As a politically aware, democratically sensitive and socio-culturally well-versed citizen of the country, I have always been aware of the deep rooted, politically-embedded and socially sanctioned poverty, inequality, social hierarchy and injustice in my country. But there are some days on which these social hierarchies and injustices begin to look straight into my eyes and make it impossible to divert my attention elsewhere or allow me the solace of comforting thoughts. Yes, yesterday was one among those frequently occurring yet immensely powerful days in terms of the metaphors that it left me with and a totally destabilising after-thought that made me rethink society and politics with nuanced criticality and sharp reflexivity. In the piece that follows, it is this experience that I wish to share with you and highlight in the process, the depending social cleavages and paradoxes that shape our times.
The Pandemic’s Economic Fallout for the Poor, Multiplying Wealth for the Rich
Ever since the first lockdown had been announced in the month of March, the plight and misery of the poor and marginalised sections of the society cannot be made more clearly visible. With sources of livelihood closed, meagre savings exhausted in the first couple of days of the lockdown and no welfarist structure for support and compensation, the toiling masses were left to suffer and perish under the blow of the devastating pandemic. By the time, the state began rolling out policies for the poor or making arrangements to send them back from the cities to their native states, immense loss was already underway. Images of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres often with pregnant women delivering on highways, the ailing and the aged succumbing to exhaustion and fatigue, children and adolescents dying of hunger and dehydration and people being crushed to death in brutal road accidents- the misery and decadent condition of India’s migrant class filled the media landscape and their stories of pain and resilience garnered attention.
The visuals of an infant trying to wake up his dead mother at the Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar when she passed away due to hunger after undertaking a long journey to her hometown from Gujarat, where she worked as a labourer, the photos of a dozen dry rotis scattered on a railway track near Aurangabad where a train had run over exhausted and tired migrant workers while they taking rest after walking for days to their way home, images that depicted the helplessness and trauma of a young pregnant woman who had walked for over 100 kms and was compelled to give birth on the roadside near Ambala in the scorching Indian summer but soon lost her precious child, or the tale of a young girl who was forced to cycle with her ailing father from Gurugram to Bihar in a bid to save his life: these are only a couple of stories, there are hundreds that have not been reported, shared or given the limelight of the media but they are all sure to sweep us off our feet and compel us to ask some very difficult and uncomfortable questions. The poor always existed, their life stories were always composed of unending hardship and financial strains, the lockdown has only made those realties more sharp and visible and has pulled up the veil of illusion that city-centric, populist media would like us to believe about the masses of our country comfortably downloading apps and using online transactions, being able to begin their own successful and financially viable startups and not depending on the government to create jobs and about people being participants in the brightening of the economic future of the country.
The lockdown, the pandemic, the financial fallout are all catalysts that have put the straight truth in front of us. The reason why I shared the above examples with you was to help you draw a clearer contrast to another episode that was recently in news and had been projected as an event to be proud and boastful of. Yes, Mukesh Ambani has left behind Sillicon Valley stalwart Elon Musk and Alphabet co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to become the sixth richest person in the whole world. The Chairman of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani’s wealth has now become 72.4 billion dollars.
While we were celebrating the success and wealth of Mukesh Ambani, another tragic news came in but faded in the media spectacle and pride ceremony that caught the attention of Indian masses.
Who would want to pay attention to the grim and terribly tragic news of a Dalit couple from Madhya Pradesh who drank pesticides and committed suicide, when despite their repeated attempts, cops bulldozed their crops on the instruction of officers of the revenue department. The farmer couple was already very poor and upon seeing their standing crops being brutally destroyed they couldn’t take it anymore and committed suicide before being beaten up brutally by the police. On the one hand, the industrialists and bourgeoisie are amassing wealth and property and are making it on the list of the richest and on the other, ordinary peasants and migrants are choosing to end their lives in sheer economic helpless.
Imagine what must have been going through the minds of the young Rakesh Musahar’s parents, when they were compelled to witness the scene of their eight year old son dying of starvation before their own eyes? Would the wealth of Makes Ambani or the fact that he is now the sixth richest person in the world, bring back their son to life or will it make life easier by even one-percent for them? Will it ensure that no one goes to bed hungry in India or that no Dalit is killed or mocked by the industrialist-lobbies if they refuse to hand over their lands for constructing multi utility plants for corporate gains?
The stark and growing divided between the rich and the poor is multiplying in our country and the pandemic has made this reality more clear than ever before. As lakhs lose their lives and stare at a helpless and bleak future, what does India have to offer to them?
These two sides of India are visible each time you climb on top of a skyscraper in Delhi and Mumbai and look at the miserable slums below, the moment you look behind the fancy hoardings, you will see that India is more in Dharavi than in the stock exchange and that one reality is being made to override the other. The pandemic has compelled me to open not just my eyes but my heart too, so that no matter how much populist media and political rhetoric try to confuse me, I see the India that is composed of simple, ordinary people who are starving, suffering and toiling and are waiting for change.