Did you have any dilemma before you joined politics? Do you remember what made you take the plunge?
I was in a huge dilemma and, I think, for the right reasons. I was four months pregnant at the time when my father passed away. People were asking who would take on this legacy, and I never thought it would be me. My future plans were having my baby, being a mom, being a good wife, and working where I was working. So when I was suddenly told I should take this on, that I’d worked so much with my father, I was stumped. And I had to decide fast because elections were within six months. I think what made me take the plunge was the kind of work my father had done for the constituency. I saw his passion, his commitment, when he worked with the people, for the people. I used to be with him in his social scene in his constituency or when he worked when riots affected the people. All these things kind of came to me and I didn’t have the heart to say, “I am just going to put my hands up and not do anything.” And I was scared, because I didn’t know what politics really was. And I had definitely seen the dirty side of it.
Few politicians leave behind the kind of legacy your father did. What are some ways in which you and your father are different as politicians?
We are different in the way we work. My father was old school. And in many ways I wish I could be like him, especially in the way he kept up relationships. He used to see to it that the letters went out to everyone—for birthdays, for anniversaries, one-odd things somewhere. I remember, after he died, people came and showed me his letters, saying he had posted those letters and that they got them after he passed away. That was the connect he had. And I’ve been trying my best to keep up that tradition as well. Of taking out the list of people he used to send letters and cards to, and continue that.
But I have also created my own way of working, and I felt a lot of this pressure when I just came into politics. There were so many people around who had worked with my father, who were much senior to me, who kind of wanted to dictate how I should be doing things. They’d say, “Your father would have done it like this.” And I realised it was going to be really, really hard for me. But I am basically a bit headstrong and stubborn. I could sit for hours with my father and argue over something, and not necessarily agree with him over everything. So, I put my foot down on a lot of issues and it didn’t go well with everyone. But I think I had to make that decision to be my own person and yet have my dad behind me or beside me all the time.
What are some of the things you have managed to do in the constituency in the last five years that you are happy with? And some of the things that wanted to do but couldn’t?
To begin with, I think the most important thing is the infrastructure issues here. And we have been struggling and fighting with it for a very long time. There’s no space for anything in Mumbai, so to develop an infrastructure in a situation like this is a difficult task. Because every time you want to build a road or a flyover, a foot-over-bridge (FOB), a rail-over-bridge (ROB), you have to look at displacing people. And when you are displacing people, it’s always difficult unless you strike a balance. In spite of that, there have been projects which have been completed now. For example the Milan ROB was a huge boon for the suburbs here, because every monsoon the Milan subway used to be full of water. And it was a nightmare. So to build that FOB has been a very daunting task, because it required a lot of expansion and road cutting, and a lot of slums that were housed there. And I take a very strong stand that people who are going to be moved must be rehabilitated well. They are happy to move into a better life. So we have ensured that.
The same goes for the elevated Sahar road, which connects to the airport. The airport is still an issue, which we are looking at. There is one part of it, which is ready. There’s a huge airport planned, which has to be executed. That is something, which is in the process. But like I said, my stand is very clear. We want development; we want Mumbai to be slum free but we want people rehabilitated. We want people to have a better life. And we are working on that. So I think the biggest achievements are development of these major infrastructure projects without problems, because we have always been able to come and handle those problems, ensure and get the kind of rehabilitation we wanted for the people who are affected.
You mentioned slums which have always been a huge problem in Bombay. There are different branches to this problem. One is for instance around the airport—there’s the rehabilitation problem. Then there is rebuilding or redevelopment of slums, like Garib Nagar. Then there is the issue of illegal slums. Do you feel the root of all these problems is the same?
I try and ensure we don’t have more illegal slums, but for that the BMC has to be very strong. That becomes the biggest issue. In places like Behrampada and Garib Nagar, people build verticals which are completely illegal. They rent out the spaces above and live off that. But I think the government stand is extremely clear— that when you rehabilitate, only legal residents living there for 30-40 years will be rehabilitated. So that very strong stand has been taken.
But in a city like Mumbai, you have a huge influx of people from all over the country, basically the low income group, people who come looking for opportunities. Most of them live in rented shanties. That becomes a huge problem. So we speak with the government – and we’ve been talking to different agencies in the government – saying we have to develop a kind of a housing policy. When we talk of planning, we also must plan for housing in further suburbs where there is low rent housing, taken care of by the government, by MHADA, so it ensures decent living. Plus we must have no tolerance for new slums. It’s a huge problem but till the time we don’t create a proper policy, we don’t implement it well, it will remain an issue.
For instance, even the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) is a good concept but there are huge problems in implementation. We’re looking at that very closely. I have so many SRA projects that have been lying without any resettlement of people for the last 10 years. What happens is there will be a few people who will go to Court and there will be a stay on that entire project. So there are lot of problems you need to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Your particular constituency, perhaps like South Bombay, has very sharp divides. Some of the richest people of the city live here, and some of the poorest people as well. How do you strike a balance, particularly when you are allocating funds and picking up projects?
I’ve managed to strike a pretty good balance really, but for that I must say there is the support of our MLAs as well. People think MPs have huge funds, but our funds are really miniscule compared to the funds the local MLA gets for his area. Now, an MLA represents one assembly constituency. As a Member of Parliament, I represent six assembly constituencies. So my fund has to be divided among all six. But the kind of funds you get, you cannot build a huge palace in one constituency. Most of my funds go in development or in sanitation projects.
And how I distribute my funds is when I’m directly in contact with the people of that area who come with requests. For instance, Garib Nagar will come with a request that, “Didi, we are 3,000 people living there. We don’t have a toilet. We need a toilet in that area.” I have focussed a lot on giving toilets because I feel those are a basic dignity to a human being and it’s really shameful to say that in a city like Mumbai, you still have women, children going out in the open. So my focus has been that. We’ve actually also tried to get funding from corporates or bring NGOs in. If my funds are not enough, even an NGO can build toilets.
Have you found a satisfactory mechanism to get feedback from your constituents? Because that can be challenging, especially when you have to spend time in Delhi as well.
It is very challenging. Where my constituents are savvy with the internet or can come to my office, it is fine. But there are a whole lot of them, who don’t have that—like you said, there is a sharp divide— who may not come to office, may not even know who the local karyakarta is. We have our MLAs, our corporators, our workers in the areas who actually move around in the constituency to get feedback. People who know that they are our representatives talk to them. But many times they don’t even have that connect. So people feel, “How can I reach that MP?” When I’m in Mumbai, I’m in my office every single day. I’m on email, on WhatsApp with everybody in my constituency. And I move around in my constituency for different issues. But still there are gaps, so I feel there must be some better mechanism where we need to set up offices in different places in our constituency, address issues directly from there. At least people have a place to go which is close by to where they live.
You’ve raised the issue of electricity prices. Like you clarified, you’ve been raising it for a while now, before the AAP raised it. What is the problem, and what do you think is the solution?
I took up this cause two-and-a-half years ago. We in the suburbs pay much higher electricity bills than south Mumbai. I said we should have a uniform tariff like Delhi had done under Sheila Dikshit’s government. But here we had only Reliance, which was supplying power to everyone, and there was no other choice. We said we should have a choice. Let there be healthy competition. Electricity from Reliance was very expensive because they didn’t generate their own power. Tata was low because they generated their own power. So what we were successfully able to do at that time was getting people a choice of Tata. Tata started laying lines in the suburbs. But again the issue was they were not giving it to the slums, they were giving it only to housing societies, malls, etc. Only Reliance was supplying to the slums. The issue which came up recently is that again we need to reduce the tariff. After a very lengthy meeting with the chief minister, he explained that they were able to bring prices down in Maharashtra because the government had a stake in the power company, like they had in Delhi as well. But Reliance is a private entity, so the government does not have the power to dictate to them to bring down the prices. But Reliance Power assured them that by March and April, the tariff will automatically come down because they have been able to generate power. So I’m hoping we will still start paying much less through Reliance as well.
What are some of the issues, whether policy or legislation, that you’d like to bring up on the national level in your next term? For instance, I’ve heard about your work in Kamathipura, you’ve been talking of various things that can be done for prostitutes.
Where prostitution is concerned, I have very different opinions because I’ve worked with them in Kamathipura. And a whole group of them came to meet me in Delhi as well. It’s a very sad state because they’re in this business out of choice. That’s all they can do to save their family or educate their children. So I think we have to look at protecting them, especially in this kind of a business where health hazards are huge. There are no health facilities, there is exploitation from every level. So yes, that is something which I’d definitely like to work on.
Do you feel legalisation of prostitution is a solution?
I personally do. I feel that we can hide it as much as we want, but we know it exists and it always will. I’m not talking about legalising it to promote it, no. What I mean by legalising it is that when you know there is a red light area that exists, give the facilities to those people. You will ensure there will be no child prostitution, because these will be licensed sex workers. So you can definitely keep a check on the illegal sale of children, the influx of people being bought and sold. You have criminalised prostitution and you are criminalising prostitutes with for no fault of theirs. But the pimp and everybody else in the chain, they don’t face anything. The one who faces the brunt is that woman. So how do we protect her? For me that is what is important.
There has been a demand for a separate manifesto for women. What might be some of the things that you’d like to see done for women in this country in the next five years?
For me the two most important things are education and health. And that affects women directly. They are the child bearing individuals of this country, and if they are not healthy, the newer generation will not be healthy. I have seen that in my own area, when we conduct medical camps. We do research in the area. We have kids who are 20, 25 years old who suffer from osteoporosis, every woman is anaemic, most of the children, even in the slums here, many are malnourished. We have to address this in a very big way. Second, education. I’m again very forceful when I talk about education and bringing up the standard of education in the municipality. Most kids, those who have no choice, go to municipal schools. So we have to ensure that the standard of education rises in our neighbourhood schools, that are again run by BMC. A proposal that I had also put forth, and I think that is something I want to work more aggressively on, is to see if we can have a PPP model for municipal schools, to ensure that teachers teaching at municipal schools are good enough to teach children and there is quality education.
Where health is concerned, what measures would you like to take?
The state government in Maharashtra has come up with this really good policy for health in general, which is the Rajiv Gandhi Jeevandayee (Arogya)Yojana. It’s like a health insurance policy where anyone who is below poverty line can go into even a private hospital for treatment up to Rs 1.5 lakhs. It covers a whole range of things, from heart to kidney, to cancer – everything. So that’s a huge boon. Now we need to create awareness about this. So when we hold medical camps in the area, we ensure there is a representation of the Jeevandayee Yojana.
Then we also have the new ambulances which have been started, which for the first time in the country have a doctor on board with life saving equipment. You can even deliver a child in the ambulance. That is also an extremely important measure, especially for women. We’ve also ensured that one ambulance is parked at every railway station. Mumbai sees a very high rate of railway accidents, so timely aid can be given to persons suffering from these accidents.
A lot of changes have been taking place in the Congress; you have a new guard that’s taking over. How do you perceive these changes and is the party ready for them?
I think so. I think we’re more than ready. There’s a lot of hope and excitement to see changes happening. We have to understand the changes happening in our country and address those changes and change with that. So I think there are no choices here, change is inevitable and we have to look at it positively and with hope.
(Part of a multimedia series for India.com and DNA)