The nowhere people

The nowhere people

Representative image. Credit: AFP Photo

Finally, the lockdown, that was put in place in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic was eased out gradually. The city sprouted back into action. People began reclaiming public spaces.

Shanti, my house help, showed up to collect her dues and explore her future employment prospects. Sharing a six by six feet shanty with her unemployed husband and her youngest son who held irregular jobs in the unorganised sector, she used a public toilet. I gave her her three-month salary and politely turned her away. Maids have been the hardest hit, employers are apprehensive about letting them into their homes, understandably so.

“I am coming to Delhi,” he said when he called me. “Don’t come, there’s a disease spreading here,” my husband had warned him. He came anyway, caught between a livelihood here and hunger and starvation back home. Bashisht, a small-time contractor did bricklaying work in cities. He landed at my doorstep to collect his tools lying with me. Soon, after the janta curfew was announced, I haven’t heard from him since. He is, probably, was one of many migrants homeward bound, nursing anguished hearts, blistered soles, on empty stomachs with little hope, eerily reminiscent of the mass exodus during Partition.

Some succumbed on the way, others made it, somehow, after the arduous journey to a cold reception. The nowhere people, disowned by the cities, their karmabhoomi, and were not welcome in their villages, their janmabhoomi. A few monsoons back, “the sorrow of Bihar”, the Kosi river was in spate, submerging Bashisht’s dwelling in his village. He rushed back with “loans” from his regular patrons. A paltry few thousands we gave him was never repaid, evoking a sense of déjà vu.

“Farming is not an option anymore,” stated Shanti, a small landholder from Aligarh. “Crops fail due to inclement weather. Everything’s destroyed but for mounting debts. Here, we are assured of a fixed income,” she articulated.

“Urban poverty is an artificial construct,” disparages my son, training to be an environmental scientist. And it suits us fine, cheap labour at exploitative rates. Our developmental model is top-heavy, not sustainable, bound to collapse. It needs to be bottom-heavy, with a robust rural economy where agriculture, allied activities and traditional crafts are viable. To quote the Mahatma, “Whenever you are in doubt, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest, the weakest man you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him… you will find your doubts melt away.” Let’s walk the talk, for once.