Are we ready to give up on the state being in charge of basics like safety? Security? Are we sick of law courts that take forever to hear a case? Have we lost patience with the regular channels that are supposed to keep things moving in a working democracy? Aha — the operative word is “working”. In India, democracy does work — but only for the privileged few. Let’s call it a limited edition of democracy. Or better still — a designer democracy. If you can afford it, that’s great. If not? Since there are no knock-offs — suffer! When did democracy become this expensive? Or, was it always this pricey? Look around you. Move your mind from the historic GST Bill, and examine other more “maamuli” reports in the media. What do those neglected stories say about our overburdened lives? Here in Maharashtra, we are enduring yet another untamed monsoon.
Yes, I know we can’t “tame” the monsoon, but we can certainly prepare for what it unleashes on hapless citizens, year after year. Now, the monsoon is not exactly a freak phenomenon that catches the authorities off-guard. In today’s technologically advanced, meteorologically accurate times, the advent of the monsoon is tracked closely, almost to the precise hour it hits Mumbai. And yet, the civic authorities behave like they have been ambushed. Millions of Mumbaikars suffer because of flooding. Mumbai’s unrepaired potholes regularly claim lives. Trains are hit because the tracks are under several feet of water. In earlier times, commuters would patiently wait for 10 hours or more in overcrowded stations, unable to reach their workplace or head back home. Today, they beat up the first person in authority they spot, before wrecking the station. Ditto for families of patients in government hospitals, who vent their rage on docs and nursing staff, if their loved one dies due to medical negligence or the malfunctioning of vital life-saving machines. Road rage claims several lives, as citizens refuse to accept the indifference and apathy of the traffic police. Crimes, big and small, are being dealt with swiftly by citizens themselves. Some of these methods of rendering “instant justice” are primitive, crude and brutal.
Young people settle scores without bothering about the consequences. They maim, torture, even kill anybody who has to be “taught a lesson”, completely bypassing the local police chowki. And this is just life in a metropolis called Mumbai. The rest of India is witnessing even more horror with stepped-up vigilantism and planned attacks across the board. Dalits have suffered the most from this form of bullying. And if the powerful dalit lobby is in a state of revolt against those who attempt to oppress, one wonders why it has taken them centuries to get to this inflexion point. Overnight, the skinning of cows has become a major political issue, though it has been around for hundreds of years. Scavenging is the other one that is at the centre of a national discourse. I was dismayed when a foreign diplomat narrated a story involving his government’s initiative to provide modern latrines to several villages across Maharashtra.
This was done with the primary objective of making rural women feel a little more secure, considering their vulnerability each time they had to go behind a secluded rock to do their business. Months after inaugurating clean, flush toilets in remote villages, his team went back to check on how the scheme was working. It wasn’t! The villagers were still going out into the fields and ignoring the new facilities. When they were asked why, they said simply, “Who’ll clean the latrines?” When anger and frustration (suppressed for decades), meet inaction and plain corruption in high places, a monumental explosion is inevitable. There are complex social and cultural issues bubbling inside that cauldron. Some citizens foolishly state they’d prefer “stricter” laws, like the ones in Saudi Arabia. “See how promptly and harshly they deal with criminals?” they point out, quite forgetting how ruthlessly the same authorities mete out “justice” to Indians working there, while blatantly protecting their own. Call that “justice”?
India is at that sensitive point when it needs to figure out its own future path. Which version of democracy do we want to follow? Better still, why not craft one of our own? A bridge built by the British in 1927 at Mahad on the Mumbai-Goa highway got washed away this week, and at last count 22 people had drowned. The bridge had been certified “safe” by the state in May! Today, a meaningless inquiry has been ordered. It has zero value. Grieving families of the dead have no faith in the system. They will not wait passively for the report to be tabled. God help any governmentwalla daring to visit sites of similar accidents to console mourners. Chances are the person will be pounced on and severely beaten up. It won’t bring back the dead. But, for that brief moment, the family members will feel a little better. This is happening at all levels and across the board. In cities and villages. Caste lines are being crossed with impunity, no matter what the cost. People like Hardik Patel have shown it’s possible to take on the mighty and push for change. In his own crazy way, Arvind Kejriwal has been at the forefront of widespread defiance.
The status quo does not — cannot — stop those who are ready to break chains and rewrite the rules. In as structured and hierarchal a society as ours, it boils down to basics — who will skin those dead cows? And who will clean other people’s shit? Once we find acceptable ways to deal with these two issues, the rest will fall into place somehow. Pelting stones on policemen and Army personnel is never the answer. But it sure as hell is indicative of what’s simmering under the surface. If we refuse to acknowledge that there is deep disaffection and disillusionment threatening to spill over, with or without provocation, we will be digging a hole and playing ostrich yet again. Surely, our democracy deserves a better form of self-expression?