This is the fourth post in a series on “What are Delhi’s MLAs up to?”
Shalimar Bagh was a BJP stronghold for the last 20 years. In 2013, Aam Aadmi Party’s Bandana Kumari won by over 10,000 votes (9.9% of the vote share). The constituency has 12 slums, 4 villages, middle class apartments, and upper class kotis (large houses). Donkey-drawn vegetable carts were steps away from Kumari’s office, which is located along one of the slums in the constituency.
Kumari has been living in the Shalimar Bagh constituency since her marriage in 1998, and worked in the insurance sector. She was never politically active but was engaged socially in her community through her NGO, Nayee Pahal, which focused on social issues and women empowerment. The India Against Corruption (IAC) movement in 2011 caught Kumari’s attention, and her involvement with the IAC led her to become a founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
“What are your proudest achievements as an MLA?” I asked Kumari. “I’ve addressed community issues that hadn’t been addressed for the last 25 years,” she responded instantly.
Addressing the Community’s Concerns
AAP’s door-to-door campaign strategy has been praised for its simplicity and effectiveness. Kumari shared that door-to-door campaigning wasn’t just successful in swinging votes, but it also enabled the community to communicate with the political party and inform them about pressing local issues.
For the last 25 years, a High-Tension (HT) electricity transmission cable ran tightly along the roofs of Shalimar and Haiderpur. This prevented the residents from constructing upwards, and resulted in a few deaths every year. The residents repeatedly approached various public authorities ranging from the elected Corporators of the Municipal Corporation, to Members of Parliament. No government employee or public official from the BJP or Congress addressed the community’s concerns.
What the BJP and Congress could not achieve in years, Bandana Kumari achieved in months. The annual R.s. 4 crore (~$652,000) MLA Local Area Development (MLALAD) Funds were made available to Delhi’s MLAs after the Lok Sabha elections in May 2014. Empowered by these funds, Kumari allocated 65 lakhs (~$106,000) to replace the overhead cable with an underground cable. The work commenced in August 2014 and is set to finish by early November 2014.
Other neighborhoods in the constituency had local concerns that previous BJP MLAs and Sheila Dixit’s Government had failed to address. Residents of the Police Colony took Kumari on a tour of the neighborhood at night to show her how they had to use torches or their mobile phones to walk after sunset. Streetlights of the neighborhood had been dysfunctional for years, but Kumari has gotten 44 fixed. For this, she did not dip into her MLALAD Fund, but actively followed up with the Delhi State Government’s Public Works Department (PWD) and placed due pressure to ensure that the body acted swiftly.
My interactions with several MLAs in Delhi suggest that there is no proper system for government departments to inspect public infrastructure works that they are responsible for. What’s worse is that when citizens voice their concerns to the respective department, their response time is dismal. On sharing this with Kumari, she assures me: “I as an MLA have had to put pressure on many Government departments to do their work. Why are these departments not responsive to the taxpaying citizens? Police wale bhi apna kaam nahi kara pai,” (Even the police couldn’t get their work done).
Who is responsible for safety in Shalimar Bagh?
Crime, especially theft, is a major concern in Shalimar Bagh. The Police have advised residents to purchase CCTV cameras, which are naturally beyond their means. The installation of CCTVs throughout the constituency is a popular demand. Kumari is trying her best to utilize her MLALAD Fund to honor this request, but bureaucracy (in this case, the Urban Development Department) is bogging down its progress.
Currently, only the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) is approved by the Government to supply CCTV cameras to this area, which has led to monopolistic pricing. Kumari claims that even though private firms are willing and able to supply cameras for a fraction of ECIL’s quote, which is R.s. 4 crore for 144 CCTV cameras (R.s. 2.77 lakh/camera), they are unable to get Government approval for this. With a tone of frustration she adds, “shouldn’t the police budget allocate funds for the installation of CCTV cameras? After all, these will be used to monitor public spaces and fight crime.”
I asked Kumari about her views on how AAP has impacted Indian politics. Her primary observation: “Before AAP black money and booze would be distributed every five years in the nights leading up to the elections. Now even vegetable sellers discuss politics.” Similar to the other MLAs I’ve interacted with, Kumari’s background in social work and roots in the constituency complement her recent entry into politics. Kumari’s experience in women empowerment is enriching the Aam Aadmi Party as well, as she is the President of AAP Ki Mahila Shakti (AAP’s Women Wing).