November 16, 2000


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Dilip D'Souza

Two leaflets after a strike

As I walked up to the venue of the meeting, I recognised a couple of friends who were handing out leaflets. Ah, I thought, so they are also involved in this effort. A very momentary thought. Because, when I greeted them, they said to me: The organisers are trying to stop us from distributing these. They have even called the police to get us to move. We don't want to disrupt the meeting, we just want the people coming for it to read what we have to say too.

So I read one of their leaflets. What they had to say was not exactly calculated to endear them to the meeting's organisers and attendees. But thought-provoking anyway, with much to agree with. In fact, about as thought-provoking, with about as much to agree with, as the issues that had prompted the meeting. I stood outside the hall for a long time, torn between these conflicting views, between friends I had both inside and outside. If I could see right in both arguments, what then was the way forward?

About a month ago, Bombay came to an outraged standstill over a municipal strike. Another municipal strike. Agitating for a large "ex-gratia" payment, the city's municipal workers -- the country's highest paid such workers -- quit work. They do this with a dully metronomic regularity every year. But this year, they hit on a true masterstroke to get the city to pay attention to them. Before leaving their desks or wherever it is that they work, they turned the city's water supply off.

The next day saw chaos. No water! Enraged residents all over the city swarmed on to the roads to protest the only way they knew how: by blocking traffic. Trains slowed to a fitful crawl too. I found my way to near Opera House that afternoon. The long lines of buses, cars and trucks, abandoned right there on the road because they were not going anywhere, made a strange sight, almost unnerving. Other areas of the city saw similar scenes: in his stirring October 14 Diary for, Saisuresh Sivaswamy writes about spending hours in one such in the northern suburb of Jogeshwari.

Turning off the water may have been a masterstroke, but it was a singularly vicious, diabolical thing for the municipal workers to do. And it got some groups of citizens so angry that they went to court to stop the ex-gratia payment just when the municipality was getting ready to cave in and pay it.

These were the groups -- AGNI (Action for Good Governance and Networking in India), Dignity Foundation, Mumbai Grahak Panchayat and others -- who called the meeting I went to that evening. The "Citizens of Mumbai had a harrowing experience," explained an appeal circulated at the meeting, "where we were: deprived of water ... forced to live in filth ... deprived of medical facilities due to municipal hospitals being non-functional."

The hall rang with calls for solidarity and action by these citizens: "Civic ... unions must desist forthwith from threats and unreasonable demands. ... Citizens are determined to fight such tactics and will organise themselves accordingly." There was particular rage against municipal corporators, who themselves called the strikers' tactics "blackmail", but then "joined hands with union leaderships. They thus betrayed the interests of their own constituents." (All quotes from the AGNI leaflet.)

An adrenaline-pumping event indeed. I was especially glad our honourable corporators got some flak. May they get much more.

Yet, what was going on outside the meeting? Another group was there -- the Nirbhay Bano Andolan (Be Fearless Movement). To those streaming in for the meeting, their leaflet posed the questions: "Who constitutes 'citizens' of Mumbai? Are municipal workers not citizens? Your hostility towards the men and women who sweep our streets, go down gutters and clear choked drains, repair streetlights and roads, wash bedpans in hospitals and clean toilets in schools where the city's poorest children go, is amazing. ... The workers always leave the keys to the waterworks with the administration when they strike. They did so this time too. Couldn't the municipal commissioner have got at least one citizen to man them -- a retired engineer, for instance? Or did he want the public to be inconvenienced so that the workers would bear the brunt of the 'citizens' anger?"

And of this business of holding the city to ransom, the leaflet asked: "Is it only workers who do that? Haven't you heard of a man called Bal Thackeray? Have any of you had the guts to go to court every time he has held this city to ransom? Where were you when the BJP forced a bandh in August?"

How would you react to these contrasting views of the same strike?

And to complicate it all some more, Sai's diary throws in still another wrinkle. An "anguished" teenager asked the stalled motorists in Jogeshwari: "Did you wash your arse today?" He answered that question himself by musing: Haan, tum log ne to kiya hoga... hamara yahan teen din se paani nahi. Hum kya kare? Tum log ke ghar mein biwi hogi, bachche honge, log pareshan hain. Aaplog ke paas mobilephone hai, bol sakte ho tumko kya hua. Par hamari taqleef kaun sunega? [Yeah, you people are all right, but we have not had water for three days now, so what do we do? You have a wife at home, children awaiting your return, they are worried when you are late, but you have a cellphone to call and tell them. But who will listen to us?]

For millions of Bombayites, the lack of water, the life in filth, the absence of medical facilities -- these are not just municipal-workers-on-strike phenomena. They are inescapable daily realities. By no means does this render citizens' anger invalid. But what light does all this throw, do you think, on a strike? On a court case?

Yes, I don't believe the city should give in to constant demands from striking municipal workers; and the tactic they used to force a resolution -- turning off our water -- was simply despicable. But yes too, I don't believe the middle and upper classes have much comprehension of -- let alone sympathy for -- the conditions in which so many Indians live. Whether we like it or not, that complicates the issue.

So where's the resolution going to come from? Is it sensible, or practical, to treat these issues as black and white?

This curious ambivalence, if that's the word, applies to other conundrums too.

For example: Indeed I would like our sanctuaries and open spaces inviolate -- there's little enough of them available as it is. But given how impossibly out of reach housing in our cities is, is it right -- or again, practical -- to tear down shacks that infringe on the border areas of Bombay's Borivli National Park without caring where those thousands will go, how they will live?

For another example: Certainly hawkers are often a nuisance, taking away walking space from pedestrians. But do we really address this nuisance by sporadic and much-applauded crackdowns on some hawkers?

Look at this another way. We don't keep forest areas inviolate, or pavements clear to walk on, to begin with. Every now and then, we wake up and drum the "encroachers" out. That done, we make no effort to either find them alternative space, or to make sure they stay off. Inevitably, they return. Some months later, the cycle is repeated. Is this a reasonable way to handle a very complex problem? If we are uninterested in the firm, impartial and steady application of our laws on public space and property, don't slum demolitions and crackdowns on hawkers amount to mere harassment?

Perhaps you think I've wandered far from my musings about a municipal strike. The point is this: if we take a one-dimensional view of them, any attempt to address intricate civic issues will fail -- as they are demonstrably failing in front of our eyes.

No, it makes no sense to let municipal workers get whatever they demand, especially when they so crassly use water as a weapon. But surely it makes no sense either to close our eyes to the constant problems so many Indians have in just getting water, or in coping with filth.

Which is why I look forward to a future leaflet that AGNI and the Nirbhay Bano Andolan will jointly distribute. It will express citizens' anger at the daily dreadful state of our cities. On that basis, it will ask citizens -- all citizens -- to stand together against blackmail by striking workers and the politicians who join them. On that basis, they will have a better chance to succeed in their efforts than they do now.


I deliberately kept this out of my column last week, so I could use it as a tailpiece this week. And after wading through the reams of ignorant abuse I got in response to that article, I'm glad I waited. If glad is the word I want.

If you recall, that article was about the deaths of five Kashmiris in March; five men who, we were told then, had massacred 35 Sikhs in Chattisinghpura some days earlier. It turned out that these were local villagers randomly rounded up and deliberately killed by our uniformed men in Kashmir.

At the end of August -- five months later -- the massacre of those Sikhs was in the news again. I quote from two news reports, one from PTI used in The Hindu and the other from The Times of India:

Srinagar, Aug 31 (PTI):
Two Pakistan-based Lashkar-E-Toiba militants, the main accused in the massacre of 35 Sikhs at Chattisinghpora in Anantnag district in March, at the time of US President Bill Clinton's visit, have been arrested, a top police officer said today.

Mohammad Suhail Malik alias Amir and Zahid Hussain alias Zahid, both Pakistani nationals belonging to Lashker-E-Toiba (LET) were arrested three days back, IG Police, P S Gill, told reporters here.

... Mohammad Suhail belongs to the murderous pack which carried out the gruesome massacre of innocent civilians at Chattisinghpora, the IG said. During interrogation, both admitted to committing the crime under directions from their Pakistani mentors to time it with President Clinton's visit, he said.

SRINAGAR, Sept 1 (The Times of India):
The police on Thursday claimed to have arrested two Pakistani nationals belonging to the Lashkar-e-Toiba militant outfit and allegedly involved in the massacre of 35 Sikhs in Chattisinghpora on March 21.

... On March 25 this year, the police had claimed to have killed five foreign militants for being involved in the massacre. But later they were found to be local villagers and not involved in the incident.

... Reporters were not allowed to question [the two suspects] as the IG (operations), P S Gill, said it would hamper their investigations.

Dilip D'Souza

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