Seventy-three years ago, on Aug. 15, 1947, at the stroke of the midnight hour, India gained independence after more than two centuries of colonial rule. Jawaharlal Nehru said that “India will awake to life and freedom,” but at the stroke of the midnight hour British India was divided into two countries – India and Pakistan. The partition led to extreme violence on both sides of the border. Thousands lost their lives, many were forced to leave their homes and possessions, and many were displaced and became refugees.
Sixty-nine years later, on the night of Nov. 8, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared demonetisation. Many people lost their earnings and businesses, many died while waiting in queues to withdraw money from banks, and scores of illiterate and poor people lost the hard-earned money that they had saved for a rainy day. The hurried move also resulted in unemployment and poverty.
More recently, the people of this country faced another dark night when on the night of March 24, 2020, Mr. Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. The lack of preparedness and support from government led to many people losing their jobs and earnings. Millions of desperate workers got stuck in cities without any job and were forced to walk long distances to their hometowns due to the absence of transportation. For these workers, reaching home proved to be a tough task, and many did not reach their destination as they met with accidents and endured other hardships like hunger and starvation.
One day, while I was waiting at the Dwarka Mor bus stand in Delhi to catch a bus for home, an e-rickshawala approached me to hire his rickshaw. I told him that I don’t need the e-rickshaw as I was planning to take the bus. When he pleaded with me to hire his service, I felt pity for him and started talking with him. In the ensuing conversation, he opened up about himself and said, “My name is Ram Prasad. I am a tailor by profession and was working in a big cloth factory. Slowly I learned the tricks of the trade and started my own business of stitching and selling readymade clothes to small shop owners. As the business grew, I hired two-three helping hands. The business was running well and I was living a comfortable life with my wife Renu and two young children, Ankit and Basanti.
Then came demonetization as a bolt from the blue. My business was based on cash transactions. I didn’t know anything about bank account, cheque transactions and other modes of payments. And because I did not have cash in hand I could not buy materials to continue with production. I closed down my business and sent away my employees and even sold my two tailoring machines to feed my hungry children. I then took to running a rented e-rickshaw in order to earn a living and survive in the city. But I am earning hardly anything ever since Delhi government declared free bus rides for women.” Our conversation was cut short by the arrival of the bus.
A few months later, as I was walking back from grocery store, a cycle-rickshaw puller pleaded with me to hire his rickshaw. I did not bother at first as my house was at walking distance and also due to the fear of coronavirus infection. When I refused to take the rickshaw, his eyes fell on the loaf of bread I was carrying. He requested me if I could spare that loaf of bread. It is then that I took a closer look at him and realised it was the same man Ram Prasad whom I met a few months ago at Dwarka Mor. He looked malnourished and was wearing torn and shabby clothes. My heart was throbbing to know what had happened to him and so I asked, “Is your name Ram Prasad?”
“Yes ma’am, my name is Ram Prasad. How do you know me?” he replied.
“I met you a few months back at Dwarka Mor and you were driving an e-rickshaw. You had told me your whole story back then,” I said.
Ram Prasad then told me more about his life and how he reached that situation: “As I was struggling to make both ends meet by driving the e-rickshaw, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced nationwide lockdown, due to which that small source of income also disappeared. It completely devastated my life and I realised my stars are falling one by one. Since I had absolutely no means of income to feed my family, I decided to go back to my village with my family. Cursing my destiny, since there was no means of transportation during lockdown, I was forced to walk back home with my family carrying my little belongings. “I stayed in my village with my relatives for a few days. I realized they too were struggling to make both ends meet and couldn’t feed my family for long. I searched for work but could not find any. So when lockdown was relaxed I decided to come back to the city. For me and my family, it was a question of survival or death. I looked for an e-rickshaw but the deposit amount for taking it on rent was Rs. 2,000. So I took an old cycle rickshaw from my friend and started peddling it around to get some money to feed my hungry children. Today, the whole day I waited for customers but because of the restrictions and the fear of coronavirus, nobody wants to hire cycle rickshaws. That is why I pleaded with you to hire my cycle rickshaw. Since you refused to take the rickshaw, seeing the bread in your hand I asked for it because the picture of my starving children came clearly in my mind. These are my darker nights and all my stars have fallen down one by one.”
Hearing his heart-wrenching experience, I gave him the loaf of bread and some money. I could see a pale smile on his face and he thanked me and peddled away.
I could not sleep that night thinking about the bitter experiences and tragedies in Ram Prasad’s life. The world is just too cruel for him and his family. I also realized that I have no reason to complain when I lack little comforts in my life.
As per an Oxfam study released in 2019, India's top 10% of the population holds 77.4% of the total national wealth. While the poor struggle to pay for their next meal, the top 1% holds 51.53% of the national wealth. Only 4.8% of the national wealth is at the disposal of the bottom 60%. This is the state of affairs in our country even after 73 years of independence.
According to the latest reports by Credit Suisse, there are 46.8 million millionaires in the world. In fact, India added 7,300 millionaires in 2017-18 to take the number of millionaires in the country to over 3.43 lakhs. On the other hand, over 20 crore Indians go to sleep hungry every night, 7,000 Indians die of hunger every day and 25 lakh die of it every year. These are people whose dreams, hopes and aspirations have got shattered by social inequality. We are living in a world of injustice, inequality and impoverishment and Covid-19 has taught us to reflect on these distressing and unpleasant realities of life.(Published on 20th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 30)