The Congress-NCP alliance government, led by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, has suddenly woken up from its slumber and taken a few major decisions, mostly political promises given earlier as part of vote-bank politics.

 Chavan, who is more careful about his clean image, had been criticised by his own people for the slowness with which his administration moved, ignoring many pressing issues. Pressure from both, the Congress high command as well from the alliance MPs seeking re-election to fulfil promises given before the last election is building up. The speed with which his government has started taking decisions has surprised his friends as well as detractors. The just-held session to take vote-on-account was also used to show that his government is keen on taking pro-people decisions in view of the coming elections.

 The cut-off date to regularise slums in the city until 2000 has been pending for quite long and the government was unable to finalise the cutoff date, which had earlier been the year 1995 and the government had promised the high court that the cutoff date would not be extended further. In fact, the promise was given half-heartedly, when the alliance went to the polls in 2004. When technical difficulties became evident, the then MPCC president, Prabha Rau, had tried to explain it off as a printing mistake. However, in 2009, the alliance once more promised to extend the cutoff date to 2000. The opposition had lambasted the ruling alliance for its false promises and constantly kept wanting to know what had happened to the cutoff date for regularising slums in Mumbai metropolis.

 With the decision to extend the cutoff date till 2000, the government expects benefits will reach over five lakh slumdwelling families and hopes to reap rich dividends in the coming Lok Sabha elections. The Mumbai Regional Congress Committee, headed by Janardan Chandurkar, has been raising the issue ever since his assuming office.  Mumbai ministers Chhagan Bhujbal and Naseem Khan have been vocal in the cabinet on the issue. The Slum Protection Bill passed by the legislature, extends legal protection to slums set up between 1995 and 2000. These slums cannot be now demolished by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation squad and if demolition cannot be avoided, for any public project, the authorities have to provide alternative accommodation.  Urban planners have expressed reservations about the decision, but vote-bank politics have taken their toll on Mumbai. The Shiv Sena has expressed concern and apprehends that the cutoff date will continue to be extended, attracting more migration to the El Dorado of India.

 Taking a cue from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which won the Delhi assembly elections with a promise to cut down electricity bills, Chavan has also started the process and held talks with the companies which supply electricity to Mumbai city and find out whether a similar cut is possible. The state government is ready to offer a 20 per cent subsidy to the power companies, but utility companies are already in the process of hiking the bills further, due to enhanced fuel bills. The state government’s assurance of a 20 per cent subsidy will give temporary respite but the power bills appear to be headed north. This is no permanent solution, as it is just a feel good exercise for the time being, until the state goes to the polls for the Lok Sabha.

Just prior to 2004 elections, the then chief minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, had also promised farmers in the state free electricity to power pumps but it remained a daydream. In fact, it was the Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, who had promised free power in an election speech and Shinde stole the thunder by promising and taking some preliminary steps just before the elections.

 Chavan, who is known for his no-nonsense approach to almost all issues confronting the state, was rather mild in his approach towards the agitation launched by Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) against the state’s toll nakas, on highways and flyovers. For  the MNS, it was a strategy to keep party workers engaged with a programme to stop toll payment, oppose if the toll staff enforced payment and secure sympathy from large sections of society that feel the pinch of toll collections on most national highways and bypass roads.

 Chavan did not want to appear as someone who is not ready to listen, so he entertained Raj Thackeray and his delegation and sympathetically discussed the issue raised by the MNS opposing toll nakas, which had already collected much more than legitimately required to compensate for the expenditure on new roads and flyovers. The agitation, which would have created a tough situation for the administration was called off as Raj Thackeray was released immediately after a brief detention.

The chief minister promised and has come out with a new toll policy to stop toll nakas, where collection has already been up to the mark. This is considered  kid glove treatment by the Congress-NCP alliance, since the MNS can help it get an edge by dividing the saffron votes. During the last Lok Sabha elections, ten MNS candidates helped the Congress-NCP defeat the SS-BJP candidates by smaller margins.

 The issue of reservations for the Maratha community is one of the most sensitive, long-pending political issue. The community is divided between the Congress and the NCP – most of the sugar barons are with the Sharad Pawar-led NCP, while others are with the Congress. The Shiv Sena has also attracted lots of youth from poor Maratha families, who do not find any place in the Congress-NCP set-up.

 With the demand for reservation increasing, the state government has set up a committee under Industries minister Narayan Rane. The committee took its time to gather scientific data and finalised its report, recommending 20 per cent reservation for the community in government jobs and educational institutions. The Maratha reservation will be above existing SC, ST and OBC reservation and it will not affect its reservation.

With this condition, the overall quota is likely to reach above 50 per cent and affect the open quota availability. The government has decided to seek further legal opinion about the proposal for reservation to Maratha community, which has been ruling the state for last five decades with large numbers of the community living in abject poverty.

The Congress-NCP alliance hopes that with this step, the Maratha community, which is a politically dominant caste, with a 30 to 35 per cent population, will help it in coming elections. With these decisions, the Congress-led alliance feels that it can fight the incumbency factor in coming elections.

   Prakash Bal Joshi

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