Katmandu Having not been able to meet with the ACORN India team for over three years given my inability to have my 10-year visa renewed, I was curious about what I would hear from their reports after my long absence on the ground. Would we have made progress or just run in place? The rightwing, communalist and hyper-nationalist government of India under Prime Minister Modi was a wave of resistance against the progress of our work in mega-slums like Dharavi in Mumbai and lower waged workers in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Delhi. It was exciting to hear where we had jumped by leaps and bounds once the reports began in our first full day and a half of meetings, and where we still faced huge obstacles at every turn.
Perhaps the most significant victory was less than a week old in Delhi, where ACORN’s Dharmendra Kumar and our members had been fiercely lobbying the Chief Minister, who has become a sometime ally in our work there. The campaign and victory are reminiscent of the Lifeline utility fights ACORN waged in Arkansas, South Dakota, and other states in the 1970s. The Delhi government offers electricity subsidies for low income residences using between zero and 200 units of electricity where they pay less than 50% of the bill and between 200 and 400 units where they only pay 25% of the bill. Over 400 units or kilowatts, the rates accelerate quickly. ACORN noted that these breaks only benefit the meter holders, often landlords, and not the low-income tenants. Since the landlord had multiple units, the single residential meter would show considerable use of electricity, meaning that lower income tenants were therefore paying the highest possible rates for usage. We finally won a victory here when the government capitulated and ordered the sub-meters to be put in the names of the tenants, providing them the full subsidy that others were receiving. Realizing that landlords will still drag their feet and resist these changes, Kumar and ACORN believe this could be a huge opportunity for ACORN to extend out work of building community organizations throughout the city. The general progress in Delhi on many fronts filled many pages in my notebook, as I scribbled to keep up with all the news.
In Bengaluru, Suresh Kashidan reported that he had failed to push the membership in our hawkers and street vendors union to 50,000 as he had hoped, but we had boosted it by 10,000 members to 45,000 now. Bengaluru was largely holding its own, but Chennai in neighboring Tamil Nadu has added three thousand to 8000, and Mysore in southern Karnataka was a breakthrough with 8000 members. The Hawkers Livelihood law has been implemented in backwards fashion with the town committee still not elected and the zones not totally sorted, but the process of licensure has been implemented with almost 15,000 hawkers licensed out of the 24,000 applications. Suresh has identified and documented 130,000 hawkers, so it’s a slow road. We are enabled to enroll people for the ID and into the social security scheme in Karnataka which is helping us grow the operation as well.
In Mumbai our Dharavi Project has managed to make inroads with its program into various corporate responsibility programs and can count a coup in now doing all the recycling in the Bloomberg building as well as adding other companies. ACORN is also running zero-waste programs at several big trade gatherings including ones organized for big recycling companies by a German firm.
Believe me, this isn’t the half of all I learned, forcing me to consider how we can double down in India to increase the scale.
Please enjoy Norah Jones’ I’ll Be Gone feat. Mavis Staples
Thanks to Kabf.