Migrant workers gathered at Sion station to board a special train to Uttar Pradesh during lockdown in wake of Covid-19 pandemic in Mumbai, India, on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.(Satish Bate/HT Photo)
Migrant workers gathered at Sion station to board a special train to Uttar Pradesh during lockdown in wake of Covid-19 pandemic in Mumbai, India, on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.(Satish Bate/HT Photo)

The ugly face of Middle India, writes Vir Sanghvi

Lessons from the pandemic: if you are poor or a migrant in today’s India, you are in deep trouble even if the virus spares you.
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON MAY 19, 2020 10:48 PM IST

As of this writing, I have no clue when the lockdown will finally end. The economy is in trouble. The government’s estimates of when we would flatten the Covid curve have been shattered --- we should have turned things around by the middle of May—but the number of infections keeps rising.

And yet, we are not doing so badly. Our mortality rate is low compared to many advanced countries. All governments (States and Centre) have done their best and we must remember that we are much better off than say the UK or the US.

My learnings from the Pandemic have not been about the disease (scientists are still figuring out how Covid functions) but about us as a people. Here are some of them.

Migrants: Does the urban middle class realise how much cities depend on migrants from the villages of India? I don’t think many of us had any idea till the exodus began in the early days of the lockdown.

Clearly the Centre had no clue how much of an issue migrant labour would become. Nobody announces a complete lockdown with just four hours notice, if the migrant issue has been factored in before taking the decision. So did the government not know? Or did it just not care?

Even when we finally came to terms with the dimension of the migrant tragedy, too few of us showed any empathy. The sight of migrants walking home, on the road for hundreds of miles, each with his or her possessions in one little bag should have left a nation heartbroken.

Instead the horrors piled up. The returning migrants were lathi charged. They were told they could not go home. They were denied transport. They were rounded up like cattle and sprayed with poisonous bleach.Dead bodies of migrants were piled on blocks of ice in open trucks . When the ice melted, the corpses rotted.

Even now, the Centre and the States act like migrants are sub-human. They are accorded no dignity and treated with contempt. Some people say that this is because migrants are not in their villages at election time and are not registered voters in the cities where they work.

No idea if this true. But it would explain a lot.

Domestic Help: The ugly side of the urban middle class is the one that domestic staff see. We are happy making domestic help work in our homes but at the slightest sign of adversity, we say “they are just servants” and treat them like dirt.

I have lost count of the number of colonies and housing societies that refused to let servants in on the grounds that they were poor, so they must be dirty, so they must be carriers of Covid. Many of their employers promptly turned their backs on them and refused to pay their salaries.

RWAs: The villains of the piece, at least when it came to domestic staff and other matters, were the Residents Welfare Associations. These are bodies that often do good work (my RWA has done some commendable things) but which, all too often, fall into the hands of little Hitlers.

Most of us are too busy earning a living to take much interest in RWA elections but these can sometimes rival Lok Sabha elections in their ferocity and viciousness. Nearly always, the winners are people with nothing else to do who treat their colonies as empires and run them like mini-Neros.

On Twitter, people have regularly complained about the men (and it is nearly always men) who run RWAs saying they are usually retired bureaucrats, who now look for new ways to seem powerful. Others have said many RWAs are run by the sorts of chaps who were retired as Major by the Army and sent packing.

I haven’t conducted a survey so I don’t know the background of all of these men but yes, it is true that some have behaved like small-time dictators, inventing their own rules, even ignoring government regulations when they regard them as too liberal. Some won’t allow delivery men. Others will throw out newspaper hawkers and so on.

It may be a great democracy outside but within the colonies, it is often a dictatorship of pygmies.

Liquor: The notion that liquor is evil has haunted India since Gandhiji’s day. So, even as exceptions were made for food delivery during the lockdown, the Centre rejected all efforts by states to allow the sale of alcohol.

As experience with Prohibition has shown us again and again, the consequences were inevitable; it led to the development of a black market and an increase in criminal activity.

When liquor sales were finally allowed, the police had to be called to control the mobs who crowded the liquor shops.

My learning: If a stupid idea has failed once, be sure that politicians will adopt it as their policy and make it fail again and again.

Hindu-Muslim: You would think that a deadly pandemic would bring us together. But, in the early days of the pandemic, it was less about Covid and more about Hindus and Muslims.

It started out with the indefensible behaviour of the Tablighi-Jamaat which, in no small way, contributed to the spread of Covid in Delhi and other parts of India.

This was the cue for an outburst of anti-Muslim sentiment on social media, mostly organised by control rooms and political IT cells. The spread of Covid was blamed on Muslims in general and words like jehad were flung around. Stories were spread about how Muslim vendors infected with Covid were licking vegetables before selling them to Hindus.

My learnings from this were, first of all, that social media (and a captive mainstream media) can turn anything in India into a Hindu-Muslim issue and secondly, that since some political parties spend a lot of money on social media to promote this kind of hatred, it must work at a political level.

Politicians may be liars but they are not idiots. So if they devote so much time, money and effort to the demonisation of Muslims, they must feel that there are votes to be won from hatred.

Which, in its own way, is even more depressing than the pandemic because all pandemics end eventually.

But hatred never dies.

The Media: It’s odd but TV channels have rarely been more watched (viewing figures shot up during the lockdown) and less relevant. Some of them did an exemplary job of talking to global experts during the pandemic (for instance, NDTV and India Today) and keeping us informed. But all too often, channels stopped bothering to report the pandemic and went for the easy option of biased, noisy, and hate-filled debates.

It was like watching the World Wrestling Federation every evening. It was mindless and filled with make-believe good guys and role-perfect bad guys; none of it real but all of it vulgar, aggressive and inflammatory.

I doubt if anyone learned anything interesting, new or useful from watching most channels.

Digital and social media broke the stories that mattered. Until Barkha Dutt went out on the road, some channels pretended that there was no migrant exodus.

There is a broader lesson in that: If a single reporter with few resources and without a big network to back her, whose reporting was watched mainly on smart phones, can set the agenda, what does it say for the future of the established channels?

As for newspapers, the combination of misinformation spread on social media (“the virus thrives on paper” etc.) and the bans imposed by the little men who run RWAs, damaged them badly.

Many people got out of the habit of even looking at them. But I still think papers will win back their readers after the lockdown.

They have a huge advantage. You have to make conscious decision not to order a paper --- talk to your newsagent and cancel your subscription.

With TV, you have to make a conscious decision to do the opposite: to select the channel. It doesn’t come to you automatically.So newspaper subscriptions tend to be static whereas TV viewing habits can change overnight.

So it’s not over for papers --- by a long way. But I imagine that they will have to up their game to stay relevant once normalcy resumes.

And finally: The news is not all bad. There were many acts of kindness and compassion. India is still, at its heart, a country full of decent, peaceful people.

But the pandemic showed us that there is another face that we don’t always see.

And it is an ugly, frightening face.

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