Remember this aphorism from George Bernard Shaw: “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul”?
Now look around you. The virus plays its own version of havoc and destruction. And then, fast keeping up with it is the Government of India. The lockdown has brought out the worst in some of us and definitely in our “planners” and “leaders”.
Since the third week of March, the problem of labourers who travel for work and settle away from their homes has been flagged. These people and their families were abandoned by their employers to eke out an existence, far from home, with whatever they had in hand once the lockdown began and work dried up.
Then in desperation, they began to walk home. Hundreds of kilometres, with small children and no shelter.
Remember, by this time, there had been clapping and pot-clanging and diya-lighting to honour health workers but all the distressed backbone of India’s workforce got were platitudes and a request to the rest of us, from the Prime Minister of India, that we look after the needy
What did the mighty Government of India itself do? For weeks nothing, as NGOs and neighbourhood groups scrambled to arrange money, food and provisions. And then, as the end of the lockdown approached on May 4, there were announcements that special trains would run to take “migrant workers” home.
The official notices were clear: the workers themselves would have to pay for the tickets home, plus a surcharge. As we know, as soon as Congress president Sonia Gandhi offered to pay for all travel, all hell broke loose and the Centre took a day’s silence to then pretend that it had meant to pay all along, with some small amount to be borne by state governments.
To date, that lie has been proved over and over as travellers claimed that they have paid for their rail tickets. Karnataka meanwhile said it was banning labourers from leaving for their home states because the builders’ lobby needed labourers. It was only after public outrage that trains were permitted.
And do not ever forget that at the same time, hundreds and millions of rupees were spent to get the Indian Air Force to drop flowers on hospitals even as the long walks of desperation continued. So let’s get back to Shaw. Even as the government robbed Peter, there were huge appeals from Paul – like the builders’ lobby in Karnataka – that government handouts be given to them. As a favour, the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh decided to do away with most labour laws. Peter once more was to be sacrificed for Paul.
In essence, while some rubbed their hands with glee, the rights done away with included toilet facilities, ventilation, somewhere to sit, protective gear, first aid, canteens, lighting, 8-hour shifts, weekly holidays and more. This in effect means that the worker is now a slave, at the mercy of his or her employer. You can rest assured that wages will also be similarly reduced. The Indian economy is at its lowest point ever now, between the Modi government’s own severe mishandling and lack of policy and now thanks to SARS-Cov-2, as the virus has been renamed. And because of the lockdown, India’s most vulnerable are even more at risk.
Reactions of the privileged to the people who got run over by a goods train this week, proved why we are such an unbalanced society. People had walked for days to reach home and fell asleep exhausted. To now come up with sermons about how they deserved to die because they fell asleep on the tracks! It sounded like all those corporate honchos who tried to convince us that 2016’s demonic Demonetisation was the greatest thing ever and “don’t bore us because a few poor people suffered. Poor people always suffer”. Remember them? Modi supporters, the lot of them.
Every bank that has collapsed in the past six years can be put down to profligate loans which were given to India’s richest and because the richest did not pay back. Some ran away and got their loans written off. Some just shrugged and the Government gave them our money. But workers in India can’t expect even toilets at their place of work?
Let’s end with Shaw: “The art of government is the organisation of idolatry.” The more you put “leaders” on pedestals, the lower you fall as a society. Now look around you.