Poor on a pyre, life goes on

When one thinks about it, the episodes of death by fire in small illegal establishments are too horrible to imagine. TV gives us the instant images, as do newspapers, and the event is marked by the descriptions of the working and living conditions of the poor. The children who are orphaned are taken into their relatives’ already over crowded homes, and there they try to make sense of their destiny.

These fires, which are a symbol of the shift from abusive conditions of rural livelihood to even more abusive situations of urban employment are terrifying to the viewer. The PM on Wion TV on the evening of  January 22 said that  self employment by individuals who borrow from banks, and set up grocery shops or teashops should be viewed as employment. Such a person, according to Modi, takes home Rs  200 home every evening. How can a debt ridden person support a family on Rs 200 in the city of Delhi? This kind of success story is a pitiful statement from a representative of the nation state, who wears designer eye glasses, owns equally expensive clothes. What he pays his barber is anyone’s guess.

Because people feel less and less responsible for their fellow beings, they listen to the news and move on to their every day obligations, which are increasingly difficult to meet. Living in a beautiful city, a little over a hundred years old, in order to earn a living, the citizens have accepted every condition of distress such as pollution, traffic jams, a dead river in it’s  vicinity and the burning of petroleum coke. According to Reuters web page,  (December 13, 2017) “Supreme Court allows cement industry to use petroleum coke,” a dirtier version than coal, but fast burning, and vehemently sulphur producing. When we think of working class lives, the hazards that they face on a daily  basis, whether it is sorting garbage, breathing in dust or cement in the course of their day’s work,  or clearing drains, or the conditions in which they live, one can only remember the descriptions  Charles Dickens left us.

The poor have always been thought both in the Malthusian principles of the 19th century, as well as in the karma principle of ruling ideologies in India to have earned their fate.  However, as young people are concerned with human rights interests, they have been empowered with the knowledge that the world they live in is the world that we have created. Activist groups have been many, and the library movements in the slums  and country side is one example of how education and literacy provide children with the rights of reading and learning, which the state cuts in  funding, for school education, have avoided considering.

Young people do believe that as spokespersons for academia they can now start interlocking the relation between theory and praxis. As a result, in Varanasi, Amrita Dwivedi, from  IIT at Benaras Hindu University, actively believes that classrooms of  students can work hard to change the conditions of life of the urban poor. The plan is to fan out, using their demographic data, and developmental indexes to help the commissioner to find a solution to waste management and river cleansing.

In Kerala,  TV Anupama, KV Vasuki, Dr Sriram Venkatraman and Dr Divya S Iyer are interviewed on Kaumady TV for Onam  (Youtube “IAS officers celebrate Onam” September 17, 2017 over 138,000 webviewers) and the delight that viewers feel in their success stories is primarily based on their contribution as young professionals fearlessly following up causes for the national good.

These are the new models of inventiveness and honour, and while the real task lies in organisation and commitment of voluntary work forces, along with salaried people,  these young professionals are persuaded that it can be done.

TV Anupama is district collector for Alappuzha, and, ofcourse, the fetid 16th century canals have to be cleaned, and the burning of waste immediately stopped. But people always ask, “Who will do it?”  Do citizens not have the same rights as those who live in gated communities? Alappuzha town, which is receiving a large number of tourists from Gujarat, because of the Jain and Muslim populations living in the town, has received no sanitary attention at all. Mechanical dredgers, which cleaned the canals two years ago, were not called in again, since payments to them were pending. The sludge could not be transported to organic farmers since the company (which had not been paid), was not responsible for sludge removal. Clearly, politicians thought bureaucrats were always under their control, but whether it is academics or bureaucrats, a sensible view of life, and a belief in Constitutional rights pertaining to human life and occupations is present among young people today.

(The writer is professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Columnist: 
Susan Visvanathan