The long road

Free india

House-proud: Freedom’s happy glow. Photo/ AP

A few months ago one of my friends, Mahesh, left his well-remunerated job advising foreign companies entering the Indian market, to go and work with an NGO in Jharkhand. A few days ago he posted a small note on his Facebook site about the ‘Bicycle Coal Men of Ramgarh’. On the way to work every day Mahesh sees groups of men, blackened with coal dust, pushing along their bicycles loaded down with gunny sacks of coal along the Patna-Ranchi highway.

Mahesh’s driver told him the strange tale behind this unusual (and highly dangerous) traffic, and it is worth quoting in full.  “The story goes that many years ago, a couple of villagers tried to steal coal from the abandoned coal fields in Ramgarh, and were caught and reprimanded by the officials. A fight ensued over right to (scavenge the) coal between the villagers and the officials, until intervention by a senior official then. He proposed that the villagers could dig out coal from abandoned mines and take it with them, with one simple rule.

“Each person could only load as much coal as they can in one bicycle. The number of people who could take coal was also capped at a certain number. Thus began the journey of the coal men. It seemed a very attractive offer given their condition otherwise, and they saw a great opportunity to make decent money.” Mahesh, practical as ever, wanted to know how much the fellows earned, and was told that they stood to make Rs 200 per trip, after making all the suitable payments. For this little opportunity a group of 50 to 100 men cycle upto a hundred kilometres, and being covered in coal dust, easily run the risk of being run over by a speeding truck late at night.

The reason they do this is fairly simple: There are few other opportunities as good in the area. I would really like to know what freedom means to these men. I somehow doubt that they get to celebrate Independence Day. Every day off work would mean a loss of income, and maybe even the loss of the position they have to earn the money. Of course it might be even worse for them. Since Independence Day is a national holiday it is quite possible that they might not have any buyers on that day. In which case the only freedom that they will have is being freed from their income for a day, hardly cause for joy.

It is cases such as the bicycle coal men of Ramgarh that makes any Indian question where we have come to so many years after Independence. If this is the best opportunity that we can offer many of our countrymen then what was the use of freedom, especially to them? In the end was it all just a way to change the colour of skin of the ruling classes?

There are a lot of people who, looking on such a scene, would say just that. Except that that is only a part of the picture. Sometimes things are so big that you can’t see them. You have to step back, readjust your head, come up with new thinking, to accommodate an idea. Freedom is one of those things. A little while ago I was talking to my great aunt. She and my grandfather (her cousin) grew up together in Hyderabad where her father was the Chief Justice, but they would come back to visit their ancestral homes in UP. Her eyes twinkled at the memory as she said, “We would come from Hyderabad to India. That was what it was like in those days.” It was such a small sentence and yet I am still trying to understand the full import of what she said because I cannot imagine the reality that she knew.

To me Hyderabad is simply a city in India. I have always thought it to be so. Of course, I know that it was once a state, and even an independent princely state from British India, but that is academic knowledge. I cannot look at the map of India and see Hyderabad carved away. In our grandparents’ generation India inherited more than five hundred independent and unruly states with the challenge of making it into one large family, within which we would frequently bicker, but still hold together. And in our parents’ generation Indians managed to make that transition so thoroughly, that we, who have only come to the scene over the last two-three decades, cannot even imagine an option. The success has been so spectacular that it has become normal, and invisible; so remarkable that it goes by unremarked.

This is not the only success, and yet this second success is one that often comes with a bad name: Our large population. There are many parts to what this term means, and a lot of politics to be unpacked. (For example our population density or people per square kilometre, is equivalent to the Netherlands or Japan, and much less than that of South Korea or Taiwan, and yet you rarely hear of these countries as overpopulated. Maybe we just have many more poor people, so maybe we just have the wrong type of overpopulation?)

The half-full glass
But there is one unambiguous good. A child born in today’s independent India is liable to live at least twice as long as he or she would have before Independence. The child will, on the average, be more than thrice as likely to be literate. (Literacy rates rose from less than 18 percent at Independence to over 65 percent by 2001. The future looks even brighter, with more than 80 percent of the population aged between 15 and 24 years of age being literate.)

As more children are vaccinated, educated, provided health care and their mothers better looked after, our population was bound to grow. Take a look again at the many poor you see around you. These are your fellow citizens, and one of the reasons that they are even alive is because we have our freedom. This was one of the surprising things that came out of Amartya Sen’s research. He suggested that countries with responsive governments rarely suffer famines, and he should know since, as a nine-year-old, he was witness to the Bengal famine of 1943, in which up to three million people died, not because there was insufficient food, but because the government at the time was not ours.

In free India no such tragedy has occurred, even though hundreds, and even thousands, have died through incompetence, corruption, or simply stupidity. No matter how bad our politicians have been, they have always known that they were answerable to us, the citizens of a free country.

We don’t remark on the famines because they do not happen any longer, and so we cannot see our success. There is another thing that has disappeared, and again rather recently. Until the 60s, and even on into the early 70s, you could find matkas (pots) of water at the railway station. They would be ‘Hindu water’ and ‘Muslim water’ (if you were a Dalit, you were pretty much out of luck), and it was a very touchy subject if you drank from the wrong water vestibule.

This extended far beyond the railway stations, and when my father entered college he inadvertently drank the water from the wrong container and was reprimanded by the vice principal. When my father, who could not tell the differences between the matkas, asked the vice principal (who was a physics teacher, no less) what the difference was in the water, the vice principal would have none of it, insisting that this separation was necessary, and important, to people.

Luckily the vice principal was wrong, and more people have become unsure what the difference, or need of difference, there is between one matka of water and another. We are all just happy to get clean drinking water when we can, just that many people too poor don’t have that chance.

And that is important, because that access, or lack of access matters. All our successes does not, and should not, allow us to accept the face of poverty that we see before us. The other thing that Amartya Sen’s research turned up was that freedom has to mean something; that it has to allow us some capability to be truly meaningful, otherwise we are all coal-coated cyclists in the dark in fear of the truck hurtling out of the night.
What the cyclists on the road to Ramgarh will be thinking is hard to say, but I would be willing to gamble a significant sum that at least a few will have business ideas, others will want to invest a little in their children’s education, or maybe in a health check up to make sure their lungs are clean. At the least at least some of them will be thinking that reflectors, or a light, would make their journey safer, and maybe a small modification on their bicycles would lessen the weariness in their bones.

Whatever their thoughts, what they lack is the access to credit or some other assistance that would allow them to make these ideas into reality. What they lack, therefore, is freedom. Maybe this is why it is so important that people like Mahesh are able to spot the bicycle coal men of Ramgarh, or ask questions about what is happening, and tell the rest of us that we are free now, but not all of our countrymen are. Some of them are still trapped by chains of circumstance, of a lack of infrastructure and credit; imprisoned in a difficult life where their ideas are reduced to mere fantasies that benefit neither them nor us.

The great achievements of the Independence movement — some of them so great that we still struggle to understand them — were based on the understanding that the lack of freedom for our fellow citizens meant that we were all prisoners. There are many who believe that freedom has already been achieved, and yes, partially it has, and that freedom has given us many great things; a certain sense of self-respect not being the least of those. It is that same sense of self-respect, the happy glow of our freedom, the pride we take in our Independence that should make us ask ourselves whether that road is truly over.

Many people achieved greatness on the road to India’s freedom, and if challenges remain they come with the opportunity for greatness. It is my dearest hope that my generation too will provide its share of heroes to my nation. Happy Independence Day.
(Omair Ahmad is an author)

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