The bloody virus has plagued every aspect of our lives, in ways that we do not even fully comprehend, yet. Our exploratory endeavors educate us of something new, progressively incriminating about the pathogen- we lose to it, every day! But as we’re wired to suppose – we keep reminding ourselves of the need to be patient and to concentrate on our collective survival strengths. We keep reiterating to ourselves that- “we, the humans, are the most superior of all God’s creations and that we will emerge triumphant from it”. And it is not entirely suspicious to swear by such a principle if our evolutionary chronicles are any indication, we have indeed withstood. But what is also true and should not be reduced to a ‘nihilism rant’ is that not all of us ever have. Every tragedy claims its share of humans before it fancies to bid us goodbye. So, in that sense, we suffer even when we eventually win.
I sincerely hope and pray that the war against the virus ends in the favour of humankind, sooner than later!
But I can’t possibly overlook, those who have already lost more than they can ever recover, in this fight for no fault of theirs. If independent reports are to be believed those who have succumbed to the stress of displacement, cruel destitution, and painful starvation have far outnumbered victims of COVID19 infection (as recorded in the books of the Government), thus far. At this stage, it will be being unkind to the truth, to escape stating that various journalistic reports have called to question the authenticity of the figures that our elected representatives are putting in the public domain. BBC reports and various other local publications have pointed to alleged underreporting of COVID19 infections and even deaths. The credibility of the Indian administration with respect to the data that it publishes has suffered a huge blow, since they were found tinkering with GDP formula, censoring unemployment figure and subverting farmer suicide data. Assult of truth and facts from the current administration has been so apparent and brazen that Indian PM is often found on the wrong side of the truth when fact-checked; his commentary on India’s screening of foreign travelers, providing help to the poor, etc have been very unbecoming of the chair that he holds.
We’re the only democracy in which the PM has held ZERO press conference in the last 6 years. Even the horrific COVID19 crisis hasn’t qualified in being a worthy enough reason for him to take a break from his resolute abstention of responding to free questioning by the press. This is not to say that he has been silent or absent. He did address the nation, thrice ‘spoke a great deal’ without saying anything substantive, let along explaining, the burning issues of the current crisis. In fact, his monologues have more in common with his election speeches than giving the nation details of the work that is being done to ward off the risks that the virus brings to the health, wellbeing, and the economy of the country. A few of those questions are:
Why India is among the lowest testing countries? Even the rogue state of Pakistan tests more than we do on a per million basis.
How have we ramped up the medical infrastructure in the lockdown?
What is the nation doing about 162 million people who have lost jobs in the last two months?
Why did he host the US President ignoring the COVID19 threat? We know the heavy price that the city of Ahmedabad is paying his unconcerned and ill-advised showmanship.
Why did the parliament keep running, in March?
How is India responding to the gravest humanitarian crisis that it has faced since partition?
Why has the mighty Indian state forgotten its poor?
When he talks about social distancing why does he not acknowledge that only 5% of Indian households have a room per person? Why does he forget that 18% of the Indian homes have less than 6 feets space between two walls?
When it is being advised that washing hands can save lives, why does he forget that 100 million Indians do not have access to clean water and that 13% of Indian cities are water negative?
India gets its dose of information from a junior IAS officer and occasional sound bites from the health minister. ICMR does its thing too, but they are a body of science and not a communication agency, so I take what comes out of their announcement in that light. There have been over 4.5K guidelines and clarification that have been issued from the Govt on how they wish to conduct the lockdown – such a messy response does not inspire confidence and signals toward lack of organization.
We still do not know why the Govt kept saying that Masks are not essential for common people till March end?
Why does it still publicize Aayush Ministry tips of warm water etc when there is zero scientific evidence of it helping the COVID situation?
You’d wonder why I bring the Government and the PM in the stands; there are two reasons for it.
I still believe, naively though, that we’re a democracy, in which an ordinary citizen can hold its elected establishment and head of state to account. By asking questions and demanding accountability.
Secondly, I believe that democracies have worked thus far because, essentially, all democracies shape their character around the principles of citizen welfare. A system in which the state does not become the heartless, evil, and ignorant tax collecting BIG BROTHER but a compassionate friend with social responsibilities towards its citizens. Inequality of opportunity, disproportionate distribution of wealth, social injustice, and lack of individual capacity of the citizen to solve structural problems, makes the idea of electing Governments romantic to the common masses.
Constitutional representative democracies promise the voiceless a say in the process. It is supposed to be transparent, participative, and nondiscriminatory, everyone above a certain age is allowed to cast their ballot. A careful examination of the demographic of those who vote, reveals that people who are in the bottom half of the economic and social pyramid are the most obedient and responsible in the discharge of their democratic obligations. The bottom half of this country is acquiescent and submissive; they vote, they follow all the rules… most of the time, pay all the taxes and expect virtually nothing in return, and yet, with every progressive election, all they get is a raw deal. They’re also often on the receiving end of police brutality, harassment by local municipal authorities and the insensitive ‘Hafta’ collecting local goons. Every party, all politicians, without any exception, appeals to them, beg for their support and yet forget them after reaching the corridors of power. In the entire political history of independent India, you would not find one incident where a leader would have eloquently not expressed their compassion for the poor.
“For the people, of the people and by the people”; we are the world’s largest democracy, a matter of pride for us. When we mention this to our friends in China, Russia, and UAE, they envy us. By way of the introduction we say, we come from a land of progressive, liberal, and humanitarian values, one that is egalitarian, just and runs on the rule of law. We flash ‘freedom of speech’ as a badge of honor. We tell the nondemocratic world we can openly and without any fear, question, criticize, not just the current rulers but also those who were the founding fathers of our nation – such is the tolerance of our society.
But are we though?
What formed the defining moment/ picture of the great republic of India, in the last 90 days? Crisis does not weaken us; it only exposes our weakness, which we are either unaware of or we deliberately and deviously ignore.
I do not wish to present the ‘chronology’ of events that followed the first confirmed COVID19 case in our country, I assume, quality newspapers (there are not very many of them left, I trust The Hindu though) would have kept you adequately informed. Blinded by his affection for theatrics and his commitment to the principle of ‘ruling by shock and awe’ our PM locked our continent size country of 1.3 billion people in a heartbeat; he gave the nation a notice of 4 hours. This perceptively resulted in an overnight loss of livelihood for a vast majority of this country; scores of poor people who have already endured the suffering of demonetization, botched up GST implementation, high decibel continuous hate narrative, and limping slow growth on the economy – were left hanging in the balance. They were quietly pushed out of work and thus they had to take to the treacherous roads back home.
They asked for nothing, no favors as such: any more than transport back home. These hardworking and honest Indians were ready to pay for it as well. But a government drunk on power, that does not get tired in repeating the delusional 5 trillion dollar economy target by 2024, choose to look the other way. Painful visuals of tens and thousands of people walking inhumanly long stretch home on foot with their belongings filled virtually every corner of social media and some portion of the TV news as well. Responsible newspapers and media outlets outraged about it and yet nothing. Well-meaning people knocked at the door of the supreme court and in the first go, the court seemed convinced by the false and utterly shameful argument that the Govt presented in its defense, in April. It said that people are not on the roads and those who are have been instigated by the media. Modi administration even tried using this opportunity to censor and silence the reporting.
In the meanwhile, the number of helpless and hapless Indians on the highways and roads kept swelling. Civil society/NGOs extended a helping hand. But the capacity of kindness and charity from ordinary citizens does not stand a chance against the restrictions imposed by the mighty state; as a result, things kept getting worse. Heart-wrenching and mind-numbing videos of mothers rolling their kids on broken suitcases, kids cycling their parents across hundreds of KMs, pregnant women being carried on a cart, a lady giving birth to a child while on the journey and then resuming her walk back home anew within hours of delivering a child – filled the mind space of concerned citizens. It cluttered the idea of shiny new India that our rulers want us to believe in.
Credible international media outlets and a handful of Indian journalists kept showing truth to the power but nothing changed in the all of April and May 2020.
40+ days into the disaster, news of people dying in inhuman conditions started trickling from all corners of the country. The horrifying accident which killed 11 people on the railway tracks; traumatized the conscience of the country. The tragic incident caused massive outrage in response to which our uncaring and unconcerned Govt announced: some trains and a few buses which were nowhere even close to demand and to make matters worse, they started charging the poor and desperate people even more than the usual fare. The monster was raging at the poor.
Some more outrage got added to the already growing clamor in support of those who were dying and facing the hardship of their lifetime. Financially weak people were robbed of their dignity and were forced to beg. They have no option but to survive on the mercy of charity. In the meanwhile, our PM was busy with his ‘maan ki baat’ and rolling out carefully considered and crafted support consolidation campaigns in which he asked citizens to clap and light Diyas: he gave it the cover of appreciation of COVID warriors.
The country obliged!
Deaths in trains and on the roads became an everyday affair. The opposition proposed to pay for those stranded and then the Govt woke to the possible loss of confidence, that it might cause if the opposition succeeded in helping the poor. The Supreme court too, many say, woke from the long slumber and ordered free transport, food, and water for these citizens, in the last week of May 2020 (this crisis, mind you, began in the last week of March 2020). In the meanwhile, citizens continue to suffer. Democracy is messy and hard but it works when citizens try to make it work. We hope that with Apex court’s strong observation, things will get better for those impacted.
We need to analyze the role of the middle class and the rich in this nation, too.
The indifference of the government does not hurt me as much as the apathy of the middle class and absolute denunciation of the poor, shown by the rich of this country. We, the privileged top 1% of the country, kept tweeting endlessly about how we miss our lives. Some showcased their culinary skills, others binged watched offerings of the OTT till they hated watching any other publication. Many of us picked up new hobbies and also brushed old ones, reconnected with our families, flaunted our riches in every imaginable way by participating in all kinds of mindless challenges on social media. In short, we indulged, while our fellow citizens went without food and water for days on end.
While we worked from home, little did we care about those who built our homes and guard them, those who helped us move around the cities and assisted us in our kitchens? We ignored them as though poor walking on the streets was some kind of pathogen that would infect us too. Our collective morality was as present as the prompt help of the government. Bapu’s India happily denounced all its social responsibilities.
I am not overly generalizing, and I am in the know that some of us may have continued to pay our staff and cared about their wellbeing but we were a minuscule minority because if we all or most of us cared, our road would not have witnessed blisters on soles of 5 years old from walking the walk of death. Our governance template is democratic for sure but the social fabric of compassion that holds human values together has certainly been battered. There is no way in which innate class biases, hate, and disregard for the underprivileged can lead us to a better and brighter future, history teaches us that. Our future is more collective than we acknowledge. Capital security that has insulated us from the damage thus far may not always be as intact and solid as it is today and should fate were to look the other way would we ever like to be on the road barefoot under the scorching sun unaided is the questions that I’d like to leave you with?