Economy: India’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’  

John Steinbeck’s novel on ‘The Great Depression’ appears to be playing out in the National Capital Region

Economy: India’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’  

S Divakar

Venturing out for the first time over two months of the lockdown, our part of Noida looked almost ‘normal’. Shops were mostly open and vehicles on the road, though not as many as before, were far too many than I expected.

But as the driver parked the car on the sidewalk, my eyes were locked into someone who was intensely staring at me. I felt uneasy. I had been told that cases of snatching had gone up since the lockdown. Incidence of theft and robbery had increased, the housing society had warned members. People desperately hungry and with no work or cash with them, I was told, were loitering in the township.

I confess I was scared. But the ‘market’ was reasonably crowded and I felt emboldened. What could this solitary man do? While seated in the car, I lowered the window and through gestures enquired if he was trying to say something. He looked embarrassed. He lowered his eyes and put his hands on his stomach, indicating he was hungry.

I took out a fifty-rupee currency note from the wallet, asked him to draw near the window and offered it to him. He softly said, “Don’t give me money Babuji; if you can, please get me something to eat”. It was my turn to feel embarrassed. Luckily, there was a kiosk next to the car and it was open. I asked the kiosk owner to give the man whatever he wanted. He gratefully looked at me and then gingerly picked up a packet of ‘bread’. I insisted on paying for packets of biscuits and ‘mixture’. He quietly received the packets and shuffled away

Was it an illusion or did I actually see his eyes get moist? I am not sure. As long as we were there, he made no attempt to leave or approach us. After some time I found him furtively nibbling at slices of the bread. As we drove away, the car passed him and he looked up and gestured awkwardly, as if to thank us.

I was shaken. The man was not used to beg. Professional beggars can nag people, pester motorists, ask for money loudly and walk away nonchalantly. Some would even curse or abuse or make faces if refused money. This man was in dire straits and was hungry. I was torn inside. Should we turn back and should we extend more substantial help? There were a few others like him at the market, I had noticed. How many and how many could I help?

I had read a facebook post by Rajiv Ranjan. My Facebook friend had posted in mid-April that for the first time in a long time someone had knocked on his door and asked for food. “ People would knock for donations and say they wanted money for a festival, a temple , a Yagna or for a chadar in Ajmer Sharif. But I don’t remember people knocking for food”.

Ravi Arora lives in Ghaziabad. He told me, “ I stopped giving alms long back after reading about gangs of beggars and media reports that some of the beggars earned more money than us. When I went out after the lockdown was lifted, I too saw some of these people you describe. And I tried to ignore them.”

But Arora was also startled to find that these people didn’t behave like professional beggars. They were quiet, embarrassed and even dignified in their misery. “They seemed to be silently admonishing us, telling us that we are responsible for their plight and we need to do our bit,” reflected Ravi.

He recalled that on that first day he had moved to different parts of the city on work; and everywhere he found such people. They had clearly never begged before and had no idea how to ask for help. There were women who were asking for ‘work’ , quietly telling more sympathetic people that children at home were hungry. There were also groups of urchins who were collectively asking customers to buy them some eatables.

“What has happened to this country in just the last two months,” he exclaimed.

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) had reported in May that the unemployment rate had risen to 27.1 percent. With the informal sector decimated, it is estimated that around 35 Crore or 350 million people have lost their livelihood in the past two months. Even in June, when the lockdown was lifted, barely two million of them are believed to have got back some kind of employment.

There are other surveys which bear this out. Azim Premji University conducted a survey in the second week of May in collaboration with 10 civil society organisations.

They found that in urban areas eight out of every 10 people had lost their livelihood. In rural areas it was even worse with six people out of 10 losing ‘work’.

They included the self-employed (84%), casual workers (81%) and the salaried (76%) in the survey. The situation, the survey found, was no better in rural areas.

Little wonder then that many of the migrants who had returned from cities after the lockdown, are already coming back.

A Bihar villager confirmed that luxury buses had reached the village at 11 pm one day and picked up 70 people. They were being driven away to Punjab and Haryana and back to their old employers.

Explained one of them, “ We would have liked to stay back but we have not earned anything during the last two months. And in Bihar we are finding it difficult to find work at even wages of Rs 100 a day. If we don’t leave now, our families will starve to death.”

Amusingly, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has been promising gainful employment to migrant workers who returned. He may have an eye on the assembly election due later this year.

But the situation in other states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh is hardly any better.

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