It is said that we find out about the character of a person in the most challenging times. The same applies to nations as well. As we battle with the COVID-19 pandemic in India, the challenges we are facing have revealed our character.
It has revealed a lot about our character as a citizenry. There have been inspiring tales of volunteers helping the stranded migrant workers. It has also shown our propensity to believe in rumours when we have demonised entire communities because of the actions of a few. We have also shown ourselves to be science-averse when we have refused to give a dignified burial to doctors who died of COVID-19. Yet, on the other hand, we have individually and collectively applauded those at the frontlines fighting this disease.
But beyond what we, as people, are; systemic ills have also shone through during this pandemic.
These lacunae have always been present but the pandemic has thrown these problems into sharp relief. It has also crystallised why eradicating these problems is so vital for our collective good because when one link of a chain is weak, it can be fatal. Despite many progresses we have made over the decades since independence, we are far behind when it comes to these cardinal flaws: caste-based discrimination, inequality for women, endemic poverty and religious persecution.
During normal times, in the comfort of our lives, it may have been easy to sweep them under the carpet and therefore we might have ignored them. But, now we find ourselves in a situation where our homes have become prisons and we cannot escape them till the situation becomes normal. Normalcy cannot return till all hotspots are under control but we find that many of the hotspots mirror the areas which are the poorest or most gendered or most religiously segregated or most segregated based on caste, often all of them together. In this article, we will attempt to look at some of these areas across India, now that they are under the spotlight due to the pandemic. We will also see how this is a golden opportunity to use this pandemic as a tool to alleviate some of the problems these communities have faced over the years.
Caste – Valmiki People and Manual Scavenging
Ever since the spectre of coronavirus befell the earth, a constant refrain has been that of cleanliness. Facebook streams are filled with World Health Organisation guidelines about wearing masks and we are constantly inundated with advertisements on television on the benefit of washing hands. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to forget that wearing protective gear and having soaps are luxuries that many people cannot afford. This disparity is thrown into sharp focus along caste lines.
Manual scavenging is forbidden by law in India. Yet, the practice is widespread and widely reported. In fact, in his wisdom, our current Prime Minister considers it a spiritual experience. But, in reality, the activity is anything but transcendent. It involves going into open sewers and latrines and collecting human and biological waste using bare hands. Needless to say, it is a very degrading experience and it is reserved traditionally for one of the lowest sub-castes of our country: the Valmiki caste. Recently, the television show ‘Ramayana’ has been in the news for having become the most-watched show on this planet. We have found great solace in the tales of Rishi Valmiki, yet we have forgotten about those of his caste who purportedly carry on his traditions.
It should come as no surprise to anyone to know or note that these manual scavengers are at heightened risk of the novel coronavirus. Constant exposure to waste, many of them from around hospitals and houses where the virus has already been detected cannot be safe for anybody. Considering that they seem to be at the bottom of the society’s consciousness due to our prevailing disregard for those at the lower rung of our hereditary caste system, they remain at a considerable disadvantage. Testing specifically for them is inadequate. Personal protective equipment (PPE) has not been provided to them. Medicines and nutritious food is often not available to them. While some NGOs are working towards addressing these issues, these need to be addressed at a national level to have the desired effect.
In addition, the very jobs they are employed in have also reduced due to less solid waste generation as the economy has virtually come to a standstill. They find themselves at the dual quandary of either doing the job that is perhaps most dangerous in this environment or not having a job at all to feed themselves and their families. Considering the exposure these people are facing to the virus and that they travel home to home to do their job, their plight is ours, because till they are completely protected, we remain at risk. This should, therefore, be a golden time to provide PPE and health benefits to these workers, so that in the future as well, nobody has to toil in such appalling work conditions.
Misogyny – The Sex Workers of Sonagachi
Every year before the annual celebration of Durga Puja in West Bengal, those making the idols visit Sonagachi to get a handful of soil. The soil is considered to be pure and is the seed for making any Durga idol. However, such lofty symbolisms belie the ground reality of the area which is the oldest and largest red-light area in Asia.
Indian attitude towards sex workers is rooted in misogyny. No one from the upscale localities of a city would want to be caught dead in areas like this. The common belief is that these ‘prostitutes’ have sold their body to earn money and therefore everything that visits them is just. But the reasons these people engage in sex work are mainly three: poverty, extortion or trafficking. Often, much like caste-based discrimination, sex work is hereditary as the children of sex workers struggle to get a formal education. Some of them who are forced into this profession are blackmailed or coerced and have no mechanisms to fight back against such acts. Trafficking is both internal and external in India. Women are often befriended by men and then sold. Even if these women later escape, due to our prevalent attitudes regarding female virginity, they are generally unable to return to their families. Minors are often kidnapped and then sold off to this profession.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, they are at an increased risk. The first risk comes due to the nature of the brothels in Sonagachi. These are often multi-storied buildings, where multiple sex workers work and stay together. Social distancing is nearly impossible in such a situation. Secondly, these workers pay rent to stay in and use these buildings. With the lockdown, their earnings are down to nought and they are not able to pay it. Furthermore, the job they do entails intimacy. The spread of the coronavirus through human contact and closeness naturally makes the very act of engaging in sex a non-starter in many instances, thereby robbing these sex workers of their livelihoods even after the lockdown ends.
The solution has to be rooted in the models seen in Europe where each sex worker is given an identity to perform so that she does not have to work in the shadows. A great idea, in this writer’s opinion, is to have a voter registration drive across the red-light areas in India to bring these sex-workers on to the electoral rolls and simultaneously establish an identity with which they can approach civil institutions for their grievances. We also have to follow the methods used successfully in controlling the spread of HIV in these areas before by asking clients to wear condoms and refusing service to the non-compliant customers. Similarly, in this situation usage of sanitizers and maintenance of general hygiene would have to be made compulsory. Coming out of the pandemic, therefore, the sex workers can become much more involved in society through having recognised identities and they will be much safer for insisting on better hygiene practices from their customers.
Poverty – The Slums and Villages of Delhi
Bhalswa village is the largest slum in New Delhi and India’s second-largest and most densely populated after Dharavi in Mumbai. When the metro came to Jahangirpuri area, this village was promised development. Instead, they got relocated and now their lives are spent in the shadow of a garbage dump where 22,000 tonnes of waste is disposed every single day. More than two lakh people call this village home.
Many people in these slums come from outside the city. The pictures of migrants who we have seen on national newspapers hurrying back home often live in areas like this. On understanding the ground realities here, we begin to fathom why so many of these people decided to not stay put and go back to their native places instead, even if they had to walk thousands of miles in the process. Those who stay here often do not have ration cards because to be eligible for ration cards they need to be a resident of that state. Without ration cards, getting basic food items is tough even though the Delhi state government has tried to relax that requirement during the pandemic. According to the International Labour Organisation, workers here make INR 140-450/day, which is barely sufficient for anyone to have kept a food stock for emergencies. This has also meant a lot of people who live here are malnourished and have compromised immunity.
In addition, the jobs are gone and they are stuck in unsanitary conditions. In a normal year, 50-100 people die of water-borne diseases. In this pandemic, the chance of death, therefore, increases exponentially. A case of how severe the situation is can be estimated by the example of one lady whose husband tested positive for this novel coronavirus. She ran back and forth between multiple hospitals and quarantine centres and was denied admission due to technicalities, with one centre flatly asking them to talk to someone “big” to be admitted. Finally, a video recorded by them asking for help was put by their lawyer on social media, which then caught the attention of a local legislator before the issue was resolved. But, what remains worrying is even at the time of reporting the lady and their children were yet to be tested. They may already have become asymptomatic carriers without anyone being any wiser to it.
Therefore, the government must step in immediately and make the landfill underground with recycling and biomass facilities. It removes an eyesore for the future as well. The extra land area can be used to spread the entire village and the local development authorities can be used to build homes for them which are not so congested, are clean and are vertically spread. Modern plumbing and water supply can be put in there so that the chances of future water-borne diseases and other contagions reduce as well. The question is often asked about the cost of such projects. But, considering that the Delhi state government is giving free electricity and water to rich people as well, it might be a good idea to make those utilities free only for those houses which use below a certain threshold per person and those savings used to develop the poor instead of subsidising the rich. The benefit of such development, as we are seeing during this pandemic, would benefit not only those who live in these slums but the wider society irrespective of wealth.
Religion – Sealdah to Park Circus Stretch
Entering into the fifth week of the national lockdown in India, when the novel coronavirus cases would have been expected to subside, police and civic authorities of Kolkata reported that a particular area of concern was turning out to be the belt between Sealdah railway station and Park Circus. Now, those who are unfamiliar with the geography of Kolkata, such names might not stir anything in particular. But, those who are aware of the layout of the city would immediately find names such as Maula Ali, Entally, Beniapukur and Park Circus, which are areas of the significant Muslim population in the city.
Civic and social amenities are often lacking in these parts as compared to the Hindu majority areas of the city. While there was always segregation in cities earlier as well, the sharp contours based on religion have come about in the last few decades as communal riots became a sporadic feature of the Indian existence. Issues such as the Babri Masjid demolition and the 2002 riots in Gujarat led many middle-class Muslims choosing to move from middle-class Hindu localities and into areas which already had significant Muslim population, which gave them a sense of protection. This, in turn, created a crunch of space in those areas which is not evidenced in Hindu majority areas.
For many Muslims living side by side, the existences run in parallel and never intersect. Many upper and middle-class Muslims are afraid to let their children play with children from nearby slums and instead opt to enrol them in school sports programmes and other structured activities away from their locality. But the underlying scarcity of space endures. This congestion has led to these areas becoming potential hotspots for the COVID-19 pandemic, cutting across economic lines of an area dominated by a particular religion.
Segments of the Muslim population have been targeted by fake news during this pandemic by communal forces both within and outside traditional media sources. But even after such news articles have been debunked, the desired effect of generating ill-will towards the Muslim minority has been achieved. It would be no surprise to see further migration of Muslims in Hindu majority areas to Muslim majority areas once this pandemic is over, thereby further increasing the density of those areas and leaving them even more vulnerable to a second surge of this virus or the next pandemic.
The solution for this is also simple in that firstly the tone of our politics needs to be dialled down and away from communal discussions. Simultaneously, suburbs that are being developed now need to be pan-religious in nature. That means creating multi-faith prayer halls in apartments, like in airports and prohibition of single faith structures within compounds. Also, planning permissions need to be given to all religious buildings like Temples, Mosques, Churches, Gurdwara, Synagogues, etc. in a project being newly developed, if not equally, at least proportionally. We often refer to India as a multi-religious country; our new cities and spaces being developed must reflect that reality.