Forced indoors by the long lock-down since March, most of us have been watching more TV than we did before. As the visuals unfold, with news reports being dominated by the coronavirus pandemic on all channels worldwide, many questions arise, which no one answers. Here are some.
As in every other country, we too have been hosing down public places with a vengeance—streets, building and house facades, walls, vehicles, even train tracks. Thousands of lirtes of water, sprayed liberally all over. Where does so much water come from, when we as a country have millions of citizens struggling to get a single bucket of water from the pubic tap, that too after standing in a queue for hours? If such quantities of water can be accessed, why wasn’t it used, before the virus struck, to clean up our mounds of garbage, or provide water in public toilets (many do not have water) or organise water supply in villages? Do we need to wait for a disaster before we muster the resources needed to fight a medical emergency?
The same question applies also to money – the finance minister has announced a Rs20 lakh crore package for fighting the virus. Twenty lakh crore? Where is it coming from? If that kind of money can be mobilised, why couldn’t it be done before the crisis, to fund the hundreds of development projects that get stalled for 'want of money'?
Hundreds of schools have no proper toilets, no desks, not even classrooms, and children sit under a tree; hundreds of primary health care clinics lack proper facilities or even doctors , even in the urban areas, villages without proper approach roads so that sick people and women in labour have to be carried to the nearest town, on a cot by four people, across jungle as I have seen in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and UP. No money? In that case, where does this Rs20 lakh crore come from, now? After all, isn’t poverty too, a kind of affliction, a suffering that dehumanises the dispossessed?
Dharavi in Mumbai has been infamous for decades, as one of the world’s largest slums. With a population of around 10 lakh, of whom 80% depend on common toilets, the slum saw nearly 3,000 cases of coronavirus (at the last count) and nearly 500 deaths. Knowing that it was such an inhuman habitation, right there in the middle of a city that is home to the country’s top billionaires (including the Ambanis and Tatas and Bollywood’s superstars), why didn’t the government do anything to address Dharavi’s health deficiencies, before the infection set in? No money? But the Union government is furiously hastening a Rs11,000 crore project to reshape Lutyen’s beautiful central vista around Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate, both iconic and historic showpieces. How many houses for the homeless, can that amount build, to provide shelter from sun and rain? Why is no one asking these questions?
How many hundreds of crores of public money goes into raising statues – for Sardar Patel, Shivaji, Kempe Gouda (the latest now, a 108 ft statue at a cost of Rs78 crore, at the international airport in Bengaluru, a city that is home to 520 slums)? The three-quarter page ad in newspapers for the foundation stone laying event alone, listing 33 VIPs including MPs and MLAs who will ‘grace’ the occasion as special invitees, would have cost several lakhs of rupees. No money, so citizens are urged to donate to the prime minister’s CARES fund set up for collecting money for the virus emergency?
Political parties get busy ferrying their MLAs to various posh resorts, to 'prevent poaching' by other parties, even as the country sees thousands afflicted by a fatal virus. Poaching is usually applied to wild animals, but in India it refers to the obscene games that politicians of all parties play, at public expense, to grab or retain power or topple those elected to office as happened in Karnataka, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The MLAs have a gala time, swimming and playing golf and enjoying five-star luxury. All paid for. While the country is under a lock-down, forcing millions of people to stay indoors and wiping out earnings for millions who walk for days together to return to their native villages. The ‘going rate’ for defecting from one political party to another, is Rs 25 to 30 crore, offered as ‘inducement’….
Money can talk louder than ideology or ethics, right?
In the heart of Delhi, near Rashtrapati Bhavan is a road named after the famous Tamil poet-patriot, Subramanya Bharati. He declared, in one of his verses, “Thani oruvanuk-kunavullai enil jagattinai azhittiduvom” – if even one Indian starved, we will rise in protest. Name a road after a poet, but forget his ideas: while obscene amounts are splurged on erecting statues, while millions starve…
Every city and village have a statue of the Mahatma, which is garlanded ritually on his birthday and martyrdom day. Gandhi was against liquor – but today as lock-down rules are relaxed, the first outlets to be allowed to open are liquor shops, and temples, because liquor brings in revenue for the government. (Poor Gandhi. He comes in useful. Sometimes) And temples because religion is high on the agenda of political parties, as a means of garnering votes and grabbing power by whipping up factional loyalties…
TV carries exhortations about 'social distancing' to prevent infection. Tell that to the family of five that lives in a one room, an eight by eight tenement that is barely large enough for the residents to sleep in. Those watching news with visuals of crowds (“fans and party supporters”) jostling to felicitate the newly elected chief of the Congress party in Karnataka, wonder whether social distancing is only for the aam aadmi, not for VIPs. One rule for the rulers, another for the ruled. That’s not democracy, is it?
After tens of thousands of migrant labourers have returned to their native villages, there are now news reports of some city-based industries urging them to come back (some have even been flown back by their former employers) because their labour inputs are needed to generate income and profits for the businessmen. They are like the brooms or dish rags that one uses when we need cleaning work done, at other times they are dumped out of sight. My copy of the Constitution says each citizen, irrespective of class or caste, rich or poor, deserves dignity as a human being.
As eminent jurist Professor Upendra Baxi says in a recent comment, we are 'thingifying humans'. To be poor is to be penalised. In that sense, perhaps we have the world’s largest number of ‘criminals’, totaling some 200 million who fall below the poverty line. What an achievement. While we are being ranked among countries with dubious ‘achievements’, we have also, for the records, 'overtaken' England - in terms of the number of virus cases….
(Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist. She is a renowned senior vocalist in both traditions of Indian classical music - Hindustani and Carnatic, an A-graded artiste of All India Radio in both traditions. She is also a musicologist and author, and has written a book on the Rampur gharana.