Home india-news Bengaluru’s silenced slums may hold unlikely Karnataka poll key | Latest News India

Bengaluru’s silenced slums may hold unlikely Karnataka poll key | Latest News India

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Bengaluru’s silenced slums may hold unlikely Karnataka poll key | Latest News India

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The shift happens quickly and violently. To the north-east of Bengaluru is Fraser town, named after Stuart Mitford Fraser, once the tutor of the Maharaja of Mysore, and built in the early 1900s as an extension of the Bangalore Cantonment. Residential bungalows and flats lie on both sides of tree-lined roads, interspersed with the occasional shopping arcade, or a multi-floor jewellery store, the kind that can only exist in an area that has high disposable income.

A 2021 survey found that Bengaluru has 597 slum areas. (Shutterstock)
A 2021 survey found that Bengaluru has 597 slum areas. (Shutterstock)

But less than five minutes away, the nature of the traffic shifts — from the quiet engine of a sedan to the cacophony of rickshaws, and two-wheelers, desperately navigating thin lanes, where shops and shanties jostle for space, and where even the trees, ubiquitious to the broader identity of Bengaluru, are pushed to the margins.

“In Deverajeevanahalli, there is no space for trees. When you live in a slum, one of the biggest in Bengaluru, every square inch of land is precious and even a tree is a luxury we cannot afford,” says Lakshmana S, sitting on his haunches in front of his hut that has a tin roof, a roof t so low that Lakshmana S cannot but be on his haunches.

Bengaluru has many identities. It is the city of lakes, even if several are dying, frothing at the seams. It is the city of gardens, home to Cubbon Park, where now, no games or picnics are allowed. It is also India’s Silicon Valley, where IT professionals spend their days building India’s tech universe, and their evenings negotiating traffic in a city where urban infrastructure is struggling to keep up with demand. If districts were ranked on the basis of how much of their population was among India’s richest 20%, Bengaluru Urban would be 38th among 707 districts nationwide, with 59% of the population within this bracket, according to NFHS data for 2019-21. If the question were based on the metric of how many of India’s top 40% lived in the district, it would rank even higher — 21st among 707, with 88% of the district in this bracket.

There is another identity though, another mass of people in Bengaluru, hiding in plain sight. People that service the service sector, and live on the margins of its urban sprawl. A group of people that stay insignificant in the public narrative for most of the year, but come election season, decide Bengaluru and Karnataka’s fate. A 2021 survey conducted by the Karnataka Slum Development Board found that there are 2,804 slum areas in the state, of which 597 were in Bengaluru city alone. It estimated the population that lives in these slums in Karnataka is 4.5 million, or 22.56% of the state’s urban population.

Outside his two-room hut, 63-year-old Lakshamana S looks up at the sky constantly as he talks animatedly, angrier by the minute. He is looking for signs of rain; rain that will mean that he quickly scoops up the tattered tarpaulin sheet on which his tools are laid out and rush inside. Or worse, collect all his belongings and flee to higher ground.

“We are invisible people, I tell you. When it rains heavily, and the floods come, all the television and the newspapers talk about some road flooding, and how it affects commuters, how they spend one extra hour on the road. Every day during the monsoons is a threat to our lives. The sewage starts flowing in the streets, and the water beings to coagulate. Sometimes so high that we have to leave our homes with whatever we can salvage,” Lakshmana says. In one corner of one room of his house, next to a cot and a trunk of clothes, is a metal box, placed at a height on top of a table that he will grab first. In it are some clothes, and every government document that his family owns.

Two lanes down in Deverarajaveenahalli, or DJ Halli as locals call it, Manjunath Patil has just returned from a morning of work. He earns 12,000 a month and works from 5am to 3pm, dangling down ropes to clean the glass facades of buildings in Whitefield. On his way home, he navigates potholes on his second-hand Honda scooter, parks and jumps past two open sewers, and arrives to the constant smell of rotting waste. In his mind, both the cause and the effect — his choice this election — is clear.

“Everything is down to corruption. The central government gives funds, but the government here at this level does very little work. They only plan, but execute nothing. They have had five years, now it is time for change,” Patil says.

The separation Patil makes is important, and has resonance across three slum clusters HT visited across Bengaluru: DJ Halli, Srirampura and Rajendra Nagar. There is still belief in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but the Congress label of “40% sarkara” on the incumbent Basavraj Bommai government, a reference to an allegation by state contractors that 40% commission is siphoned off for any development work done, is sticking.

“This state government does not work for the poor, and on top of that they are corrupt. If the next chief minister was to be (BS) Yediyurappa, then maybe I would vote another way because he cares for the people in the state, but right now, it seems change is the best option,” Patil says.

The fate of Bengaluru is crucial for the assembly elections and may well be the difference between a clear majority either way, or a hung assembly. The state assembly has 224 seats, and Bengaluru accounts for 28 of those. In 2008, the BJP won 17 of 28 seats on its way to power, with the Congress winning 10. In 2013, in an election the Congress won, the BJP fell to 12 seats, with the Congress rising to 13. In 2018, the BJP fell further to 11 seats, when it emerged the single largest party but fell shy of the 113 majority mark. The Congress won an impressive 15 seats in 2018, with the JD(S) winning one. A round of by polls in 2019, however, has seen the BJP rise to 15 seats.

Local BJP leaders canvassing door-to-door in earnest admitted that the battle is uphill, but there is a trump card they believe will mitigate damage: Prime Minister Modi.

“It is true that we have an anti-incumbency working against us, and the bickering over tickets has not helped. But the Prime Minister is extremely popular still, and we are taking to the people that he has always cared for Karnataka and Bengaluru. Like our president JP Nadda has been saying in our rallies, Modiji’s hand should not leave Karnataka’s head because it is clear he will be Prime Minister for a while to come,” a BJP leader said.

“The Prime Minister inaugurated the new Metro line and we are now making a satellite ring road. We have already given 5,000 crore to the Smart City project and every priority will be given to infrastructure. Not just the state government but the central government is very particular about major cities,” Gopinath Reddy, BJP organisation incharge of Bengaluru, told HT on April 4.

Beyond the broad strokes of development and corruption, there is much of course that will depend on local factors, including caste. Vokkaligas are among the most influential castes in the city, with 13 of the 28 sitting legislators from the community. There are four reserved seats for scheduled castes, including Pulakeshinagar where DJ Halli falls. In that seat, the Congress changed tickets from sitting MLA Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy, who won the 2018 election by the largest margin of 82,000 votes in the state, to AC Srinivasa who fought the 2018 elections from Mahadevpura but lost. The powerful Murthy has resigned from the assembly, and has filed nomination as an independent. He said he turned down the opportunity to fight from a BJP ticket, with the constituency a mix of Muslim and Dalit voters once erupting in communal violence, including an attack on his home after an allegedly offensive social media post about Prophet Mohammad was put up by a relative of his in August 2020.

In DJ Halli, it is 3pm and the sceptre of rain seems to have dissipated. Lakshmana S has rolled up his tarpaulin mat of tools, and sauntered to a tea stall one lane away for his usual 5 cup of tea, the one luxury he allows himself every day. In front of the tea stall, is a statue of BR Ambedkar, ubiquitous across slum clusters in Bengaluru. He does not remember when it was built, but it has a plaque that says it was sponsored by CK Jaffer Sharief, once Union minister of railways.

“I was a young man when it was built, and as a Dalit, Ambedkar is the only politician I ever admired. I still bow my head to the statue every time I go out for work. If he was alive, our situation would not have been like this. Some day, there will be another leader like him, who sees us, and works for us. Till then, we will vote one corrupt government out for another.”


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