Last week, about 35,000 destitute farmers walked from Nashik to Mumbai, shaking the conscience of a city. Some tasteless posts circulated by those who have taken the patent of patriotism generously calculated the per meal cost of `20 for each participant and asked who is sponsoring them. The other side romanticised the poverty and created great photo-ops and tried to gain political mileage. The middle class were grateful that the farmers’ march did not affect the exams of their wards and showed their gratitude by distributing biscuits and water, and posted their act as glorified selfies. And as fast as they appeared, the agitators disappeared too, with vague promises in return for their great march of more than 200 km under a heartless summer sun.
Many of those who marched to the city are sure to stay back, trying to eke out a living as maids, watchmen or drivers. Their expertise in farming would soon be forgotten. It has no value in a country where water is scarce, electricity is a rare visitor and bank loans are meant for diamond merchants. The march was in news because some political parties had supplied flags in the empty hands of these poor peasants to wave and stare at the camera. It was a desperate attempt to revive a floundering movement that is in its death bed.
People come to Mumbai and India’s other cities from the hinterland with desperation every day. They run from the oppressive caste system, the crushing poverty and the lack of opportunities from the dust bowls of ‘Bharat’. Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Grapes of Wrath, talks about the tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures. The novel is the heartbreaking tale of the Joads, a tenant farmer family, and their migration to California along with thousands of other ‘Okies’ seeking job, land, dignity and, a future. The novel is set during the Great Depression. Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this Great Depression and its effects. I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”
The novel is still taught in many American schools. Any Indian peasant, if he is lucky enough to read the book, may think how fortunate the Joads were. For American rich, they had at least the fig leaf of Great Depression to cover their shame of abandoning their less fortunate countrymen. The conditions of Indian peasants have always been perilous. Despite a few exceptions in the previous century, Indian literature has mostly romanticised the rural life or ignored it. In his path-breaking book, Harsh Mander talks about the fault lines of Indian society. He stresses that increased prosperity among the middle classes has resulted in increased intolerance for the less fortunate.
It is almost two decades now after P Sainath’s book Everybody Loves a Good Drought pierced the conscience of the few who cared. At that time pundits claimed that we have just liberalised our economy and wealth would trickle in to the poor. It was just a matter of time. It was easy to believe in that dream. Now, after almost 26 years of free market, it is time to rethink what it has done.
Poverty and homelessness are on the rise. Anyone travelling in the bustling metropolis of Delhi or Mumbai must look out of their car window to see how Bharat is seeping into India. The middle class can see how entire families live under flyovers or in the sprawling slums. When such unfortunate folks manage to wander into the conversations of the prosperous, they are always dismissed as a shame to India. Why does not the government do something about the slums? How dirty the city looks when we land in Mumbai airport. There is no dearth to such horrifying questions.
The fall started when we, the educated, aspiring middle class, abandoned the public facilities. We do not send our kids to government schools, so we do not care whether such schools have a roof or teachers. We would prefer posh private hospitals and have no stake in the public hospitals. We have gated communities where some of these peasants would be standing as security guards, so why should we care about the law and order? We have generators that spew venomous smoke to provide us electricity, so who cares how the power companies perform. We would bargain for `2 with the street vendor while spending `500 for a stale samosa and coffee in our private airports. We have water tankers to provide us water and we give two hoots to slum people who wait for water supplied once a week.
We need our maids to work for a pittance and do not spare a thought on how they can afford to live in a city where we find it difficult to survive with 20 times their income. We know the moment the slums are demolished, we would not be able to afford our domestic helps for they would be paying rentals and demanding living wages. The politicians know the farmers can be pacified by doling out some freebies and offering bullet train dreams to the aspiring middle class. And when the rare attack of conscience comes, we take solace in the theory of Karma. When that too fails, we have social media to ask questions and gather likes and shares. We all enjoy the coolness of this air-conditioned bubble that keeps away the heat, grime and dust of Bharat and hope the bubble would never burst and would keep on expanding.