There can be no better way of judging a city or a community than by observing how it treats its poor and disadvantaged. Recently, Noida was shaken out of its middle class complacence when a posh apartment complex was besieged by its workers who pushed past the security gates to throw stones and smash windows in protest against a cruel employer.
In the centre was a young girl, who lived in a shanty settlement just across the road and was employed as a maid in the complex. She was rescued in a state of near collapse, even as the police was called in by the owners who claimed that she had stolen money from the employer's house.
Those who came to vandalise their complex were all illegal Bangladeshi refugees. Predictably, their jhuggis were razed, and entry to ‘these people’ was denied by the owners to protect themselves while the authorities promised to institute an enquiry.
In these troubled times of vigilantism and intolerance that is steadily dividing ‘us’ and ‘them’, I can foresee further trouble. I am appalled at the heartlessness of several neighbours and their meanness in paying their employees, often migrants from distressed rural areas who come to Delhi in search of work.
These dispossessed people, who have no political clout, enter the city as labourers at building sites, living on the pavements and in shanties. Their children, even toddlers, are left alone for long durations while the parents are at work. Access to potable water or toilets is a distant dream for them. Diseases such as typhoid, dengue, malaria and hepatitis thus take a toll on their lives.
Urban poverty, in the absence of compassion or state protection, is a killer that no one wants to acknowledge. Our media is so focussed on stoking the communal fire that all their energy is spent on debating who is more evil: Radical Islam or Radical Hindutva.
The truth is that poverty has no religion: it matters little whether you are Hindu or Muslim when disease stalks your jhuggi cluster or when a ‘madam’ refuses to pay a maid her wage. Such families often agree to send their teenage girls to work, and they fall prey to sexual and domestic violence. People need to be compassionate for those from lower classes. Then only, this vicious circle of exploitation can be brought to an end.