Even as the state reels under the collective assault of challenges like the drought situation in some parts, water scarcity, financial disarray etc, the previous week was a favourable one for the Democratic Front government, as Congress president Sonia Gandhi came calling.
Sonia’s visit to Palghar for the launch of the ‘Child Health Screening and Early Intervention Services’ programme was like a pat on the back, as this was the second scheme of the state to have been emulated by the UPA government in recent years. The first was Maharashtra’s Employment Guarantee Scheme, launched in 1972 in the wake of a terrible drought, which inspired the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).
Some critics have said that Sonia should have paid a visit to drought-hit areas. But these voices were feeble, much like the present shape of opposition parties in Maharashtra. The Congress’ onslaught of announcements and launch of various programmes is clearly with an eye on coming elections and the health scheme for children, similar to a state project, is an attempt to garner support of people from both urban and rural areas.
The state programme, being implemented since the last few years, was the brainchild of public health minister Suresh Shetty, a Congress leader. Under this scheme a few thousand students have received care and even surgery for serious ailments in big cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur. What’s palpable is that Congress has been careful in emulating programmes of state departments headed by its own ministers, so the party can claim the credit.
In a similar vein, minority development minister K Rahman Khan too, during his visit a few days ago, reviewed the state’s efforts towards alleviation of the condition of minorities, known as the party’s vote bank. This department too has Naseem Khan, a Congress leader, as its head. The then Congress CM Vilasrao Deshmukh had refused to entertain NCP by allocating it this department at the time of its formation. The centre has made available Rs 60 crore to undertake development schemes for minorities in four particular districts. Rs 57 crore has been utilised so far.
But the same is not the case with the department of housing that handles slum improvement and redevelopment programme, despite the fact that those affected comprise a sizeable vote bank. The centre has not been keen on helping the state on this front, nor has it displayed any interest in SRA projects though this is the first such attempt in the country. A few years ago UPA had launched Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) to make cities slum free, but had refused to provide free residences to slum dwellers, unlike in Maharashtra.
Union minister for housing and urban poverty alleviation Ajay Maken reviewed the slum redevelopment during his trip to Mumbai a few days ago. But he ignored a demand made by chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who is in charge of the housing department, to draft special policy guidelines to implement RAY in Mumbai, Thane and other big cities. In fact, the state had pinned its hopes on RAY, as the central government programme allows redevelopment of all existing slums, without any cut-off date.
Under the state sponsored SRA, only slums that have come up till 1995 can be redeveloped. In a zest to fulfil its promise of extending the cut-off year to 2000, the state was banking on RAY. But Maken’s refusal to relax certain norms has certainly disappointed the state. With regard to RAY, no housing unit is given free to slum dwellers and they must contribute a certain amount towards it.
But, the state government cannot ask slum dwellers in Maharashtra to pay for houses as those are available for free under SRA. The Congress-led housing department is in a fix on the issue. State government representatives say, the centre’s decision to levy certain charges was aimed at creating a sense of belonging towards the house, which a free-of-cost unit may not.
The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY