Bamboo screens can't hide the unpleasant truth


Is there anything called a national psychology or a nation’s collective psychology on the lines of an individual’s psychology or even a mob psychology? I think there is. And it is not very different from that of an individual. As a nation, we are not very honest. That is not to say we are dishonest.

But we do think it is okay to play around with truth much like the lawyers do, without tampering with it. Therefore, we have this brilliant idea that while we showcase the ‘new India’ by hosting mega events like the Commonwealth Games (in October 2010), we don’t want to expose its underbelly of poverty, disease, slums, hunger and deprivation. Therefore, we simply hide it.

Put up a wall, high enough to keep it out of sight of the visitors. Yet, the wall should
not only hide the truth but also make a statement of its Indianness. So we put up huge bamboo screens along the route to cut off the ugly sights of Delhi, namely, its slums.
I am sure the brilliant Indians who have thought of this idea want the bamboo screens to be ready and installed much ahead of the event, lest the visitors chance upon the ill-clad, obviously poor men and women who weave poetry with the cane. Their art work is beautiful but not their struggle which is ugly, unbearable to look at.

A similar solution was implemented in Hyderabad when Bill Clinton, then president of USA, came to see the emerging software capital of India in 2000. Since poverty is nothing to be proud of while the booming software industry is, the two cannot co-exist, can they? In a first-of-its-kind operation, the city police rounded up a few thousand beggars and transported them in lorries like cattle and dumped them in distant Adilabad town at the northern-most tip of the state, about 300 km away.

Clinton was spared of the sight of sores on the body of a surging India. As for the beggars, they returned to the city but for some, especially the old and the infirm, it took 3 to 6 months to make that journey back from Adilabad to Hyderabad. No pangs of guilt were felt by the corruption-ridden hearts of the bureaucrats who authored the cruel mission.

This is where the national psychology comes into question. As Indians we are ashamed of our poverty, as we should be. But instead of the shame moving us to solve it, we would rather put a purdah on it so that it does not disturb us. We do not want to be associated with it. We want to disown it.

Example from the US

It was much in the same manner that Joseph Kennedy, father of John F Kennedy, did to his mentally handicapped daughter Rosemary. She was not counted in the famous Kennedy family; she was kept away from public eye of the very publicity-conscious family. She was the weak link, an embarrassment who did not fit in with the powerful, beautiful, ambitious, achieving family which personified all that was desirable, all that epitomised America.

In any case, our slums, our poor, our half-naked children are always very publicly visible round the year, even before the Oscar-winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ showcased them to the audience worldwide. By hiding our slums, will the perception of India as a country of starving, ill-clad, disease-afflicted millions, change? Perceptions will change only when the reality changes.

This will happen only when we acknowledge the reality of poverty and that it needs to be changed for the better, own up the problem as belonging to all of us and... this is the most difficult part, take responsibility to end it. Sure, it is the responsibility of the state since it’s there to ensure everybody’s welfare and not just of the privileged us, the urban middleclass. But as citizens we need to guide the state on the right way forward which is to act to reduce poverty, replace slums with houses, restore dignity to the people in tatters. The way forward is certainly not to barricade the truth of India, which is its poor.

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