Former MLA, Who Carried Out Mumbai’s First Slum Count, Dies
In the hours of telecast time and acres of newsprint spent on the demise and the state funeral of Vilasrao Deshmukh, one piece of news got lost—almost. It was the death of Prabhakar Kunte, a former minister, at the ripe old age of 92. He died in Mumbai in his Shivaji Park apartment even as VIPs gathered in Latur.
Chances are that most people under 60 and those who haven’t lived in Mumbai for decades may not even know of him and his good work. He was the one who, for the first time ever, conducted a census of the slums in Mumbai and told the then government, headed by S. B. Chavan, what the extent of the slum issue was.
But for him, Mumbai, in which only five per cent of households lived in slums in the mid-1950s, would hardly have an idea about the size of slums and their occupants in the mid-1970s. They later proliferated to house, the Census Commissioner said, close to 60 per cent of the city’s entire population in 2001.
For one, he was a legislator elected to the Maharashtra Assembly in 1972 by what was then known as the Dharavi Constituency. It extended beyond Khar to Sion. He was aware of what it was like to live in a slum but felt that most people in the city, even long-time residents, didn’t care much about what a slum was, especially Dharavi.
One day, S. B. Chavan, under whom he was minister of housing, returned from a trip to Delhi and travelled south to his official residence from the airport. He was struck by the sight of people squatting along the Western Express Highway—which was not as broad as it is now—for their morning toilet outing. The stench and sight were too much. He mentioned to Kunte that there seemed to be a problem. But how big was it?
Kunte knew a thing or two about slum dwellers. When he presented the findings to the assembly, he predicted it with shockers. Some police constables had to find housing there, some graduates lived in the shanties. All of them were victims of slum lords’ whims. Some slum lords were benign, except that they charged rents for shacks on lands that did not belong to them.
Much before the survey, which he would have carried out even if the chief minister had not enquired, Kunte had walked the slums. As a minister, he would be accompanied by officials—a minister does not go on walkabouts without officials, petty or senior. None of them had earlier stepped into one or even gone close enough to know how it smelled.
When he started the survey, he was up against a legal issue. He could ask his officials to count the number of shacks and the number of people within each of them, but the survey had to be restricted to those on public lands—those of the railways, the state, the civic body, the central government and its arms. But it was a no-no when it came to private land.
In that survey, each household was assigned a number which it could put up on its door as a kind of official stamp of recognition. Had his team, which swooped down on the slums one single day, done so with the shanties on private lands then ownership issues would have cropped up and the state would have fiddled with the rights of the land owner and the slum dweller.
Not for nothing was Kunte known as a war horse. He just changed the nomenclature. The houses and head counts on public lands became the census. The same on the private lands was a survey—just finding out what was what and by how much. But he had a trick up his sleeve. In his pre-survey and pre-census walks, he just told the slum dwellers “don’t pay the slum lords”.
It progressed to the issue of photo-identity for slum dwellers as the subject turned extraordinarily political because each and every political party and politician began to develop them as vote banks. If they had some identity, which was a substitute for a title deed, it helped. And Kunte was the one who started that process, though that process took different turns and twists with most slum dwellers continuing to live in hope of an eviction-free life in their shanties.
This story by Mahesh Vijapurkar was originally published on Firstpost.com.Tags: Dharavi, First Post, Prabhakar Kunte, Slums