The Social Workers

Ms. T currently had three beats that had been assigned to her. Each beat of the ward in turn again has something called the ‘chowky’ – which is the most disaggregated form of the local state in Mumbai. These chowkys are usually manned by the labour of the MCGM carrying out the public works in each beat. The labour are delegated their duties by the ‘mukadam’ who is a grade IV employee of the MCGM and reports to the JE. The mukadam is again a post that is a much coveted post and also one that is slowly but steadily being weeded out within the MCGM. Many of the jobs that the Maintenance mukadam performs is slowly being contracted out to nongovernmental organizations under something called the “dattak basti yojana.” This became evident to me on one very rainy morning when Ms. T called me asking me to directly join her near the Shivaji Chowk which was much closer to my house than the ward office. On reaching the destination in pouring rain, I was met my Ms. T and X the mukadam of this beat. He was a relatively large young man and was wearing the dirty brown uniform for the grade IV employees of the MCGM. This particular junction of the ward had been water logged for the past five years and the local politicians had placed numerous calls to the ward officer himself, which had led to this urgent response by the staff. It should be noted that this junction is also the one of the exits of the all important Eastern Freeway built by the MMRDA.

Ms. T informed me that due to some faulty construction by the MMRDA, the storm water pipes of the freeway were not leveled with the main lines of the MCGM which lay under the existing highway (this is my super non technical interpretation). This was a massive civil engineering error that had led to a situation in which whenever it rained a little more than normal (as is normal in Mumbai) the water from the freeway would come down at such speeds that there would be a certain backlog in its flow leading in turn to water logging at this junction. However, when the elected representatives would call, there was no way the engineers could explain these problems in technical terms. Ms T went on to say “kuch nahi samajte hain yeh log, aakar mach mach karte hai iske liye hum logo suction machine bhi aaj bula liye – dikhane ke liye ki monsoon ke baad hi yeh problem theek ho payega.” This meeting today at this junction was merely performative, and the performers were all the staff of the MCGM including the ward officer.

While we stood there getting soaked, X came up to Ms T and pointed to the fact that instead of the junction some attention was warranted towards the other end of the freeway where the drains needed cleaning. He also forcefully asserted that “yeh NGO wale kuch kaam nahi karte hain, paisa kyun dete hain unko, bulao aur dikhao!!” At his behest, we trekked in the pouring rain all the way till the other end of the Freeway on the border of the M/E ward to find that indeed the storm water drains were full of trash and had led to severe water logging on that end of the Freeway which no one had complained about. Immediately Ms T called Janak, the ‘coordinator’ of the local NGO who had been given the contract of cleaning the drains in this beat to come and have a look at the problem area. There was some very clear animosity between X and Janak who arrived on the scene in his little red car wearing a crisp white safari suit. Greeting the young Ms. T with a smile and Namaste, Janak suggested that he would immediately divert his labor from other parts of the ward to focus on this part, which is where X’s animosity bubbled up to the surface and he alleged, “is beat ka labour kidhar hai?”

As per this scheme, instead of employing lower level staff and labor at the ward level, the public works have been contracted out to local NGOs who in turn employ the workers for these tasks. Hypothetically each beat of the ward that is assigned to a particular NGO is supposed to have fifteen workers who periodically go around cleaning the drains, segregating and picking up waste, sweeping the streets, etc. the labor employed by the this yojana was to work in conjunction with or even assist the existing labor of the MCGM. However, due to the entrenched ‘supari’ system, it becomes unsustainable financially to employ all fifteen workers. So what ends up happening is that when an NGO is awarded a contract for fifteen workers, it sets aside the wages for two workers for the elected representatives, two workers for the hierarchy of the BMC engineers and staff and three workers wages for their own profit. This results in situation in which there are functionally only seven workers on the ground for public works instead of the fifteen which creates a most definite backlog.

Thus while the traditional MCGM staff with benefits fail to be replaced through new recruitment, the existing mukadams, like X are increasingly becoming dependent on actors such as Janak to ensure provisioning of public services and frustrated because they do not get the requisite support from them. At the ward level the caste and community foundations of the ‘supari’ system become evident. None of the NGOs that are appointed these public works contracts in the ward can operate without the patronage of the local elected representatives. Not only do they have their patronage, often these actors are themselves affiliated members of the ruling party or share some familial connection with the elected representatives. Ms. T made clear this connection to me when she pointed out to me that Janak was the brother in law of the current elected representative of this beat. This beat was dominated by the Maratha community resulting in the overwhelming power of the Shiv Sena in this beat evident in the display of the large banners and the presence of a large temple in the middle of the road.

This temple perhaps was the reason behind the water logging at the end of the Freeway that the local representatives had complained about bringing us there that day. While this neither Ms T nor X were concerned about the water logging at the assigned place, they seemed very displeased by the clogged drains that we were standing over at the moment. X went on to say, “kya bataon madam, shivaji nagar mein abhi kya haal hai. Aadha se zyada doob gaya hai. Bahut kaam hai wahan, bekaar ka hum logo yehaan khada karke rakha hai.” He was referring to how the poorer parts of the ward, which were not wards of the SS were currently facing the full brunt of the monsoon and no one was talking about that. No part of this conversation seemed to bother Janak, who while asking me a multitude of questions about my identity managed to not divulge anything about him. As the labour arrived and started cleaning the clogged drain, Ms T, X and I started to head back to our original designated site, even though no one had arrived to inspect the water logging at that junction yet. Janak offered us a ride back, which we accepted. On arriving at the spot, X decided that he had had enough of waiting and that he was actually needed elsewhere before his shift ended at 3.00 p.m. Even Ms. T and I decided to head back to the ward office.

At the office away from X, Ms. T opened up to me about the whole situation that we had just encountered – where the lower municipal employee was complaining about the NGO worker employed to reduce his work load. Ms. T said, “yeh mukadam log kuch kaam nahi karna chahte, zyada tar time toh who daru peekar chowky mein baithe rehte hain. Yeh NGO walon se mukadam log chidte hain kyunki unka cut ab kam ho gaya hai. Diwali ke time pe sab basti se jakar paisa lete the yeh log, corporator waghera se paise milte the, ab who sab bhaut kam ho gaya hai, isliye chidte hain.” Though she conceded that people like Janak were not the solution to the entrenched apathy of the lower level staff, she pointed to the fact that these people, who I can claim to be ‘fixers’ are also important figures in the functioning of the local state in Mumbai. They performed an important function of being the conduits through which patronage politics operates in erstwhile Mumbai. These local levels ‘fixers’ often went simply by the titles of ‘social workers’ or as ‘karyakartas’ of a political party. I had seen many of these actors floating around in the ward office at all times of the day, often either leading people into the office of the AMC or getting a petition sanctioned through the AE of either the BF or maintenance department. I even had been mistaken as a ‘social worker’ by someone who wished to present his case to the AMC because I had become such a regular. In my rounds of the ward office I soon realized that if I had to indeed get any perspective in to the functioning of these social workers, I had to go down to the level of the informal settlement itself.