The political agency of Delhi’s slum women is not an endowment from nature, it is an achievement…


Delhi, Mani Babbar

From Scope:

A city of nearly 17 million inhabitants, Delhi is not a single entity, but contains a multitude of distinct and overlapping spaces and enclaves. With its layering of history from the medieval to the modern, it is a palimpsest. As the capital of India, it houses the country’s most powerful people, but it is also home to many powerless and homeless people; an estimated 45% of the city’s population lives in slums. Delhi is also a city of babus— government civil servants—whose presence is strongly visible in the public sphere; nearly 80% of workers in the city, however, belong to the unorganized sector, many of them without any security of employment.

On the first of March this year, fifty women of Motilal Nehru Camp—a slum close to the middle-class residential colony of Munirka in South Delhi—met in a community room, as they did every week. As a researcher, I was allowed to attend the meeting. Members of SNS (Satark Nagarik Sangathan: Society for Citizen Vigilance Initiative), a civil society organization that has been working with the urban poor since 2003, also attended the meeting. The discussion at first focused on the role and responsibilities of elected representatives both in the Legislative Assembly and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and on how the residents could monitor their activities.  Some women, for example, were critical of candidates bribing voters with cash and liquor—a common practice at election time. The discussion was as much about the existing political system as it was about active citizenship. The urban middles classes often express their cynicism about their elected representatives, but they rarely come together to change the system. By contrast, in this meeting room a critique of the system went hand in hand with a desire to improve it.

Towards the end of the meeting the government’s proposed cash-transfer program came in for some intense criticism. Arguments were proffered as to why the new way of delivering services might not be good for the poor. “If we are not getting the old age pension on a regular basis,” argued an old woman, “what is the guarantee that the cash transfer system will work?”  Many of the women expressed their desire to join a demonstration a few days later to protest against the proposed cash-transfer system.

How does one make sense of the political activism of these women? It is certainly not merely a reflection of a generalized distrust of politics and politicians. One could clearly see in their discussion a reasoned political logic, an attempt to recognize the import role of monitoring in changing the character of electoral politics and elected representatives. They also clearly saw an intrinsic connection between their political assertiveness and their socioeconomic well-being. The political agency of these slum women is not an endowment from nature. Quite the opposite: it is an achievement, the product of ongoing mobilization, collective reflection, and support from local activists.

“The watchers”, Bishnu N. Mohapatra, Scope