Mumbai: Dharavi is not just one of the largest slums in Asia but also a thriving economy within the heart of Mumbai where its residents toil day and night hoping for improvements in their squalid surroundings — especially when politicians make a clutch of promises before every election.

Unfortunately, nothing of the sort has happened. Dharavi, a reserved Scheduled Caste constituency, has gotten more and more crowded and continues to suffer from severe public health problems due to scarcity of toilet facilities, pollution, illegal commercial units and housing, inadequate drinking water and the Mahim Creek being used by local residents as an open air toilet. Spanning around 500 acres, its population could be anywhere between 300,000-750,000, its density 10 times more than the city.

As politicians once again approach voters for their support for the upcoming Maharashtra assembly elections, “People will not spare them this time,” says Jockin Arputham, who heads the Slum Dwellers Association and is an activist who was nominated for this year’s Nobel Prize.

Speaking to Gulf News, he said, “During the last 10 years, Varsha Gaikwad of the Congress represented this constituency and did nothing of significance for Dharavi. Earlier, her father, Eknath Gaikwad was an MP, [Dharavi being part of his parliamentary constituency] contributed little to the improvement of this area,” he says.

And, therefore, Arputham, 68, winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2000 and Padma Shri in 2011, is convinced that the apathy on the part of politicians towards the serious problems in the area will turn against them. “Some initiative will have to be taken and there will be pressure on the new government to perform and deliver. If not, there will be a hue and cry from the people.

“Whatever Prime Minister Narendra Modi is talking loud and clear on cleanliness is very relevant to Dharavi,” said Jockin who underlines his one wish that this is a “contest for the dignity of Dharavi’s residents.”

This contest is set to be a big challenge for Gaikwad, former Maharashtra minister of women and child welfare, a well-educated candidate who has an MSc (Maths) and BEd.

She says, “Looking at the future of Dharavi and keeping in mind the earlier work that we have done for Dharavi like the sports complex, the ITI College, garden, repairing of building, skywalk and various works done during my tenure,” in the future, too, she would like to develop Dharavi further. Her aim is to ensure that “every person in Dharavi gets a good sized house along with basic amenities along with schools, colleges, garden, playground, etc.”

She will be up against BJP candidate, Divya Dhole, who Union Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj described as “smart and educated” during her campaign in Dharavi. Others contesting here are Baburao Mane of Shiv Sena, Govind Parmar of Nationalist Congress Party and Ganesh Khade of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

Addressing mostly people who hailed from Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, Swaraj said, “Congress has ruled Dharavi for 30 years and it has remained the same in spite of the Dharavi Redevelopment Project. This is because plans made in air-conditioned rooms are different from the ground reality. They did not talk to people before the plans. No wonder it failed.”

She also told them they would see the results “in the work that we do” in five years, after which she stepped down from the podium and had to jump across a stream of sewage water to reach her vehicle.