While volunteering in a village school near Lucknow some years ago, the straight words of a little boy revealed one of life’s lessons to me. I was filling in for the schoolmaster for a few weeks, teaching children of all ages to read and write. Bored of regurgitating the alphabet one summer morning, I thought I would encourage the kids to bathe under the hand pump near the school instead. My suggestion was promptly ignored, and the children exploited the situation to disperse early. But when I persisted on the days which followed, I was soon granted many wonderful photo opportunities: the children would play in the water lying flat on their stomachs, pretending to swim, crying ‘Machli, Machli!’ On the first of such days, after I had convinced Hariya – a young boy of eight or nine – to take a bath, I casually asked him: "Don’t you want to bring a change of clothes from home?" Hariya’s answer remains with me to this day. "Garib aadmi hai na didiji. Ek hi kapda hai."
The uncertainty and fear in Hariya’s eyes while attempting to read simple text, forced me to realize how little we understand the haunting despair of the majority of our countrymen, striving against overwhelming odds in search of survival, dignity and hope. On our part, we have managed to silence the voices of empathy in our heads, to an extent that the poor are mere irritants that we must somehow live with. The reservoirs of indifference towards the disadvantaged that we carry within us manifest themselves in various ways in our everyday lives. Our existence is so comfortably shielded from the realities of poverty, that the unbridgeable distance between the two affords little scope for any real engagement. So we have employers who routinely complain about their maids taking that day off, not once realizing that they don’t allow their servants a holiday on the weekends, leave alone annual leave. We have families enjoying dinners in restaurants, all the while peremptorily ordering the waiters around, but tipping them with petty change. We hear casual remarks from travellers on trains, that the frail old woman begging in their compartment does so in order to shirk work. Not once do we pause to think that the withered woman in her sixties is perhaps incapable of physical labour, the only work she can possibly find, if at all she does. Not for a moment does it occur to us that in this country of a billion people, work is hard to come by. We merely shrug our shoulders and tell the beggar to move on, a reflex that comes to us so easily, habitually, almost naturally, that it prevents any possible sympathy from arising in our minds and hearts.
Every day, we come across developments in our midst which affect the poor in grave, unjust ways that are beyond the scope of our imagination. One hopes that we might pay attention to such injustice, that we might even do something about it, if only, we register it in our minds. In Bangalore where I live, in the first five weeks of the inauguration of the swank international airport, one person was killed every two days while crossing the airport highway which runs right through their lives. With motorists cruising at never-before speeds up to 150 kmph, this highway - which might be the most amazing thing that ever happened to driving enthusiasts – has become a death trap for pedestrians who have to dart across. Residents of the area, school children and vendors have no choice but to cross the highway, though the possibility of a fatal accident lurks every moment. Did the thought of building underpasses or skywalks for pedestrians not even cross the minds of the planners? And shouldn’t we, as travellers on such highways who enjoy the convenience and pleasure they provide us, share responsibility for the blood that they spill? Aren’t we to blame, that we somehow, always manage to look the other way?
One of the most disturbing experiences I’ve had of this callous insensitivity which has become a regular feature of our society, came my way on a tour of Kevadia Colony in Gujarat. Here, the houses and agricultural lands of six Adivasi villages were acquired in 1961, to build infrastructure for the construction of that icon of development in modern India: the Sardar Sarovar dam. Despite being uprooted almost half a century ago, the residents of these villages are not even recognized as project-affected, and thus not entitled to resettlement. In a show of extraordinary defiance, the people have refused to part with their homes and lands. They continue to protest non-violently by staying put in their houses, even after the land on which they stand has been acquired by the government. If they didn’t, they’d have nowhere to go.
And now, as if to rub salt into their wounds, the government has set in motion a fresh wave of displacement in Kevadia. Plans are in place for a spectacular tourism project on the very lands which were originally acquired for a ‘public purpose’. A luxury hotel located on the cusp of the colony, whose construction was preceded by an attempt to forcibly evict half a dozen tribal families using a sizeable police force, is already welcoming guests. Its advertisement reads: Chill. Still. Tranquil. Unfortunately for the hoteliers, tribal huts disrupt the magnificent view of the river, and the Adivasis themselves interfere with their tranquility.
On a recent visit, a friend and I decided to visit this hotel. A manager promptly welcomed us, and gave us the information we asked for. The land had been leased out to the company by the government. Rooms would cost Rs. 4000 a night. A swimming pool was under construction. Further in the conversation, when my friend revealed that she used to be an activist in the movement which is fighting for the rights of the uprooted people, the manager changed his tack.
"But we are hiring the locals", he averred optimistically. "We are training them. Our motto is to ensure that they move forward with us." This when the land on which the hotel stands itself belongs to the very people who will sweep and mop it, water its gardens and make beds for its guests. Needless to say, the numbers that can potentially be hired for the tourism project fall ridiculously short of those uprooted
"And what are you training the local people for?" we asked. "For cleaning, gardening and making beds. Also cooking." Here, he paused, then almost as an afterthought, added: "But there is a problem with hiring locals." "And what might that be?" we asked, not knowing what to expect. "Well, you see, these local Adivasis, they can be trained to meet our needs", he explained, "except for one task, for which we must hire outsiders."
"You see", he concluded with a straight face. "They can’t cook Chinese!"
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