Last Sunday, Prime Minister rendra Modi indulged in an interesting commentary. He was talking to the tion in his monthly man ki baat radio programme. But a prelude first: the man ki baat innovation would be better and more meaningful if it were to harp on education, especially higher education (no Indian university has made it even to the top 150 bracket in the latest QS World University Ranking) and agriculture more frequently than what has happened until now in his programme. When it comes to agriculture, the crisis is of the Himalayan proportion. A few days ago, farmers in Maharashtra had to trudge about 200 kilometres to Mumbai to ventilate their angst and anguish, with a lady walking barefooted because her sandals were lost in the jostle she had to face as she was grappling for drinking water at a stopover. Her photograph – her blistered feet telling a poignt story of the real India that most in the political class prefer not to see – was carried prominently on the front pages of newspapers the next day. But why should any netaa care?
Modi said “New India” belongs to the poor and the backward. He recalled Dr BR Ambedkar, the architect of our Constitution, a Dalit who rose to intertiol eminence despite he being born in a family that upper castes would not even touch, ‘untouchable’ as the family was, forced to live a life of indignity and ignominy just because a highly irratiol caste order based on the accident of birth must be perpetuated for eternity.
So what did Modi say? “Many people mocked Baba Saheb Ambedkar, tried to pull him back, and made every possible effort to ensure that the son of an impoverished and backward family would not progress in life, be something, and succeed in life. But the picture of New India is altogether different. It is an India which is Ambedkar’s India, of the poor and the backward,” he told the countrymen. Is this really the case?
Nevertheless, sometimes embellished words and emotiolism fall short of depicting true pictures. The fact is that New India is not Ambedkar’s India as yet. It has still miles to go before it evolves into what Ambedkar had in his imagition. Let me start with a reality I come across every day.
When I walk to my office – it being just a 3-minute walk – I have to pass through the cool shade of the huge flyover at the Six Mile area of Guwahati. I often stumble upon ragpickers there – little children who should be in schools for some meaningful education, employment, and a decent life later on. They are otherwise a cheery lot, their banter not reflecting the storms their parents have to – or are rather forced to – endure despite the “New India” the Prime Minister has pointed to.
The other day, I asked one of them, “Hey! What about your school? Aren’t you into it?”
She replied smilingly, in Hindi, “Kaam kara padhtaa hai!”
A sweet little girl, she has to work. She has to contribute to her family’s income. How can she go to any school then? Will it not lead to a diminution in her family’s daily income? Even a small diminution in the daily earning of a destitute family matters a lot to it. It often becomes a matter of life and death. There was no use asking her about her parents. They lead their impoverished and degrading lives in a bizarre new India of political imagition. And this is not typical of my city alone. Go to any metropolis. The story remains the same, even more horrendous in cities of dreams such as Mumbai.
Beyond such ragpickers lies another India too – that of the homeless. This is misery at its worst. To live without a roof to cover oneself when it is dark, when it rains, and when he needs some shield to protect himself from the scorching rays of the sun in summer, is to live a life of animals as such people look for some shade and shelter to keep breathing in a life bereft of any meaning, any substance, any purpose.
Often below the flyover as mentioned I see humans taking a p along with dogs as their co-passengers in the journey of life. And yet we hear there is a “New India”, which is “Ambedkar’s India”! Such “New India” can be found below many such flyovers adorning our cities on the rise. Some of these cities are going to be ‘smart cities’ too, as the Modi government has envisaged.
Modi’s “New India” will resote well in air-conditioned rooms. It might echo well in the IITs and the IIMs where aspirations are high and where there is a freedom of choice. The rising middle class will nod in agreement when the Prime Minister shows them glimpses of such India. This class, after all, nurses a burning desire to participate in it, its possibility. And this class has the potential to do it all. As for the ones who are already quite rich and empowered, they know they have always been in such “New India”.
But the problem is elsewhere, in a universe where poverty has been romanticized in stories of undaunted grit and solid resolve despite the crippling acuteness of poverty, in novels and films that bag critics’ awards, in semirs and conferences of the high-profile inside air-conditioned auditoriums. That there is a vast crowd of the poorest of the poor who matter to none, does not move sentiments. But there is an unheeded crowd of unending wails as all can see. A humanity destined to remain doomed for ever. Nonetheless, these are the very people whose poverty and helplessness form a grand political rrative for votes.
Garibi hataao, isn’t this what Indira Gandhi gave a clarion call for? The remains of that political grandstanding remain one of the cruellest jokes on the poor and the disadvantaged – more so, on the multitude of those ragpickers and homeless people that I have just talked about.
This brings me to my beloved State, Assam, home to the highest number of beggars in Northeast India and the fourth highest in the country as a whole, as Union Minister for Social Justice Thawar Chand Gehlot recently informed the Lok Sabha. The Sentinel (29 March 2018), in its editorial titled “The Bane of Beggary”, has harped on the issue quite sensibly: “Our approach to destitution will reflect our character when it comes to our practice (emphasis added) of democracy… These beggars and their children live in a veritable hell. They must be salvaged. Otherwise the government has no right to talk of it being a democratic government.”
How about the Prime Minister, who many say belongs to a different political genre, implementing a scheme to identify such ragpickers in every city and town across the length and breadth of the country – “New India” that is – and send them to quality schools for education absolutely free of cost? To identify the homeless humanity and build for them homes where they can live like humans? To launch an all-out assault on the chronicity of poverty and destitution thus? And to also come to the aid of the farmers contemplating suicide? This is possible. Only then will “New India” begin to look a bit more meaningful.
Mr Prime Minister, let us talk of a really new India, the India of Dr Ambedkar’s dreams, the India where Mahatma Gandhi would like to live, the India of our collective dream. Otherwise, any talk of any new India will remain a mere rhetorical jiggle of words to create an impression that does not reflect the realities of the day.