• Anupam Pandey

The poverty of conscience

Migrants caught in India's lockdown

If you live in India or follow it's news you're probably now sensitised to the shock that accompanied watching millions of people walking hundreds of kilometres to get to their villages amidst the world's largest lock-down. Some collapsing and dying in the process; some others being beaten and degraded by the police or having disinfectants sprayed on them like they were livestock.

The media and social media have been divided since. We are either mad at this lot for not following the Prime Minister's plan or at the Prime Minister himself for putting them in that position. We don't however seem to be mad about the poverty that is the real problem here. In our eagerness to find a villain we can't seem to accept that these people were doomed with or without the coronavirus. They don't care about the virus because they can't care about it. Because starvation could kill them sooner that Covid-19.

We live in one of the most unequal countries in the world. A country of which we've concocted an alternative reality - one where development is reflected by the quality of airport terminals and luxury car sales. We talk about GDP growth obsessively, most without understanding what it even represents or how it is calculated. Our version of India, of some fast growing superpower that is globally influential and where poverty and poor people are a thing of the past, unfortunately only exists in our head.

Between our Uber rides and same-day deliveries we forgot that India is a third world country, horrible as it sounds, where nearly 4 million people are homeless and close to 70 million live in urban slums with limited or no access to sanitation. This does not include several million more that are in a constant cycle of food insecurity, who sleep where they work and who in the best of times fall prey to diseases like typhoid and pneumonia because of the conditions they work in but don't have the luxury to heal. India is so third-world that cops can brutally beat and degrade the very citizens they are supposed to protect with no consequences.

Freedom is highly privileged in the world's largest free country. Mostly usurped by you and me and others like us who work in the high rise towers of our metro cities and currently quarantined in the comfort of our access controlled houses and apartments. High speed broadband. Check. Home delivered groceries, household items and everything else. Check. Domestic maid and cook. Check. The last one has been a challenge during the lock down but we're coping. How resilient we are. And so magnanimous for still paying them their wages.

We learnt early on to ignore the poorest amongst us. When they approach us at traffic signals we look straight ahead or into our phones. We forgot they existed and now when we see them, by the millions, carrying their little possessions, we want to look away because we have moved on. Our country had already emerged, and we cannot accept this alternative reality.

If something good were to come out of this, then let us be shaken out of our convenient amnesia about the actual state of our country. When this is all over let's stop worrying about a 5 trillion economy and other such meaningless numbers. Let us understand that economic growth is about improving the quality of life so the poorest amongst us can live with dignity and safety. Let us demand reforms so these medieval images of police beating on innocent people with batons is no longer acceptable. Let us stop wishing poverty away by looking the other way. Let us enrich our conscience, accept our privileges and change the conversations about the country we want to have by first accepting the one we have right now.