Nearly 28,000 Safai Kaamgaars in the city have decided to opt for NOTA rather than support any political party. Living in dilapidated homes, constructed decades ago, has angered the Safai Kaamgars to the extent that they have decided to register their discontent in the Lok Sabha elections.
"The British called us scavengers and, till date, the government treats us like we don’t exist. We have been staying in dingy 10/10 rooms in a congested chawl built by the British. We have spent over 100 years here but we do not own these rooms. Several generations of our family have been in this profession and even the educated members of the community have been forced to take up this job as we do not have any other accommodation. No party takes active interest in our upliftment. So, we have unanimously decided to use the None of the Above (NOTA) option in the Lok Sabha elections," says Devendra Makwana, a resident of the BMC sweepers' colony near Arthur Road Jail, Byculla. The residents are traditionally Congress voters but they will exercise NOTA as they complain that Congress leader Milind Deora did not find the time to meet them or talk to them about their problems throughout his campaign.
Over the years, huge cracks have appeared on the dilapidated buildings
There are around 17-18 such colonies scattered around Mumbai, in areas like Gautam Nagar, Kasarwadi, Valpakhadi and Dongri among others. A majority of the Safai Kaamgaars hail from Kathiawad in Gujarat, apart from Maharashtra. "We are HIndu and Buddhist dalits but cannot avail any schemes reserved for scheduled caste because as per government regulation, we have to furnish our forefather's document stating our caste. But there are different sub castes mentioned in these documents which differ from the caste name written on the present generation's documents. We are refused all our rights over this technicality. We are not even included in the census. Isn’t that shocking?" asks Shyam Gohil, a resident and leader with CPI (M).
The residents' primary demand includes ownership of the rooms in their possession and appointment of the representative of their community in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Residents staying in two buildings of the colony have been slapped with notices to vacate their rooms. The reason given to them is that the building is in a dangerous condition but residents are not ready to leave as the BMC will then shift them to a transit camp in Mahul.
Arvind Samant, Shiv Sena candidate from the constituency, says that theirs is the only party fighting for the sweepers’ cause. "I was set to meet the Chief Minister with regard to granting ownership and redevelopment of this area. Despite regulations of not building towers in the vicinity of Arthur Road Jail, builders have constructed towers just next to it. I have taken up this cause earlier but recently I’ve been caught up in election work so I couldn’t pursue it. These residents are clearly at loss if they exercise NOTA. Who will then take up their case?"
Mahrashtra Navnirman Sena's ( MNS) Bala Nandgaonkar claims that he was unaware of the issue and he will definitely look into this problem as sweepers are the backbone of our society. AAP's state secretary Preeti Menon admitted that since their party is new, their reach is limited and so she did not know about the issue. "Our candidate Medha Patkar will strive for these issues as she has been working for the deprived class always. These residents should not shift until they get a guaranteed accommodation fit for human habitation. We extend our whole hearted support to them," she said. Patkar, however, is the party’s candidate from Mumbai North East and not Mumbai South.
Incumbent MP, Milind Deora’s office remained unavailable for comment.
(Preeti Kulkarni reports for Iamin.in DNAofIndia - India's hyperlocal news network)