"I don’t want my daughter to make the same mistakes I made", says 35-year-old Selvi P, a domestic worker who married at the early age of 19 to Pazhani, who then used to work at a petrol bunk. Against her family’s wishes, Selvi married the man she was determined to spend the rest of her life with.
But her happiness was short-lived as her husband soon took to alcohol and beat her up regularly. Selvi even suffered fractures due to this domestic abuse. At one point in time, she was at the brink of ending her life by drowning herself in Ulsoor lake, after her husband poured a can of kerosene on her.
A few years ago, Pazhani, who used to work as a painter, suffered a stroke, thanks to his profuse drinking. His left hand was paralysed as a result, forcing him to quit working.
He briefly attended a rehabilitation programme and has since quit drinking. Selvi hopes that he will one day go back to work and bring home some money. Meanwhile she continues to work in a house in Ulsoor where she earns about Rs 500 a month. Her weak bones, that have borne the brunt of her alcoholic husband, allow her to do very little work.
To the better-off, English-schooled citizens, this will seem like a classic story, heard time and again from their own domestic helps or their neighbours. But Selvi’s story does not end.
She doesn’t want her daughter Savita P and sons, Pramod Kumar and Prathish Kumar, to suffer like her. "I never studied, at least my children should study and live a good life", she says, teary-eyed.
Luckily for Selvi, she has been able to educate her children with no worries, because of financial assistance from a local non-governmental organisation called Ashwini Charitable Trust (ACT), based in Ulsoor. ACT targets children in and around low-income neighbourhoods of Ulsoor, and supports them till they are gainfully employed.
About the plight of those like her who are stricken with poverty, Selvi says, "The government nods their head for everything but they do nothing for us"
Ask her why the government doesn’t do anything for the poor in Bengaluru and she says, "Facilities are given to those who already have something. Those who don’t have anything, continue to not have anything."
Despite casting their votes in elections
Selvi’s not alone in feeling like this. For the lakhs in Bengaluru who are economically weak, the sentiments running are similar.
In Bangalore east’s Byappanahalli, work is progressing at a fast-pace at the site of the metro rail station, scheduled to be finished by the year-end. A few hundred metres from here, on Old Byappanahalli Road, lives 25-year-old Kalaivani with her husband and four children.
Every morning, just before dawn, Kalaivani goes out to the bushes nearby to attend nature’s call. "One side is fear of snakes. The other side is fear of someone staring", she says. With no toilets/bathrooms in the settlement where she lives, the women folk are forced to leave their modesty behind and use the open to relieve themselves.
The men get into lots of fights, says her neighbour 28-year-old Annamalai, when they catch anyone staring at their women behind the bushes. He explains that the government cannot even build toilets for them because they live on land that belongs to the Railways.
The ‘trum shed’ (an informal name the neighbourhood has acquired) site where he, Kalaivani and 400 other families live, adjacent to the railway line, has seen no improvement ever since Annamalai can remember.
"Government ignores us because we aren’t educated and rich"
For the underprivileged in Bengaluru, the fight for survival is a daily affair. While you can easily get water at your doorstep, they still walk a mile for a pot of water. While you go to a private hospital for your check-up, they go to the dilapidated dispensary nearby. While you shop at the local supermarket for your groceries, they buy rice and wheat infested with worms. As cliché as all this may sound, it remains true today in a Bengaluru that has otherwise made its mark on the ‘global map’.
Annamalai says the apathy of the state government and local city council is due to vote-bank politics. He points out that in the recent BBMP council elections, it was only the poor who went out and voted. "Why do rich people not go out and vote? Because they have everything. If I had everything, even I wouldn’t have bothered to go out and vote", he expresses. The relative rise in voter turnout from the better-off citizens during the past two years in Bengaluru clearly has not impressed Annamalai.
So why do the city’s elected representatives ignore the very people who have helped them come to power? Stark poverty in a remote part of the country may perhaps be easier for everyone to be blind to. But when it’s glaring and right next door, how do local politicians and government officials get by?
The poor themselves feel it is because they aren’t educated.
Suresh A, who lives in Rajendranagar, a well-known low-income neighbourhood in the posh Koramangala locality of south Bengaluru, says, "Education is the number one factor." Himself a high school dropout, 25-year-old Suresh says it is because the poor are uneducated that the government ignores them.
M Manjula, who works as a domestic help in Ulsoor in central Bengaluru also feels the same way. "We are not educated. That’s why the government doesn’t do anything for us", she says. It is for this reason that she wants a good education for her children. "I want my son to work in a bank and my daughter to become a doctor."
These parents feel that their children will not have to live the life they have had to, if they get a decent education. "Children should study well and do well. They should not have to shed tears like us", says 30-year-old Parvati, a mother of two.
And it isn’t just the adults who feel that it is the lack of education that is a cause for poverty. Speaking to students sponsored by ACT, strong remarks come out on why their mothers and fathers have lived under the shadow of poverty.
Thirteen-year-old Gayathri, a ninth standard student of Maharishi Agastya Vidyalaya (located in Ulsoor’s SC Garden), is very plain in her mind why some women become domestic workers and others don’t. People work as maids because they haven’t studied, she says. "Education is needed."
On the other hand there are some amongst the poor who don’t stop there. They feel that the government has ignored the poor because they are busy pleasing the rich. "Government supports only rich people because of money", says Shilpa P, 17, a 1st pre-university (PU) student. Her friend Manju M also feels similarly saying, "Government is not doing anything for us because we don’t have money."
Sangeetha R says the government takes advantage of people being poor, and therefore does nothing for them. Swathi V feels the government doesn’t help the poor because they think the poor aren’t vocal enough about their problems. "The government thinks we can’t question them. If anyone questions them, they’ll just pay them to keep quiet", says the 15-year-old student.
Talking to these youngsters, it’s clear that their own realities are shaping their ideas about ‘what government is’ itself. Still, they think someone high up in politics will listen to them. "If I get a chance to speak to a ‘big’ person I’ll ask them to look into our needs", says Swathi.
Poor governance and inequitable use of funds
So at a time when Bengaluru continues to grow at a fast pace and there is an increase in the influx of migrants, what do people in city politics and grassroots work feel are the reasons for basic amenities still not reaching the poor?
N P Samy, President of the Karnataka Kolageri Nivasigala Samyukta Sanghatane (KKNSS), says education is the key. KKNSS is a state-level slum-dwellers federation, started by slum-dwellers, to fight for their rights and their place in society. "Without education, no society can go forward", stresses Samy, who also believes that the lack of committed bureaucrats and politicians results in no opportunities for those who need them the most.
BJP’s Jayanagar constituency MLA B N Vijaykumar, who has been appreciated for his serious-minded local initiatives over the past two years, says the system isn’t working because of "useless" government officials. "Everyone thinks politicians are above government officials. It’s not the reality. Take the case of a food inspector or a clerk, they’ll do what they want. They are lazy, incompetent", he says, adding that they need to be motivated to work, which in itself a laborious task.
Former MLA and present corporator of Hanumanthnagar (Ward 155), K Chandrashekar also blames it on the bureaucracy. "The bureaucracy is not introducing schemes in a proper manner. That’s why it’s not reaching the right places. Many people are not aware of the benefits", he opines.
But co-founder of Bangalore-based not-for-profit Janaagraha, Ramesh Ramanathan, feels that the problem is with the way government institutions are designed, where there’s no single agency looking into the needs of the urban poor. In Bangalore, for example, you have the Karnataka Slum Clearance Board, BBMP, BWSSB, BDA and so on, most of them not working in coordination with one another, making the system more complex, says Ramanathan. (Janaagraha works with citizens and the government to improve urban governance)
"If there is a problem in a slum and you approach the local corporator, he can’t do much. A corporator cannot control the slum board because it doesn’t come under the corporation. He can probably use influence, that’s all", says Ramanathan, explaining where the problem lies.
He also feels that prioritisation of funds is not equitable and transparent. "We see arbitrary decisions being made. So many crores are allocated for metro rail. In the process of prioritising, it is always the poor who are affected", he adds.
Bangalore-based filmmaker and political ecologist Pankaj Gupta also echoes this opinion. "Just look at the investments – at public expense – being made for connecting up Electronic city, the IT hub in Outer Ring Road, and the ITPL. Look at the investments being made to keep the airport well-connected", says Gupta.
Gupta’s and Ramanathan’s views are insights into a system lacking in a balance of priorities. It is noteworthy that teenagers Shilpa and Manju of Ulsoor already summed up the same sense in their own way earlier in this report: the government has ignored the poor because they are busy pleasing the rich.
Mega projects versus pro-poor policy
So where should change in the city begin from, for real improvement to reach the poor?
Gupta feels that a good and responsible governance is what is required.
Ramanathan says it all needs to begin with collection of data from which the deficit can be measured. He explains that there is no accurate data on how many slums there are in Bangalore. "The slum board does have some data but it is not comprehensive. How difficult is it to have an accurate list?", he asks.
The collection of data should include information on the number of households, electricity connections, toilets, access to bus stops and so on. "We keep talking about parking for two-wheelers and four-wheelers. My wife (Swati Ramanathan who co-founded Janaagraha) wrote a report where she asks about parking for pushcarts and autos".
It is estimated that the population of the poor is more than 15 lakhs in this growing metropolis. While the city and state’s decision-makers are hosting investor meets and having sleepovers at the Vidhana Soudha, very little is being done for the underprivileged.
So at one end of the spectrum lie mega projects like metro rail, road-widening, signal free corridors and so on. At the other end lie Selvi and her lot, who, in their large numbers are major contributors of low-priced labour to Bengaluru’s economy. For now, in the midst of high-rise buildings, shopping malls and multi-national companies, the Selvis continue to struggle to make ends meet. Their hope: a better life for their children. ⊕