Vaishnavi Vittal.

P Lakshapathy, Executive Director, Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA), a grassroots community development organisation, is more guarded. Even though the urban poor are a majority in Bangalore, they are not organised. “They are not educated. They don’t have skills to analyse information. They don’t understand schemes available. It’s like peeling a banana and giving it to them. I don’t blame them. That’s their background. They don’t know how to question. Few people do, but not the majority”, he explains. For them the biggest concern is how to get their next meal or how to get a pot of water, Lakshapathy adds.“They don’t have the time to sit and discuss all this”.

Organisations like APSA and CIVIC also educate the urban poor about the system of governance. Lakshapathy says that they are looking to involve the poor through ward committees and create awareness on the same. Even so, APSA Volunteer and Promoter Suryakanthi K says she isn’t aware of the concept of ward committees.

Former Mayor Ramesh, who attended the CIVIC meeting, gets into the politics of the matter. He says the present government is going against the constitution by not implementing ward committees. “It has not been implemented because of so many political leaders. We need the ward committees to be workable, effectively with the people, consultative (sic) process”. He explains that during his tenure as Mayor, it was mandatory to set up ward committees. “Three wards together formed one committee. We used to hold weekly meetings. The Councilor used to lead the committee. And we asked the public to attend the meetings”.

However, BJP’s Narayan, who also attended the meeting, feels that ward committees will not really help in addressing the issues of the urban poor. He feels these committees will only help in looking at issues regarding basic infrastructure and a citizen’s responsibility in civic management. CPI(M)’s Prakash agrees and  says that ward committees by themselves will not help solve problems. “Practical debates have to take place on the structure for decentralisation”.

Meenakshi feels that these committees would help in planning and delivering better facilities to the urban poor. Chetan Gowda of the Karnataka Pradesh Youth Congress Committee says that these committees will help address the problems of the urban poor by involving youngsters who can connect with them on a one-on-one basis. “We need to put the right people. We should have watchdogs for politicians and officials. But let’s see how effective it will be”, he says.

Gowda says it can work as long as ward committees are not politically biased and there is no interference from the local MLA. “Discussions can be held on the problems of the urban poor very clearly”, he says.

Will Siddalakshmi vote?

But even as political parties, not-for-profit organisations and the general public argue about the plight of the economically weaker, the reality is that problems faced by this class of people may not disappear overnight. People like Siddalakshmi of Rajendranagar are denied basic amenities. Whether it is flooded homes, low voltage electricity, irregular water supply, or cash for votes, they are at the receiving end.

Still, Siddalakshmi’s refusal to vote in the coming elections appears to strike a discordant tone. For one, the poor are always banked upon as voters by politicians. Two, her voice rings out at a time where there has been a noticeable surge in voting amongst young and middle-aged Bangaloreans from better-off sections of society.

The city elections will have to be announced soon, promises will be made, and money will be spent. Will it be the beginning of new plans for the urban poor? Or empty assurances? Will Bangalore witness change for the better or mere speeches from blaring loud speakers?

The bigger question however is, this election, will Siddalakshmi have a reason to go out and cast her vote?   

About Vaishnavi Vittal 139 Articles
Vaishnavi Vittal is a Bangalore-based journalist.

3 Comments

  1. I have read somewhere that close to 35% of Bengaluru population is Below Poverty Line. And I seldom hear on the elected candidates working towards the development of the Urban poor. It all depends on the person who is elected by the people. If I vote for someone, I expect him/her to do the justice to the job. Now it does not matter if Siddalakshmi votes or not. If she votes, she will have loads of dreams behind it. It pains if it goes in vain.

    Great work done on the article. I hope it reaches to the concerned authorities and bring in some good demonstrative leadership for the cause. We can only hope for the best!

  2. Dear Vaishnavi,

    It’s nice to see the flip side of the coin(reference made to the silicon valley), since it is not projected most of the times. These woes of the poor are always brushed under the carpet. It’s important to bring these issues out through publications like CM. Such articles keep the ‘leaders’ of our country, states and cities on their toes.

  3. Dear Vaishnavi and CM eds,

    great to see articles covering the urban poor! in this age when we see mainstream media selling spaces in their newspapers for candidates and issues during election time, its publications like CM which can hihlight real issues which might not get covered otherwise

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