India polls: Mumbai slum-dwellers wary of election promises

MUMBAI (AFP) - After four decades in the same Mumbai slum, Vimal Gaikwad is well used to politicians' tall promises at election time, when the city's millions of shanty dwellers become sought-after voters.

"The candidates just promise and say they will help, and then they do nothing," said the 60-year-old grandmother, perched on the steps of her green-painted, tin-roofed home in the northeastern Bhim Nagar neighbourhood.

Winning votes from the slums is key to political success in India's seaside financial capital, where the elites are traditionally apathetic and around half of the population lives in tightly-packed shantytowns.

But when they go to the polls on Thursday in the latest leg of India's marathon general election, slum dwellers say they won't be fooled by last-minute promises to improve their lot - especially from the ruling Congress party.

Mumbai's current six MPs are members of Congress or one of its allies, whose coalition is expected to be toppled nationally by controversial Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A few weeks before the election began, the Congress-led government of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, extended a scheme making slum dwellers eligible for free housing.

"We believe in a slum-free Mumbai and we believe in rehousing slum dwellers, using that land for important infrastructure projects," South Mumbai's Congress MP, Milind Deora, told AFP while campaigning.

Before the bill was passed, anyone who could prove they settled in their slums before 1995 was eligible under the scheme. Now that has been extended up to the year 2000, benefiting around 400,000 extra households.

But slum residents and housing experts are sceptical of the news so close to an election, and many believe the scheme itself is flawed.

On the outskirts of Dharavi, one of Asia's most famous slums and the backdrop to hit movie Slumdog Millionaire, 40-year-old Navnath Chaugule and most of his neighbours are now eligible for new homes.

By the banks of the Mithi River, with views across to the shiny commercial towers of the Bandra Kurla Complex, Chaugule recounted how they filled their swampy land with 60 trucks of rubble to make it habitable in the mid-1990s.

"Now the government is eyeing it. Wherever you see sugar, you will see ants around it," he said, fearing the community would be forced to shift to the outskirts of the city to make way for new developments.

"If they want to demolish our homes, no problem, but we want rehabilitating here only," chipped in his neighbour Faheem Ansari, 20, a driver.

Those in the colony who spoke to AFP said they would be voting for the hardline regional Shiv Sena party, an ally of the BJP - if only to bring about a change from the Congress MP who previously won their vote.

"If there was a fire here no political party would come and help us. But to fulfil the promises not fulfilled, we need an alternative," said Chaugule.

Introduced in 1995 by a Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, the slum rehabilitation scheme offers developers prime land to build on if they rehouse the residing slum dwellers, 70 per cent of whom must consent.

Fewer than 200 of the 1,524 allotted projects had been completed by late last year, according to local reports.

"People are watching critically," said Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, adding that "gimmicks" such as changing the scheme's cut-off date would not solve Mumbai's deep-rooted housing crisis.

Those in Bhim Nagar slum said their Congress MP had done nothing to improve their living conditions in the past five years, but was still likely win votes from the low-caste community because of the party's "secular" and traditionally pro-poor image.

"People here will not think about what these politicians will do for them. They will vote only on the basis of their caste," said 26-year-old Vodafone employee Vishal Gaikwad, the main breadwinner for his household of eight.

But these historic allegiances appear far less certain than they once were among the 18 million people who live in the greater Mumbai region.

Political analyst Kumar Ketkar said slum dwellers were well aware their votes could be a "weapon" if promises were not fulfilled.

"These people are so vulnerable that their only source of survival is politics," he said, contrasting slum dwellers with the Mumbai elites who "don't require government" and can exploit family connections and bribery.

Inhabitants of Garib Nagar slum, tucked across the tracks from the railway station in the trendy suburb of Bandra, say they struggled to rebuild their homes with little help from their MP after a massive fire swept through in 2011.

Since campaigning began, various parties have been promising them better amenities and offering cash handouts for attendance at rallies.

"The voters are not fooled," said Mohammed Asraf Sheikh, 58, who runs a small bakery in the mainly Muslim community.

Sheikh is switching his vote this time from Congress to the BJP, despite the fact that its leader Modi is accused of failure to halt anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people dead.

"With Modi we have to think twice, but still we have decided," he said.

"The first thing we need is change because change means development. For the last 10 years there's been no development, only false promises."