Sayani Hazra for BeyondHeadlines
Asansol, West Bengal: Ward No. 38 of the Asansol Municipal Corporation has been brought under the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) scanner and the changes are aptly visible. People are hopeful while some are apprehensive that once again, work may stop due to lack of funds, which they claim has happened earlier also.
The 12,000 voters of this ward, which is predominantly a Muslim area, seem to have similar grievances. There are taps but no water and only 7 taps for 5,000 people. The tap runs for only an hour per day. There is no presence of tube-wells except the one installed under the corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy of Steel Authority of India (SAIL). The drainage system is no less than being awful, the sewage water flows into the streets and during monsoon, it gets worst.
“Worshipers have to cross their way to the mosque through stagnant water, if nothing else can be improved, at least take care of our religious place,” said Md. Muslim Khan, president of the Iqra Masjid. “In a nearby place, there are no houses but good arrangement of drains. Look at our area,” said Shahid, a resident of the area.
The presence of Kacha (not concrete) roads makes it unfit for sweeping so it remains dirt strewn. The roads are accident prone, more due to lack of street lights. We spend on lighting of the streets, but we cannot bear the cost of construction of roads. If we complain, the committee replies there are no funds. It has been the same story for the past 20 years,” said Md. Waish rhetorically.
In spite of such grave problems, the residents of this area are very proud of their councilor Sohrab Ali. A businessman, who lives in a triple storied house in that ward and his locality, has proper roads and drains. He belongs to Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and has been serving fourth term as councilor of the area. Ali fought the first three elections as independent candidate and emerged victorious. People call him the Messiah of the poor. Some claim that he spends his own money for their services.
“He asks the corporation for funds, but it is a political game. People in power in the corporation favour those who belong to their party,” said the Ward Committee President Ahmadullah Khan. “The condition of our ward is so because we belong to the minority community,” says angry Reyaz. Raunak Afroz, another young member of the Ward Committee, indignantly exclaimed, “The Sachar Committee report says minorities constitute 25.2 percent of the total population of West Bengal, but only two percent of them are in government services.” Some complained about the delayed reaction of the corporation in approving tenders in spite of availability of funds.
But the future appears bright. After 20 years of struggle, these people can dream of a better tomorrow because of the Basic Services to Urban Poor (BSUP) scheme of the of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) launched by the central government. The first phase of this scheme has been successfully completed in ward no. 6, 29, 48 and in few other wards of the Asansol Municipal Corporation.
The BSUP was launched by the prime minister in December 2005 with a view to ameliorate the conditions of the urban slum dwellers who are residing in dilapidated conditions in the identified 63 mission cities. The basic objective of the scheme is to strive for holistic slum development with a healthy and enabling urban environment by providing adequate shelter and basic infrastructure facilities to the urban slum dwellers.
Funds for the second phase have been sanctioned about six months back, and the work has started in areas of ward no. 38 like Alam Nagar, where the roads and the drainage system have been built. Hameed Nagar is next in line. The work is underway, one visiting the area can see the drains being constructed and materials heaped on the roadside in some areas.
On the other side, people in an area of ward no. 38, which is referred as the leprosy colony as most of the residents of the ward are suffering from leprosy, seems to have no respite as their slum is built on private land. More than the feeling of segregation what disturbs them is the menace of eviction. Same is the case of ward no. 5, which is built on the land owned by the South Eastern Railway. People residing in these areas generally work in unorganized sectors, be it pulling rickshaws, serving as maids in households and even at times begging. They just want to continue living in the areas they have illegally settled in even if it lacks basic amenities of sewerage facilities, medical facilities, electricity or hygiene, even unequal distribution of Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards and hoarding materials in ration shops, which are sold later in black by its dealers. For them, the councilors are not to be held responsible for the underdevelopment of their area.
The slum dwellers remain unaware of their rights, and some who may be aware are not allowed to voice their opinion by their families who fear eviction. They are not much used to journalists as Asansol gets low coverage in the dailies publish from Kolkata. They are hesitant of any surveys conducted or reports collected from their area. The common question that comes up is, “Didi amadige tule dibe nato, chele pile loy kuthay thakbo bolo (Sister, please do not evict us from here as we have nowhere to go with our families).” It seems as if such people cannot assert their rights to live but are extremely indebted to the powerful for allowing them to live.
Santanu Sinha Mahapatro, the urban planner in the corporation, was vocal about certain practical problems that arise in the course of slum development. He said, “Working on private land is a tedious process as it requires negotiation between the governing body and the owner, which at times does not work out due to compensation offered and compensation demanded.”
No doubt, the presence of political influence of a councilor is significant in bringing about development in an area as during the board meeting of the members in council for approving a project, there is some kind of partiality prevalent in allocation of funds for development, he said. He mentioned that before BSUP scheme, there used to be no fund allocation for the development of the slum areas. He informed about the new scheme coming up for the urban development, which will cover the slums that is not included in the BSUP list. The name of the scheme is Rajiv Awaas Yojana, survey for which is going on, he said.
Mahapatra also pointed out, “It is very difficult to have a slum free city even if facilities are improved in an area and houses are built. There is always a chance for slum dwellers to encroach upon some other land and put the government houses on rent as they rarely have permanent sources of income and are poverty stricken. In this case, the rent serves as a source of cash. Therefore, the problem of slum in a city continues.”