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OP-ED: The travails of the not-so-fortunate

  • Published at 01:54 pm July 11th, 2020
One can only hope and pray REUTERS

India, both at the centre and at the state levels, now borders on controlled hysteria

Namastey didi, Namastey bhaiya! 

The trilling greeting pierces the still morning air. Wincing, husband and wife are torn out of their reverie, and mutter a reluctant greeting in return. We are hard put as it is to shake off the last vestiges of sleep and find our bearings for the new day. Can’t she understand that it’s too early an hour to be so happy? 

But, no, she is indefatigable, and each morning, unerringly, the doorbell rings between eight and nine o’clock, and she storms into the house with the sole intent, it would appear, to spread her good cheer with gay abandon. 

For the protagonist is Tulan Baishya, born of the fertile soil of deepest West Bengal, in a village near Raiganj town, headquarters of Uttar Dinajpur district, located a two-hour journey away by bus from Malda Junction. There’s even a jail, we were informed with pride. 

Raiganj District Jail would appear to be a landmark of sorts, albeit notorious. And much in the same manner of millions of others born into similar circumstances, who have left their place of birth in search of life and livelihood, any life and livelihood, Tulan found herself in Gurgaon, Haryana. For, to complete the introduction, she is our cleaning lady, without whom we would choke in the dust of upmarket urban living. 

Do pause, however, to spare a thought for Tulan. Slight, slender, gaunt of cheek, she is representative of the sari-clad legions of Bengali- speaking women who, morning after unfailing morning, march out of their shanty-town quarters, negotiate the traffic of the main roads to eventually disperse and disappear into the endless clusters of apartment complexes and societies of the boom town of Gurgaon only just receiving the first rays of the morning sun. While we have our morning cup of tea and ruminate on the doings and undoings of mankind, for the 10,000 Tulans out there the working day has long begun. 

The continuous war 

Because when one stops to think, one can appreciate the circumstances and the continuous war of adversity being fought by the distaff population on their own behalf and that of their families. The optimistic voice, then, at the top of the day is a Herculean feat which reflects none of the constant underlying suffering and is, hence, a quality to be appreciated, enjoyed, and admired. 

If one can continue to be so cheerful and positive in the face of the daily battle for survival further compounded by the biblical scourge that we are now in the grip of, then the one who greets along with the one who receives the greeting, are indeed truly blessed. 

The plight of the poor has been recorded through a thousand reports and videos over the span of the last four months. They have forged their own trail of tears. Heartrending tales abound, of families suddenly separated by distance and disease, of hordes of people being forcibly boarded on trains with a one-way ticket to their native place only because the creaking administration of their place of employment threatens to collapse altogether. 

One may have read of a son seating his old father pillion on a bicycle and riding hundreds upon hundreds of miles in the direction of home with nothing to navigate him other than the friendly passerby who is considerate enough to provide proper directions. What about the tragicomic tale of a young man who, out of sheer desperation steals a bicycle to pedal homeward, and leaves a note begging forgiveness for his crime with a promise to make good as soon as circumstances permit?

The horrific story, almost unbearable, of natives of Uttar Pradesh eking out a living in a factory in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, thrown out of their jobs and with no option before them but to return home, trekking for days under the burning sun and, come sunset, dropping exhausted one evening for additional comfort on the railway track, only to be crushed while sleeping by an oncoming train.

What about the poor fellow who traversed the entire north-south axis of the country, only to succumb at his doorstep to the virus from which he fled? The tales of woe are as poignant as they are without end. Realpolitik has never been too distant, even in these straitened times. 

A slew of sops and schemes have been declared over the span of the last ten weeks, interestingly, targeting the vast population which inhabits our countryside. But why are our rural-based citizens the principal beneficiaries of this enormous largesse? 

Analytics show, and have always shown, that the sincere half of the nation resides in the countryside when it comes to voting in that ultimate do-or-die and make-or-break general election. Therefore, logic dictates that the lion’s share of the economic packages is directed to them. Why waste goodwill and good money on the concentration of citizens who cluster in our cities? 

For, if truth be told, we urban creatures are notoriously fickle and politically amoral and opportunistic. The results of election after election establish beyond reasonable doubt that those who are tenuously clustered on the margins of civil society, and therefore with a greater level of aspiration, may convert the incentive to vote, but the denizens of the village folk will in all probability form a disciplined and patient line at the polling booth come elections day. 

The intense tragedy of millions of migrant workers had underpinned the overall collapse of the economy wrought by King Corona. This section of society is composed essentially of those who have gravitated to the cities owing to the lack of economic opportunity in their places of origin. They have become the new community of the rootless, having no permanent place of residence, much less oftentimes a tenable roof over their heads. 

What permanent residence? 

Because it is that “permanent place of residence” which, ironically and inexplicably, continues to dictate most administrative matters of personal identity in a heavily- itinerant republic, that these unfortunate people are unable to establish, that they are deprived of basic amenities such as the ration card, the state-sponsored savings bank account, and the largesse emanating from the national treasury. 

Therefore, this itinerant is fated to be always overlooked in the list of beneficiaries of the goodies that are periodically doled out by the state. The endless streams of economic refugees walking, just walking, out of desperation are testimony to the fact that social mapping for administrative benefit, though enormously successful in many pockets and regions, was still found severely wanting for so many just when it mattered most. 

But why am I being referred to as a “migrant worker”? Am I a rootless and permanently itinerant nobody? Do I not belong? Am I to be rendered permanently invisible in the grand scheme of things? Am I not a citizen of the Republic of India by virtue of being born within its physical boundaries? 

And if I am indeed a citizen, am I not possessed of certain inalienable rights, one of them being the right to travel to any corner of the country in search of livelihood? By describing me as a migrant, you imply that I intrude and, therefore, have no right to be. I have, through a process of neglect and marginalization, been reduced to the insultingly condescending status of “illegal alien,” a term which is redolent of the paranoid vocabulary of US Immigration but ruthlessly Indian in execution and application. 

Narrative and attitude need to be transformed for the positive. Another tragedy, one that is even more pathetic in its construct: Prime Minister Modi has time and again pleaded on bended knee with his countrymen to be compassionate and generous in these terrible times. Every household has its battery of dependents. 

Lockdown meant confinement to home and closure of all avenues of economic opportunity for many and, therefore, an opportunity for us to realize our better selves and show solidarity with the less privileged by paying them their salaries. At the very least! But no, even in this sphere, reports and rumours are replete with the stories of the application of the following callous logic: “If they are not working, why should I pay them?” 

No pay at all 

Millions of employees and unorganized workers have not been paid for the duration of the lockdown. A reduction in salary is understandable to an extent, but to not pay at all because there is no revenue being generated at present? Why can’t the employer-proprietor dip provisionally into his reserves? 

Does generating goodwill and ensuring loyalty not resonate, or are we cynically confident that supply will always far outstrip demand in the ocean of humanity that we strive to stay afloat in? The republic is embattled, of that there can be no doubt. The government and its instrumentalities, both at the centre and in the states, is bordering on controlled hysteria. 

Modi has long ceased his dramatic proclamations behind gumcha to usher in the fold-by-fold lockdown which descended so suddenly and completely on our country. The master of social media and individual positioning has long since delegated the authority of containment and colour-coded zones to the state and district administrations which are left to their own desperate devices. 

One too many negative announcements could perchance register in the mind of the voter and convert to the detriment of the ruling dispensation next time at the hustings. What better example of the war- like situation than that of Delhi NCR, the erstwhile seat of the Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, which races to prepare for the countless thousands of new positive King Corona cases that have been forecast through a combination of individual expertise and application of an algorithm or two and are, apparently, frightening in their accuracy. 

A hapless but dynamic Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi and presiding over the ultimate litmus test of his administration, and a loyal and elegant deputy in the shape and form of Manish Sisodia, seem to be fighting a lost cause. Time will inform us of their success, or lack thereof. Covid-19 is inexorable, but its reputation and efficacy is only bolstered by a population’s reluctance to abide by the first and second commandments of donning the facemask and social distancing. 

And, in the face of a desperate situation, canard upon canard is released and disseminated through a gullible population, clutching gratefully at the straw of half-truth and full lie and willing to believe, and indeed believe anything, in its bid to come to terms with the madness that has befallen us. 

The next train home 

The latest story to slice at the speed of malicious thought through the shanty towns occupied by every neighbourhood’s maid, odd-job boy, and car-cleaner is that they should catch the next train home, or just get out of Gurgaon while they are still alive and unaffected, lest they fall prey to the virus.

For if they do fall prey, so it is whispered, no hospital will entertain them, seeing that they are obviously from “out of town.” The callous crassness of the new and localized regionalism being played out by one administrative territory against the other boggles the mind. 

This is the new madness to keep at the forefront of the mind, while we give ear to every new story that our Tulan querulously narrates to us every morning. For part of our responsibilities now includes reassuring her that such rumours are to be taken with a shovelful of salt. 

A torrent of locusts, refreshed and ravenous, winged their way through our locality on Saturday morning. The various commentaries with pictures which were circulated gave voice and testimony to the horror of potential catastrophe. The trajectory of the jet stream which they caught took them into the main conglomeration of Delhi, but by all accounts the National Capital Region remained unscathed. 

Perhaps this was just a reconnaissance flight by the beasts from hell. They don’t yet have the complete wherewithal for total destruction. We can only hope and pray that there are ample food stocks in the granaries of the Food Corporation of India and that the Public Distribution System is geared up to meet the possible crisis head on. Again, we live on hope, and we can only live and hope. 

Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in Gurgaon, India, and is a freelance contributor.

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