‘They Built Our Homes. How Can We Let Them Starve?’

Ujjwal Mishra, a resident of Crossings Republic in Ghaziabad, UP, sought donations to feed the labourers lest they leave on foot during lockdown

I was sitting in my apartment at Crossings Republic (in Ghaziabad-NCR) and browsing through social media when I saw a Facebook post by one of my friends. This post mentioned a poor labourer family stuck with no ration and money, and a toddler to feed. I was moved by the simple words used in the post.

I asked myself how I let myself sit at home and cool my heels in the lockdown while hundreds of construction labourers living nearby go to sleep hungry. Worse, they could be forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to their hometowns, as was splashed in the media.

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I began a local campaign and requested nearby apartments to donate dry ration. I used my SUV to collect these donations and stashed them in the boot. Next, with the help of some friends, I unpacked the donations and made smaller packets of rice, lentils, oil, salt, potatoes and other edibles. Then, I contacted local police to help me with transport and distribute the ration to the needy.

Police were helpful. They identified the areas where labourers needed help. Social media friends from far and wide too showed interest. I gave them the contact number of a local ration store from where they could place online orders and donate. Soon, my staircase, where I stored the donated ration, was full of stock. I worked late each day as there were too many families to feed.

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As the news spread, both needy and the donors started calling me. Once, I received a call from a friend who told me that there were eight families who hadn’t eaten a meal since last two days. I rushed with ration packets, as well as some cooked food, in the night and reached them. 

I realised that weekly dry ration works better for the needy to survive than cooked food. I kept a list of the places where ration was distributed as the packets would last for a week. I would re-distribute ration in the same areas, to the same labourers in order to refill their supplies. I made a promise to them that I would not let them leave for their hometowns in the lockdown.

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Sadly, the builders have abandoned their labourers largely. These families don’t have much demands; all they need is essentials to survive the lockdown. I will request the government to allow people to work on this model– distribution and refill of ration– to stop the labourers from coming out on the streets or try to walk back home.

These are the ones who built our houses, roads, markets and all the concrete jungle we see today. We shall not let them and their children sleep hungry in such times of crisis.

How Coronavirus Will Change Our Lives

The biggest challenges that the world continues to face from the Coronavirus pandemic are: how to stop its spread; find a cure or preventive; and protect the health and well-being of the entire population of the world.

While governments, healthcare authorities, and others wrestle with these confounding tasks, let us take a moment to try and look into a post-Corona world and what that will mean for all of us. At the moment, when everything about the pandemic continues to be unpredictable and uncertain, such a proposition could seem akin to crystal-ball gazing but yet, given the various trends that have surfaced in today’s beleaguered world, it may be time to try and conceive a new order that may emerge.

According to an estimate by the Imperial College, London, unless there is a sure-shot vaccine that is developed or an accelerated pace of herd immunity (which is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that takes place when large proportions of the population becomes immune to the infection and, thus, provides a degree of protection from the virus for people who are not immune), the current crisis that the world faces could continue for 18 months or more. Perhaps even two years. That is long enough for individuals, communities, businesses, and governments to change the way we all live and work.

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For businesses, depending on the products and services they purvey, this could call for scenario analyses—whether to ride out the slowdown; or restructure and pare their activities and markets; or simply close down and abandon their enterprises. Such scenarios, as always, range from the mildly disruptive to ones that are radically destructive and catastrophic. But even as businesses try to contend with such challenges, what may have emerged are distinct changes in the way individuals have begun to behave. Restrictions on normal life, ranging from complete lockdowns to self-isolation to quarantine will likely change the way people live, work, think and value their lives as well as material items such as what they buy, eat, or do for leisure.

Many of the new limitations that people have been grown used to in the past several months such as travel restrictions; restrictions on gathering and socialising; and protection for high-risk groups will likely be adopted as the new order in the months to come and may even become the new norm for living. Some of this has already led to new habits: remote working; an unprecedented shift to e-commerce; online schooling and education; and a blurring of the lines between work and leisure. It has, of course, also led to large-scale lay-offs, factory and business closures, and, consequently, a rise in social tension and stress.

But here’s the thing. Could this also result in people and organisations discovering the benefits of a new way of living and working that challenge traditional business and lifestyle norms? According to the Board of Innovation (BoI), a business design and innovation strategy firm, these are changes that will very likely happen in the not-so-distant future. In a recent report, Shifts in the Low Touch Economy, BoI analyses the emerging trends—mainly from the point of view of businesses but also in terms of changing behaviour of individuals and consumers.

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But first, the status of the world. More than 1/3rd of the world’s population is under some form of lockdown and in the parts where there is no official lockdown yet, there is some form of self-isolation and restriction on gathering of people. Borders between most countries have been shut down. Unemployment owing to waves of lay-offs are at very high levels.

Bankruptcies and business closures are already spreading in waves across the world. In poor countries such as India where hundreds of millions live on daily wages, the distress levels could lead to serious strains in the social fabric. In other countries, including those in the developed world, the closing of borders and domestic economic strain could fuel already existing xenophobia and demands for protectionism. In the US, for instance, issues such as immigration, work permits for foreigners, and racial discrimination could become hotspot topics as the economy tries to rehabilitate.

Those are real problems and much would depend on how long the pandemic and its effects last. But there could be other changes too, as the BoI report suggests. Consumer behaviour could change more permanently than we had thought. Changes that had begun before could get accelerated. For instance, remote working could be a habit that both employees and employers adopt as a norm. Home deliveries of essentials such as groceries could become a cost-effective way for both consumers and merchants. People could travel less than they did before and movement restrictions between countries could last longer than we think. Isolation and loneliness could have psychological impacts on people and conflicts and tension could rise at all levels. Mistrust of people and products could also rise.

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All of these would naturally result in new opportunities not only for businesses that are quick to adapt to the new behaviourial norms of their customers but also for those skilled in specialised fields. For example, psychiatric therapy online; or new forms of no-contact social gatherings. But there could be more fundamental changes. As people become more conscious of hygiene and risks of contagious diseases, companies may have to rethink packaging of their products and merchants of efficient ways of contact-less drop-offs. Travel and tourism could change: overseas travel could decline and local or domestic tourism could flourish. Companies could slash their office space requirements as they find it cost-efficient to have employees work from home. But with conflicts and tensions rising, legal activity could rise too—already lawyers and the justice systems across the world are turning to digital ways of functioning.

The BoI report outlines several fundamental shifts that could change the world we live in. While these have huge implications for businesses, they would, in varying degrees, affect individuals across the world as well. Chief among these shifts are: Geopolitics (where we could see the rise protectionism and xenophobia); Technology (where everything becomes more and more digital and contactless); Macroeconomics (the access to capital becomes scarcer); and Human behaviour (where isolation and social distancing becomes self-imposed).

While rich countries as well as the poor ones grapple with fighting the pandemic and protecting their citizens, these trends that could continue long after the pandemic has subsided and affect our lives over the forthcoming years are also probably worth thinking about.

The Invisible Indians In Pandemics

Classical literature and cinema are full of stories about stoic and steadfast human struggles against poverty, homelessness, displacement and hunger; as much as the ritualistic tragedy, and the inevitable defeat of humanity and humanism. So how does the life unfold as cinema and literature, tragic as it is, in the time of lockdown and pandemic?

You may read Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati, among others. You may read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Poor People. Or else, you can simply watch three classics in black & white of our turbulent times: Do Bigha Zameen by Bimal Roy, about a landless farmer’s ordeal in Calcutta; Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio de Sica in war-torn Rome; and, of course, Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray and written by Bibhutibhushan Bondopadhyay. In the last shot of Ray’s first film, abject poverty forces a poor Brahmin family into exile; their migration begins on a bullock cart, even as a snake slithers into their abandoned ‘home’.

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For those who might find ‘this kind of cinema’ unpalatable and unnerving,  there is Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin, set up in the backdrop of the Great Depression in Europe, where hunger, homelessness and poverty stalked the continent, even as the seeds were being sown for the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. And, while, you might laugh, and roll down with amusement, you might actually observe that the underlying theme is really not so comic! Not only does this film anticipate the ‘big brother is watching’ and Doublespeak syndrome, the Surveillance State and the ruthless capitalist machine in another epical classic penned by George Orwell – ‘1984’, it actually graphically depicts the mass unemployment stalking thousands of workers and the sheer brutality of the mechanical machine.

In one interesting scene, a bumbling Chaplin, as usual enjoying himself thoroughly, is being chased by a bunch of utterly bumbling cops. So he falls into a gutter. As he emerges from the gutter he finds himself at the vanguard of a worker’s march on the streets. He quickly picks up a red flag and starts marching right in front – as if he is the leader. In fact, he too is a jobless worker, a citizen in exile, a condemned nobody, in a general realm of utter despair.

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Cut to the present scenario in urban India.

In a dark irony, the real life parallel cinema has gone ‘viral’ at several crossroads in present times, even during the emptiness and helplessness of the lockdown. It’s mostly about poverty, hunger, homelessness and migration. And it stalks about 40 crore unorganized workers in the vast, sprawling and unaccountable informal sector of India, employing as many as 93 per cent of the workforce, who are virtually invisible and ghettoized, practically without any fundamental or trade union rights, no health insurance, no maternity leave, no provident fund, just about nothing. Half of them are women, and a majority of them are Dalits and most backward classes/castes. They are basically outside the market, except as ‘free labour’, and Indian citizens outside the directive principles of the Indian Constitution.

Tens of thousands of them started marching soon after the Prime Minister’s second 8 pm monologue, with just about three hours given as time in the thick of night to restore normalcy in life and to organize and plan ahead. Most of them had no option since they were thrown out of their homes and jobs, and their day-to-day life of basic, minimum subsistence outside all social security schemes or a future.

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So, while swanky cars zipped past them, and people watched this Reality TV from high-rise balconies on expressways, the poor started walking to unknown destinations from where had migrated to look for work, many of them barefoot, children in tow, often sharing the burden. It was the long march, from here to eternity, under a scorching sun; hungry and thirsty women, mothers, children, walking along.

The Prime Minister’s unplanned and rather insensitive lockdown anouncement had failed for the whole world to see. The virus was all over the place, in human exodus and exile, in mass migration, in the sheer mass tragedy unfolding on the streets and highways.

A girl posted on social media that she stopped her car and asked a family moving on foot if they needed anything: biscuits, water? A young couple with two little ones. The woman is holding a sack on her head with her belongings – the sack has a name – ‘Santushti’. The man is holding a larger sack on his head – it too has a name, ‘Good Times’ or acche din. The woman smiled with gratitude, and said, “Nahi didi, hamare paas abhi toh hain. Aap kisi aur ko de dena…” (No sister, we have food as of now. You give it to someone else.)

Hundreds of workers who were not allowed to march, found shelter on the banks of a dirty Yamuna in the capital of India in recent times, not far from the citadels of power, under a concrete flyover.  Most of them have not got even one meal a day; and they have no work, no money, nowhere to go. They are trapped, even as NGOs, students, good citizens try to reach out. There are innumerable and scattered stories about the fate of these invisible men and women across the cities in India, especially around industrial zones and townships.

In Surat, there have been repeated and angry pitched battles of the workers with the cops. This is the textile hub of India, apart from its famous diamond industry. Surat is in crisis anyway since demonitisation and GST, with its small scale industry in a black hole. And they were/are all die-hard Modi supporters.

In Bombay, hundreds of workers came out, without any bag or luggage, at Bandra railway station, saying that they just want to go home, that life here is just not livable, that there is no hope left now. Thankfully, the cops did not beat them up, though FIRs have been lodged against scores, including a ‘trade union’ leader who gave a call to the workers to hit the streets near the Bandra railway station. Indeed, not to miss another diabolical and sinister chance, the usual ‘Hindutva’ TV channels quickly found a reason to give it a communal dimension, just because there was a masjid close by. They did not even bother to check if the masjid was actually providing food to the workers.

A reporter with a TV channel too has been arrested for giving the fake news that special trains will take the jobless workers to their native places. Indeed, with the kind of fake news circulating all over, like an epidemic of sorts, especially by the same TV channels compulsively, obsessively and without an iota or concern for media ethics, it is anybody’s guess why they are not being hauled up.

Surely, there are stories within stories. It’s a Do Bigha Zameen for the unwashed masses, yet again. Surely, in this Pather Panchali, the Song of the Road, there is neither melody, nor joy.

‘I Want To Go Back Home, Uncertainty Here Is Killing’

Rameshwar Sahu, 29, lives in a tin shed with his wife Janki and one-and-half-year old child. A daily wage mason, Sahu is jobless since the Coronavirus lockdown was announced. Sahu seniors often go to bed hungry in order to feed the infant properly.

I belong to Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh) and want to go back home as soon as possible. But I am stuck here (Greater Noida) with my wife and our one and half year old child. It had only been six months since I got the job to work as a mason at a construction site here.

For the last three months, my wife and I were able to work consistently for 25 days a month. Together, we earned around ₹800 each day. We thought that we will work hard and save enough money for our child but our lives and dreams came crashing down with this virus outbreak.

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When the lockdown was announced, I wanted to rush home like many others. So I went to my contractor the next morning but he said he had only ₹1,000 to spare for me and advised me to buy ration by that money. Going home, which is too far, with merely ₹ 1000 in hand was not a good idea. Especially when we have a young child.

My family is completely dependent on local residents and police to provide us food. There are many like us who are stranded and queue up before community kitchen every day. Life of a daily wager is tough. Seemingly, we can earn `20,000 a month, but that is not a fixed income. We earn money for days we work. If the work is stopped for a day, there is no earning. Payments are often delayed.

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I am thankful to some groups of local residents who are helping us with raw and cooked food. But in the initial days, nobody was there to help and we faced hard time. We don’t know for how long this will go on and when we will resume our normal lives.

The uncertainty is killing. There are thousands who live in the shanties waiting either to restart their job or go home. The only thing that stops them from going home is donations from some local residents who always refill the ration after a week.

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People often ask why these labourers are going home. If they are so poor, what will they eat there? They don’t understand that we live in a close-knit society in villages. We have our own houses, small piece of land on which we grow vegetables. There is family and extended family members to help. But here, we live in cramped houses, with no food security and without any money. Without help from local apartment dwellers, we could not have even survived thus far.

‘I Wish To Work But Lockdown Has Made Me A Beggar’

Mehtab Ali, 34, a construction worker, lives in a makeshift shanty of Greater Noida West. Jobless after the lockdown, Ali is forced to live on charity

I came to Greater Noida five years back with my wife and two children in search of better livelihood. Life was not easy in West Bengal. We migrated to Greater Noida with the help of a local contractor, who provided construction labour to several builders.

My only dream is to send both of my children to school and give them a respectable life. I don’t want them to become a labourer like me. Both my wife and I worked in the construction projects here towards that goal.

But as the market (real estate sector) dwindled, so did our income. Sometimes, projects were abandoned due to various reasons. We had little savings but were somehow making two ends when this lockdown was announced.

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In less than ten days, we had run out of ration and our savings. Many of our fellow workers had left on foot but we cannot imagine reaching our native place with two young children.

Now we are totally dependent on the doles from the well-meaning residents in nearby apartment, police and the government which are providing basic supplies to the poor who have stayed put.

We don’t want anything for free; we want to work and earn money; after all that is why we came here all the way from our hometown in West Bengal. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than watching our children go to sleep hungry.

There are some community kitchens providing food packets here but they don’t give more than one packet to one person. A family of four cannot survive in such a small quantity of food. We need ration and fuel to cook. That is all we need as of now.

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We don’t know what the future has in store for us. Will the contractors and builders give our jobs back after the lockdown? For how long will this lockdown will continue? The builders are rich people. We are the ones who built their projects with hard labour but in these difficult times they have abandoned us.

If we continue to live like this, we will be termed nothing more than beggars. We are labourers but we have self esteem. We don’t want free food. The government must think about people like us. There are thousands like me who are left with nothing after they become jobless in one stroke.

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When the strict lockdown was imposed, the police initially hounded some local residents who were trying to distribute ration. If the locals don’t help us fearing the cops, then who will? The situation is critical for us. We didn’t go home after the lockdown like thousands of daily wagers as we have small kids and our home is too far to be walked on foot. But if we are forced to live like this, we will have no other option than walking back home with our kids.

Who’s Afraid Of Lifting The Lockdown?

Is India ready for a withdrawal of the 21-day lockdown, perhaps a partial and phased out lockdown? Will the experts tell the politicians to go ahead with a withdrawal, or, will they ask them to continue the status quo because it is the safest comfort zone? Or, will the politicians call the shots finally?

Low on confidence, will Prime Minister Narendra Modi, high on hyperbolic monologue and populist, unscientific declarations, move one step forward and two back? Universally decried after the catastrophic botch-up of the nation-wide lockdown without an iota of preparation and taking all and sundry by surprise, besides compelling tens of thousands of poor, hungry, thirsty workers, their mothers and wives, and little children on unending highways, pushing the pandemic into the twilight zones of the hitherto untouched rural areas of the Hindi heartland, the prime minister, certainly, just can’t make another gigantic mistake.

Will the partial withdrawal be determined by factors of health, and social and psychological well-being, in India’s vast landscape, with no uniform human development index indicator? Or, will it be compelled because of the doddering economy and a massive crisis staring at its face, as warned by top economists, world economic bodies and the international media, including Raghuram Rajan, Nobel Prize winner Abhijit Bannerjee, Jean Dreze among others?

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As of now, barring the role model state of Kerala at the far-end of the map, which has mapped out its withdrawal from the lockdown in four phases already, and where the pandemic is actually flattening out (apart from Maharashtra, because of efficient testing and health care, and, ironically and, reportedly, in Uttar Pradesh, due to abysmal and transparent lack of testing and health facilities), a large chunk of the so-called ‘Bimaru states’ want to stick to the ‘comfort zone’ of prolonged lockdown and enforced curfew, because they really have nothing to show.

With allegations of data being controlled and fudged, as in the past, the BJP governments at the Centre and in states, do not really have a great answer sheet to prove their credibility in terms of prevention, control, care and future projections. Even in Pakistan and Bangladesh, there is more testing happening compared to India.

Indeed, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, unlike the prime minister who has not done a single press conference till date, is frank and candid with his regular briefings with the media, giving meticulous details about the health conditions of patients, the numbers inside quarantine, the success rates, the condition of migrants, the problems to be tackled and how the collective civil society with the government is trying to overcome them in the state in a decentralized manner.

Sources on the ground in Kerala, as in Bengal and Maharashtra, are confident that the lockdown will be lifted partially in the days to come. Only those states like UP, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telengana and Bihar, whose report cards are not really shining, are reportedly pushing the envelope for the lockdown to continue. It is like when democracy is dumped in the garbage can, there is no option but to ‘indulge’ in a military clampdown and communication lockdown, as in Kashmir after August 5, 2019.

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There are several reasons why the lockdown should be partially lifted, as argued by top, well-meaning economists, and as whispered softly in the corridors of power and big business.

The harvesting season begins during the ‘auspicious’ season of April and goes on till July. With agricultural grown in dire straits, and almost static at 1 per cent plus, there is no option but to ease the lockdown in rural India. Indeed, there are two immediate and long-term problems stalking the agriculture scenario: huge buffer stocks of foodgrain which are still to be distributed, and the reverse migration of agricultural/landless workers back to their economically stagnant village landscapes.

For instance, where will states like Punjab and Haryana find the workers in the harvesting season with most of them having fled to the safety of their village homes in the face of the lockdown with stark economic and social insecurity stalking them in their destined places of migrations? Besides, according to Dreze, the foodgrain stocks might increase beyond a huge 80 million tonnes – with mass hunger and unemployment as a simultaneous and ironical factor among millions below the poverty line.

The urban economy has all but tanked. It’s a fact, and this was a process underway much before the pandemic. The construction and real estate industry is as starkly pessimistic as the empty high rise buildings on the Noida Expressway, and big industrial projects, still incomplete or languishing. This industry also employs the bulk of construction workers. The other big industries like Information Technology and manufacturing are not looking too good either. Unconfirmed statistics point out that the tragic scenario of joblessness, highest in the last 45 years, might have increased manifold post-lockdown, and this includes the urban educated youth.

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Demonetisation and GST has already broken the backbone of the small-scale industries, small business enterprises and trade. With civil aviation, railways and transport suspended indefinitely, India just does not have the mechanism to go for an extra push to its doddering economy, despite the optimism and vision displayed by the likes of Raghuram Rajan. Can the prime minister, his finance minister with no big feather in her cap, and his cabinet ministers push the card to its optimum best in the given circumstances?

This is a question that is stalking the central government currently. Several high powered cabinet meetings chaired by Defense Minister Rajnath Singh have reportedly been looking at possible and plausible options. For the first time, perhaps, state chief ministers have been consulted – who, truly, have been fighting it out on the ground with little or no help from the Centre.  Every day they are beseeching the Centre for more aid, PPEs, ventilators, insurance for health workers, basic health infrastructure and direct support. Surely, the central government is now reaching out to the states, with central funds, and pro-active measure. Another big financial package is reportedly on the cards.

The prime minister has cut a bad record and he has no option but to go for a national consensus with the chief ministers, and thereby try to learn a few lessons from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Kerala in terms of anticipation of a global crisis, the dynamic art of crisis management and practical and long-term solutions.

Clearly, there are suggestions to open certain sectors, with partial employment, keeping physical distancing and health precautions intact. This can very well happen in key public and private sectors like civil aviation, certain crucial industries like iron, steel, oil, IT, construction and coal, and find a balanced synthesis between work-from-home and actual professional activity at work stations. Also, there are suggestions to open the discourse to the professionals themselves – those who are willing to join the work stations should be allowed to do so with adequate precautions, health and life insurance, and safe mobility.

However, the harvesting season and the huge buffer stocks remain a cause of concern. Why the government should still continue to hesitate to push for free distribution of foodgrain among the vast masses remains a dark mystery. Indeed, if the farming community goes into a crises, this will be yet another epidemic of sorts, for an economy so dependent on agriculture.

In that sense, there seems logic in the rational argument that the lockdown should be lifted partially and in safe areas, away from the so-called ‘hotspots’, which are around 250 districts in the entire country, with high or low grades of the  disease spreading. Around 400 plus districts in India are still presumed to be safe.

With the pandemic flattening gradually, creative, brave and imaginative solutions are required. China has opened its transport and public spaces with caveats in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic. So, will India move forward, or continue to stay in the comfort zone of an eternal lockdown?

Can DD Re-Run Sustain Its Epic Magic?

With Coronavirus-forced lockdown across India, a captive audience huddles in homes before the television sets, morning and evening, gorging on serials based on Hindu epics, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and B R Chopra’s Mahabharat telecast by public broadcaster Doordarshan.

Their revival after 33 years requires flash-back, but more of relating it to the present that is vastly different, not just in terms of availability of hundreds of other TV channels, but also in sociological and political terms.

Take TV-watching first, spread daily over 10 to 12 hours. Broadcast Audience Research Council data indicates that even before the government announced the serials, as on March 25, it was 72 billion TV-watching minutes, an eight percent jump since January, dictated perhaps by a prolonged, nasty winter. Sixty-five million had watched the serials when first released in 1987-89. Seventeen million watched them over the last weekend. With nearly a billion people estimated to watch, new records may be established.

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Following the Indian experience then, the two serials were individually telecast on 91 national TV channels worldwide with at least nine languages sound tracks. Children in Indian families knew more of the epics’ characters than their elders of that generation. Given the rising diaspora, the appeal is worldwide, though Indians abroad are unlikely to await Doordarshan’s telecasts.

Undoubtedly, these epics have influenced the Indian society down the ages, possibly without any break. That makes it unique compared to other epics and old civilizations. Their impact on religious, social and spiritual mores, if not always political, can hardly be minimized. Ram-Sita and Ravan visit not just during the Dusserah festival. Shenanigans depicted in Mahabharat have willy-nilly influenced the ways of the political class. The impact could transcend philosophy and sociology and go deeper now since religion and politics are getting increasingly mixed.

Roads went empty when they were first telecast — now it is Corona compulsions — not just across India, but also the rest of South Asia, despite different faiths and cultures. Their narratives share the region’s locales (from Gandhara (Kandahar) and Takshashila (Taxila) to Assam (Kamrup) and to Lanka. Although the entertainment world and its mores have changed radically, a repeat, partial at least, is likely.

Of the two, Ramayan that changed India’s TV scene forever was the more popular show when compared to the thematically more complex and technologically superior Mahabharat that followed. Without comparing or contrasting them or seeking to pre-judge their contents that are already well-known, it is possible to say that their respective popularity during repeat telecasts now may indicate which way the present-day India is thinking.  

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The government announced Ramayana’s telecast plans “on public demand” without elaborating and took a while to add Mahabharat along with some other serials. Given the present times, with path cleared for building a grand temple at Ayodhya where Ram was supposedly born, the speculation is that its emphasis is on Ram’s greatness rather than the battle of Kurukshetra.

The idea to capture the popular mood as people struggle to stay active in their home confines apparently came from one or more media advisors who understand both the collective public psyche and the likely political impact the two serials, especially Ramayan could have.

Such advice was not forthcoming in the 1980s. Till Ramayan came, Doordarshan had by and large been religion-neutral. A politically naïve Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was convinced that Ramayan serial would help his Congress Party to balance the tilt the government had caused enacting a law to undo the Supreme Court’s Shahbanu verdict that was meant to appease the Muslim orthodoxy. He was also persuaded to initiate Shilanyas at Ayodhya.

Rajiv and the Congress fell between the two stools. All these moves squarely favoured their Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rivals. Indeed, Ramayan helped build a popular mood, not in favour of the Congress, but for L K Advani’s Rathyatra. India was to pay a heavy price when Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was destroyed in 1992.

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Then, as now, the Congress never realized its follies. It wanted Ramayan’s prominent actors to join politics and contest election. Deepika Chikhalia who played Sita and Arvind Trivedi who played Ravan chose BJP, not the Congress.

Ramayan can be said to have been the BJP’s launching pad for its Hindutva agenda and complete change of political discourse. Fearing loss of Hindu votes in elections, the Congress has given a go-by to secularism, its biggest political asset. Conceding political ground all along the way, it has itself adopted Hindutva’s softer version in the recent years.  

Fast-forward to the present as millions watch Ramayan and Mahabharat. They were outstanding, absorbing products then. But time has taken its toll and technology and public taste have changed. They are slow-moving despite the colour and spectacles and in part, the action they offer. It’s comic book experience for the kids. To the adults, in the two hour-plus daily dosage, benign smiles and syrupy dialogues Ram, Krishna and other characters deliver, beyond a point, is irritating.

Truth be told, the younger generation, though not uncaring, is less reverent of the elders. The latter are more insecure than their peers were. If amusing, it was fashionable to imitate the ‘correct’ behavior, addressing parents as ‘pitashree’ and matashree and brothers as ‘bhrartashree’. Not now, at least in urban India.

A lot has changed in the three decades-plus. India is more urbanized. Families are nuclear. TV has made them ‘Westernized”. They are used to faster, varied entertainment that is bolder, ‘open’, even explicit, dealing with bold subjects that were taboo earlier, going by censored mainstream cinema and the uncensored web-entertainment.

The telecasts are both media milestones and political events. How are they likely to work in these times laced with Corona-scare? For once, mythology can help forget history that is currently in the process of being re-written.

Would they help Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP, the initial beneficiaries consolidate the Hindutva agenda?

In theory, it’s a big yes. But who knows how a billion minds across a vast territory work? Rajasuya and Ashwamedha rituals conducted to establish military supremacy across a vast territory in northern India figure in the two epics. It is rather early in the day to speculate if the telecasts would deliver their modern-day political equivalents.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

‘Stay At Home, Work From Home, Cook At Home’

Lokmarg speaks to a vegetable vendor, a housewife, a security guard and a house help about how they are surviving during the Coronavirus lockdown across the country

Vipin, 32, a vegetable seller in Indirapuram, Uttar Pradesh

In the beginning, when the lockdown was announced, there was complete confusion and we didn’t know what was going to happen; if we would be able to get vegetables from the mandis. Thankfully, matters settled down in a matter of days. With the help of information from valid sources I came to know that we could resume essential work if we ensured social distancing. So many of us vegetable vendors in the area coordinated over phone and appointed different people for different tasks. Thus, only one person would go to the mandi. He would take bath on return and only then would we take vegetables from him. Different vendors sat near /inside the gates of various housing societies in the area so that people didn’t have to walk far. I am happy to say that people are dutifully maintaining social distancing while buying vegetables.

Our vegetable sales have increased because many people are now staying at home, working from home and cooking at home. I hope people become kinder and nicer to each other after Coronavirus. My family too stayed put and I didn’t send them back to my village because I don’t want to take chances with their health.

Raju Paliwal, 64, a housewife

While on one hand, I am happy at the peace and calm around us during this lockdown, on the other I find it difficult to spend my time at home all the time. I live with my son, and even though he helps me a lot with household chores, I don’t like to tax him since he is working from home. The sudden increase in household work at my age is a bit overwhelming. I cannot go to the temple, nor meet my daughter and her family even though they live in the same housing society. I do not belong to a tech-savvy generation, so catching up with friends also isn’t easy. To kill time and also stay active, I massage my legs multiple times a day. This helps in the absence of my daily walks. We have stocked up pretty well. I wish and pray this lockdown gets over soon and we can resume normal life and once again get to interact with one another, without being afraid of getting affected by a deadly disease.

Kundan, 32, a security guard

Our workload has increased a lot post-coronavirus, since we have to keep a hawk’s eye on who is entering or exiting the gated colony where we work. We let in people only after a thorough check and we have to keep the basic travel-related information of residents if they have returned from foreign travel. I live nearby, so commuting to work is not difficult. I have stocked up my kitchen well and will survive the lockdown period easily with my family. However, if the lockdown period gets extended, I don’t know what will happen. We haven’t been paid our salaries yet, but I am hoping we will get it by soon.

Many of the society residents have been proactive in taking care of us. They keep us supplied with food, chai, water, sanitizer, hand wash etc. Plus, they check on us to boost our morale as well since we are the frontline workers in preventing this disease from spreading. I am happy people listen to us when we remind them about staying at home and maintaining social distancing. I hope we find a cure to coronavirus as soon as possible.

Rukhsar, 22, a house help

I belong to Bihar but work in Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh) as a housemaid. After the government announced the lockdown, most of my fellow villagers, who used to earn their livelihoods in this locality, panicked and rushed home. I told them what my employers had taught me: take precautions and maintain social distancing. It was painful to see my friends and fellow villagers ready to walk on foot for hundreds of miles because of fear. Now the street where I live is a desolate place. My daughter lives in Bihar with her grandmother and the uncertainty of not being able to see my daughter is a difficult emotion to express. Most of the households where I work have given me full payment for this month, but there are doubts about what will happen next month. The loneliness and a feeling of being trapped in one’s home is telling. I hope coronavirus goes and never comes back.

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From Brexit Britain To Bogroll Britain, Lessons For India

India is lagging behind other countries in the spread of the corona pandemic. The virus first crawls in the population, then suddenly moves at supersonic speed. The delay gives India time to learn from other countries and prepare well when the tsunami hits. Perhaps it can learn most from the previous colonial master Britain, which has gone from one leap into the unknown, Brexit, to another, Coronaworld, with little foresight let alone planning.

Britain is nervous. The British are worried about the way the Government is managing this. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has contracted Coronavirus himself and at least five senior doctors at the front line have died from it. Deaths are mounting. Vital medical supplies, masks and ventilators have still to arrive.  Meanwhile the British public seemed obsessed with bogrolls (toilet paper) when asked to stay at home. India has the time now to avoid all this mayhem.

Britain had a two month start but did little. China kept the world informed of the progress, the dangers and the epidemic nature of this Covid-19. It locked down an entire region, tested people in hundreds of thousands and built emergency hospitals within a week. Although China had initially kept a lid on this viral disease in December, it realised early on that this was an epidemic. It raised the alarm, got international institutions involved, shared biological and other epidemiological information by mid-January. On 30th January WHO declared Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

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China declared quarantine on 23rd January. Britain and USA had the time since then to plan their response. The leaders dismissed it with a cavalier attitude. Whereas China had to start from scratch, the rest of the world had the opportunity to learn from China’s mistakes and experience to set up tests, hospitals ventilators, supply chains for food and lockdown or quarantine procedures.

But both Britain and USA have chosen ‘showmen’ for leaders. Neither Boris nor Trump are leaders who inspire confidence in normal times let alone in a crises. The majority of their populations do not trust a word they say yet voted them in. Populism and a Twitter-limit attitude to political leadership, has now landed the British and American people in a position closer to underdeveloped countries, despite the fact both countries had the money, the skills, the resources to plan for this inevitable calamitous disease.

In contrast, the ever serious Germans, started developing tests for coronavirus in early January and had 4m kits by end of February. Germany started manufacturing and buying new ventilators by late January. German doctors had decided as late as December that this epidemic was going to become a world pandemic, based on previous pandemics. Its administration got into gear even before the disease arrived in numbers in Europe.

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In Britain, the section of the population, the elderly, that most rooted for Brexit, are the ones who are likely to be sacrificed by the leaders they voted in as the country struggles to cope with the potential cases. There is a de facto policy that people over 70 and especially 80, are unlikely to be given the full treatment chance with ventilators. There simply aren’t enough to go around as the Government dithered with a boisterous faith in ‘cant touch us’ approach until the devil landed on the door step. Playing gung ho politics with an unseen virus that knows no immigration rules or State boundaries, or border walls is another first for the British and American leaders.

The population saw the leaders were not up to it. It sensed lockdowns. To cope with the fear it went panic buying or as psychologists will not doubt say ‘retail therapy in crises’, to cope with the uncertainty. If the Government could not plan, at least Joe/Jane Public could ‘plan’ his /her supply chain by buying tens of toilet rolls. Britain went from Brexit Britain to Bogroll Britain. What else could joe/jane public do?

Both Britain and America have fumbled. If Brexit had already changed the world’s opinions about bumbling Britain in the Brexit harikiri venture, Britain’s response to this pandemic has confirmed their perspectives about the British State as an incompetent modern phenomenon.

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India can learn a lot from China’s experience and most of western world’s shambolic response. Prime Minister Modi has quickly put the country into a lockdown mode when a few hundred cases surfaced in India. He now has three weeks to plan a strategy that can minimise the infection rate and death toll when the Corona wave rises in India.

The way the Modi lockdown was instituted does not inspire confidence. It is reminiscent of the note bandhi days when the poorest were thrown to the wolves without planning the consequences of a sudden withdrawal of some currency. The daily wage earner, the biggest sector of the employed, suffered the most as their meagre money was no longer able to buy the daily food. Queues and chaos ensued. It could have been foreseen.

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The lockdown was done in the same way. It should have been possible for any ‘responsible babu’ to have predicted that people will rush to their villages for shelter and food. After all, the Indian ‘babu’ should know the nature of Indian people. The close proximity in buses and other transport has surely not helped. The consequences will become obvious in about three weeks.

Nor did the Prime Minister assure people that a plan was in place to get food to people locked in their houses as shops were also closed. Distributing food seems to have been started as an afterthought in response to the growing unrest that was resulting from mothers of hungry babies and children.

Nevertheless, it was wise to lockdown early rather than late as has happened in Britain and UK. This gives time for the administration to increase production of masks, testing kits, ventilators, emergency facilities and financial support.

There are still two weeks to plan this. The Indian administration, often ridiculed even by Indians, in fact is a genius in planning when forced to. The managements at Khumb mela is a showpiece of Indian management. Two weeks are no challenge to the administration. In fact it is more than enough time for an administration that can outdo the best of world’s management skills. It can also rope in the Army.

The Indian Army with its massive manpower is always deployed in natural disasters. It is a workforce that has always been relied upon during times such as this. It has the ability to build field hospitals, set up testing stations and ensure law and order. Working closely with civil authorities, it can reduce the impact of coronavirus financially and in human toll.

Given the disorganised and often rebellious nature of Indians to administrative authority, and their laid back approach to reporting, the real figures of people infected and deaths due to coronavirus will never be known in India. But with draconian powers and surveillance facilities that the current Government has acquired, it should not be far off the mark, were it to be honest with the statistics.

The administration needs to be applauded for its quick action. It can show countries like America and Britain that democracies can also manage a viral pandemic as efficiently as an authoritarian State such as China. Germany has shown that too. Germans have a reputation for forward planning and taking government as a serious institution unlike much of the rest of west whose populations seem to be focused on celebrity politicians. However Germany is a small country. India has a 15 times larger population.

The coronavirus is India’s test. It is helped partly by the hot weather on the horizon. But a systematic exit from lockdown with test centres, selective isolations, adequate food and other supplies, masks, emergency hospitals and Personal Protection Kits for medical staff will see it triumph and keep the death toll to less than thousand rather than near million mark. For once we can applaud the administration and the Prime Minister to have acted early and decisively.