The coronavirus pandemic has not only wreaked havoc on our nation, it has also highlighted the deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots. While lockdown means working from the comfort of homes, or at best an enforced holiday for the country’s affluent professionals, millions of poor migrant workers have been desperately trying to go back to their village homes in absolutely hellish conditions.
The daily life and struggles of these two segments are so drastically different that it makes one wonder if they are from two separate, totally unconnected realities. During lockdown, while many affluent professionals have been snuggly ensconced in their cocoons, their list of complaints seem unending. They gripe about not being able to travel or play a round of golf at the country club, or hang out with friends in a bar, dine out, or go to the gym, or catch a movie, or go to a salon for a haircut.
Some complain about having to take care of all the chores at home since the domestic help has gone back to his/her home due to lockdown. Lockdown provides an opportunity to indulge in unlimited entertainment for the “haves.” Thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, and YouTube, many have been binge watching on all kinds of shows. While some have been busy taking online lessons on music, dance and art appreciation, others have been learning how to cook exotic dishes, or learning a foreign language.
For the spiritually inclined, some have started taking lessons on meditation and yoga, or they have been listening to talks by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Sadhguru. Of all the lockdown activities, cooking exotic meals from all over the world has emerged as the most favourite, where these folks have flaunted their culinary skills on Facebook and Instagram. Every day there are lots of photographs on social media showing the food items along with pictures of different kinds of drinks that complement these meals.
These photographs are accompanied with the historical/ cultural background of each meal. From these posts one might think that it’s a time of celebration and enjoyment and not a lockdown. When many experienced great difficulties in finding even basic food items in the supermarkets because they were all sold out, this privileged group of people not only had access to a huge variety of food, they were also pretty resourceful in obtaining some of the very rare ingredients to prepare these gourmet dishes.
They had their groceries delivered to their doorstep from various grocery stores, making certain that they bought large quantities to fill up their refrigerators. It is this kind of selfish, thoughtless consumption during lockdown that ended up depleting the stocks in the stores incredibly fast, leaving many returning home empty handed.
Now, contrast this affluent lifestyle with the millions of penniless, famished, and desperate migrant workers who have been fleeing from the cities because they lost their jobs under lockdown and had no choice but to return to their native villages. They were so anxious to return to their villages that they were seen riding on bikes, bullock carts, trucks, and even rickshaws to get there. We have seen gut-wrenching pictures of families trying to return to their villages on foot in sweltering heat, walking hundreds of kilometers.
The story of a 15-year old girl bringing her injured father on the back of her bike to their village went viral on social media. Since neither the central government nor the state governments had any plans for their repatriation, many lost their lives while trying to go back home. While some got crushed by trains, others got run over by trucks and many died from exhaustion from trudging down the highways under the blazing sun.
Although many have died trying to get back home, the high risks involved haven’t dampened their resolve. It is unconscionable that the Indian Government didn’t have any plans to transport the migrant workers to their homes, but Indians stranded abroad were flown back in special evacuation flights paid for by the Indian government. To an unimaginable degree, the lockdown has shattered not only the lives of migrant workers but also the small traders and daily wage earners.
Take, for example, Bhim Chandra Sarkar’s situation. He runs a tiny florist’s shop in South Kolkata. When I called him to have some flowers delivered to my mother, Bhim said his shop had been closed since March 25 when lockdown began. He said that his savings were all gone, and he hardly has anything left to buy food. The free rice and lentil that he was getting from the state government wasn’t enough to feed his whole family.
When Bhim was forced to shut down his store, he lost all the fresh flowers he had bought that morning worth Rs 15,000. Bhim told me in all candor that if he couldn’t open his shop again after May 17, his whole family would be ruined. To make matters worse, he lives in a red zone, where nobody can come in or go out. Sadly, Bhim’s shop is closed to this day. Then there’s Lily Baidya, who works as a caregiver in Kolkata.
Every day she takes the train from her village to come to work, which takes her about three hours to get to the city. Her husband is a mental patient who stays at home. His medical bills come to Rs 2,500 each month. She has two sons: the older one, who is 20 years old, is unemployed and the younger one is in the 9th grade. Lily earns about Rs 10,000 each month, and from that she has to give to her agent a commission of Rs 1,500.
Lily hasn’t worked for the last two and a half months. All four family members live on 20 kilograms of rice and 12 kilograms of wheat every month, which is being provided free by the state government. They bought oil, potatoes, and lentil with the meagre savings they had. When the savings were gone, they borrowed money from neighbours to buy food and medicines for the husband. Lily told me that they were completely broke.
She doesn’t know how they are going to repay the loan unless she starts working again, but that’s not even possible right now because the local trains are still not operating. There are millions of poor, struggling people like Bhim and Lily who are perishing right now. The crucial difference between the affluent class and India’s poor is that the latter has no buffer; no reserves of anything, be it money, food, or medicines. A vast majority of them live on the edge.
While India’s wealthy savour gourmet dishes and quaff wine in the comfort of their homes, folks like Bhim and Lily worry about how to pay for very basic food like rice, lentil and potatoes just to survive. Under lockdown, many of these economically disadvantaged people can’t even afford two meals a day. These gross inequities and injustices remind me of Mahabharata, when Yudhistira asked Bhisma what constituted the ultimate act of human cruelty. Bhisma didn’t mention killing or wounding other humans. For him, the cruellest act is when someone eats and drinks in excess while hordes of starving people look at his feast hungrily.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how many of us are committing the cruellest act on a daily basis. Our cruelty to other humans is not just limited to gluttony; it is engaging in a hedonistic lifestyle that is characterized by excess when millions are mired in abysmal poverty. I am not suggesting that we all give up enjoying the good things in life, but we can certainly be more empathic with other’s suffering by living our lives in ways that are simple, thoughtful and respectful of others who are less privileged.
We also need to take concrete steps to build a system that is respectful and fair. We can start by paying a decent salary to the domestic help that is more than what we spend on dining out. We can pay the premium for their health and accident insurance, pay for doctor’s visits, and give them paid holidays in gratitude. These are just some of the very basic requirements to bring about some semblance of social justice. Most importantly, we must learn to treat people who work for us with respect and compassion and not as a means to an end.
(The writer is Emeritus Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)