Coronavirus not the great leveller it is touted to be

It’s not just unequal living conditions that are hurting the poor. Unequal access to power also continues even during this unprecedented crisis

Published: 16th April 2020 01:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th April 2020 12:16 PM   |  A+A-

Inequality in India is palpable. You don’t need to know that our Gini coefficient (which measures wealth inequality in countries) is a high 83, or that India was ranked 147th out of the 157 countries by Oxfam’s “Commitment to Reduce Inequality” Index in 2018. The inequality in our society is visible when people like us buy vegetables for a week from our regular vendor just as he’s being given 10 minutes to wrap up and leave, for the coronavirus curfew has suddenly been imposed for 48 hours.

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What will he do with the stock he bought just this morning? Who knows and who cares? The inequality is visible when, in accordance with the new social distancing rules, we collect our bulky online order of groceries at the gate under the gaze of the security guard, who knows his rations are dwindling, and, though he’s getting his salary, neither are shops open nor are foodgrains affordable.

This inequality ensures that in India, the coronavirus cannot be the great leveller it is touted to be. Yet, even though it wouldn’t have been possible even for the best-intentioned government to overcome this inherent, age-old inequality, the Centre and states could have at least tried to ensure that those at the bottom rung did not suffer beyond endurance. Gandhiji’s talisman, “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest”, has been forgotten by governments for so long that it’s naive to expect them to act by it today. But the authorities could at least have shown some basic human decency. Even that proved too much to expect.

On April 1, the country’s richest municipal corporation sacked 35 night safai karamcharis who work on contract, saying there wasn’t enough garbage being generated at night. Paid Rs 625 a day, and yet to get last month’s salary, some of these workers have been keeping our streets clean for the past 13 years. Three years ago, the Supreme Court ordered that they be made permanent, but 1,100 out of 2,700 of them have yet to get that status. This bureaucratic delay has now cost them dearly.

The BMC’s action violates the labour ministry’s advisory to all employers not to dismiss employees, “particularly casual or contractual workers”, during the lockdown. Will Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar reprimand the BMC, or does he feel his job is done by simply issuing the advisory? Moreover, can the BMC find no alternate work for these employees in a city that has seen more than 1,890 cases and over 100 deaths, where 60% live in slums with no possibility of physical distancing, and where 55 cases and seven deaths have been reported from one slum alone?

Report after report from Dharavi, reportedly Asia’s biggest slum, as well as from Mumbai’s other slums, highlights the danger posed by toilets used by between 80-180 persons a day. Despite the much vaunted Swachh Bharat Mission, providing toilets to slum-dwellers is still not considered a basic duty by the country’s richest corporation, for, what if the slum is unauthorised? Its occupants may do the dirtiest and most essential work, but they cannot lay claim to its resources.

Even the spectre of an uncontrollable pandemic has not changed this innately unequal policy. By now, the BMC could have provided mobile toilets and more water connections to those who must wait for hours for water and pay more for it than the rich. This section could then have protected themselves by washing themselves whenever they needed to.

It’s not just unequal living conditions that continue to be perpetuated even during this unprecedented crisis. There unequal access to power too. A Dalit professor has been waiting for days to get a travel pass to his hometown, so that his father can resume dialysis there. Not only are Mumbai’s dialysis centres swiftly closing down, the latest BMC rule makes a Covid-19 negative result a precondition for dialysis and chemotherapy. But for the Wadhawan brothers, accused in the multi-crore Yes Bank scam, there was no such agonising wait. They and 21 others were allowed to travel in five cars to their Mahabaleshwar home just on the basis of a letter by the state’s Principal Secretary (Special), IPS officer Amitabh Gupta, which said: “They are my family friends.” The unequal equations of privilege couldn’t have been more eloquently conveyed!

But the financial capital of the country is not unique. The most glaring inequality lies in the way attendees of the Nizamuddin Tablighi Jamaat programme are being rigorously traced across the country, with cash rewards being offered to informers, while their chief remains untouched, despite the Delhi police having traced his whereabouts. His disdainful declaration that he will talk only after he comes out of his self-imposed quarantine, reflects a confident proximity to power. Who has tied the hands of the Delhi Police?

Finally, there is the inequality of knowledge. While educated urbanites now know everything about this new pandemic, in the villages, fear and panic, bred both by genuine ignorance and media/WhatsApp-created hate, have led to such ostracisation of suspected patients that some have been driven to suicide. “I am no one’s enemy,” was the anguished cry scribbled by 37-year-old Dilshad of Himachal Pradesh, before he hanged himself after testing negative. 432 MPs and more than 3,000 MLAs are elected by rural constituencies. Couldn’t they have educated and reassured their voters? Couldn’t the PM have used his unmatched influence to do so?

Freelance journalist based in Mumbai


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  • a.k.sehanobis

    Another Columnist
    1 year ago reply
  • Shankaranarayana Hebbar

    Why this opinion maker uses the word 'Dalit' Professor? This would be the situation for any Professor. But the writer would not mention it. It is against her agenda.
    1 year ago reply
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