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Cultural Truths behind Urban Rich Indifference towards the Poor during the Lockdown

One of the most sobering sights in the last few days of the national lockdown has been that of thousands of poor migrant labor walking for days to reach their homes in other states. Driven to destitution because of the lockdown, the sight of panic and resignation on their faces, was haunting for many. There was however, also a sizeable section of people on social media, who while expressing sadness at the scenes also mentioned that “this is collateral and cannot be helped”.

This cold and brutal writing off the suffering of thousands of people as a statistical inevitability bears a closer anthropological scrutiny as there are some deeper cultural truths at play.

One of the fundamental factors at play, written very little about, has been the ever-intensifying social alienation of the Indian urban rich from the poor. As capital has made enclaves of private housing, schooling and healthcare possible for the upper middle class and the rich, their meaningful interaction with the vast majority of precarious poor has diminished. The poor only appear in their lives as dispensable labor or petty service providers.

Close to 81% of Indians1 work in the informal sector. These are often migrant labor who have spanned huge geographies to make a living. So, the waiting staff of your favorite Thai restaurant in Bandra is likely some young men from Bankura in West Bengal, your Swiggy delivery person maybe a native of Baripada in Orissa, your local hair stylist from Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, the puncture-repair guy in your locality from Kasaragod, Kerala or your Uber driver coming from Satara, Maharashtra—all of them living one payday to another, saving bits of money to send home.

None of the rich availing these services have ever been made to ‘witness’ the lives of the people holding their society together. Most of them will not even know where these towns are. It is an irrelevant piece of trivia.

Where does your driver live? Where does your domestic help pee? Which school does your watchman’s son go to? These are not the questions that the upper middle class and the rich ever have to engage with.

The poor are homogenized into some kind of massive blob, who live in shanty blob-towns, whose inner lives and aspirations are a complete mystery. It is almost like they are a separate people. On rare occasion, from the balcony of a multi-story building, one may look upon the sprawl of hutments below and wonder how they live there? Arundhati Roy once wrote, that the only successful secessionist movement in India has been the separation of the rich from the poor—people living in houses high in the sky, might as well be citizens of a different nation, the sky-citizens2.

These sky-citizens are beneficiaries of the neoliberal boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, engaged predominantly in rising industries of this era, such as IT, Banking and Finance, Media and Advertising, and more lately Digital marketing and analytics among others. They carry with them an intellectual entitlement, because in their eyes, they struggled for their success. They had to crack tough competitive exams and hustle, claw and fight their way into top corporate jobs.

While this is true, most engineering or MBA programs (wherefrom they come), have almost no social science component in their syllabi. I remember my MBA days where many a professor would proudly declare “In this class we discuss business, keep politics and emotions outside”. This attitude is normalized and perpetuated. Considering human costs, social inclusion, natural justice and basic empathy are seen as dilutions to the hardcore professional ethic, something which is to be discouraged and rooted out. The proliferating expensive ‘elite’ IB-curriculum schools, post 2000s, are no better either. They have mistakenly assumed that holistic education is to organize more MUNs and offer kickboxing classes instead of enabling classroom diversity, across class and caste. The result is a complete disconnect with material realities of their immediate society.

It is not just that there is ignorance about larger social realities, there is also active impatience with it. There is a bizarre embarrassment of poverty in India.

These sky-citizens will be upset with a film like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and actively peddle ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ as a better representative of the new Indian reality. They will curate obscure music preferences, as a growing K-Pop fandom will testify. In sports, European football loyalties are proudly advertised and a ‘pilgrimage’ to the Stamford Bridge or Santiago Bernabéu stadium will often feature in travel itineraries. Instagram aesthetic and artsy handles, often by individuals in wealthy, white countries, are meticulously tracked and taken inspiration from. Even politically, the latest shenanigans by Donald Trump will find prominence over MLA-intrigues of Indian state governments. In this ecosystem, any effort to talk about social justice and inequity is largely seen as negativity and ‘messing with the vibe’.

Their policy solutions for fixing India also reflects these biases. A fascination with technocratic interventionism leads to fantasies of smart cities with IoT-enabled government interfaces. Apps for solving every ‘need-gap’ are peddled as game-changing unicorn ideas in a slowing economy propped up only by unreliable government data. All these collectively taken, betray a complete delusional incoherence with grasping Indian social realities. Most of these future industry and policy leaders will struggle to give accurate data on major human development indices—figures, they should know by heart especially if they intend to succeed in the Indian social system. As far as they are concerned, these don’t matter or apply to their business ideas and policy plans.

The poor and the rural masses are seen as frustrating roadblocks to the coming-of-age of the Indian superpower dream, and not as fellow citizens who need more than a helping hand by the state and social institutions to survive and grow. But to tackle such ‘roadblocks’, there is no attempt to learn its social realities. Instead there is an almost reverential fascist fascination with say the Singaporean littering laws, as evidences of ‘tough action’ that is needed to fix India. Overpopulation is often cited as the big problem. ‘We have too many people’, I hear often whispered in frustration against the poor masses, ‘everyone cannot be helped, there are so many’.

It is this sociological disconnect with the poor, shared among the sky-citizenry which spawns the kind of comments where the trauma and indignity of real, living human beings is written off as unwanted statistics.

As a teacher, I am often left aghast by sweeping recommendations in my class for forced mass vasectomies for the poor or full-scale clearing of slums to ‘redevelop urban spaces to look like European cities’. Any attempts to problematize such line of thinking is often met by the same fascist logic, ‘some people will suffer but that cannot be helped’. It is this mentality which also pops up in a lot of rich and upper middle-class responses to the current suffering of the migrant workers in our cities.

It is almost as if a glass floor has been drawn beneath our feet wherein anyone below a certain living standard cannot be helped. And focus should remain on solutions for the salvageable.

However, the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, that no matter how many such social barriers the elites construct—the fates of the communities, sky-citizens and the precarious poor, are tied together. There is an emerging appreciation for the labor put in by the latter. There is a sociological hope that this appreciation grows into empathy, and as this pandemic explodes—the rich do not start abandoning the poor, and actually leverage their influence to make meaningful, long-lasting community connections.

If we have to emerge stronger as a society, that is the only way forward.

- Prof. Ravikant Kisana, Assistant Professor - Literary & Culture Studies

*Views expressed are personal.

1https://thewire.in/labour/nearly-81-of-the-employed-in-india-are-in-the-informal-sector-ilo

2https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/capitalism-a-ghost-story/280234