[avatar user=”meihouba” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]PRADIP PHANJOUBAM[/avatar]
There is an interesting comparison between two literary giants of 19th Century England. They were contemporaries but not exactly known for being kind in their criticisms of each other – the great Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, but it is their portrayal of poverty at the onset of the industrial age, “the best of times and the worst of times” in the words of the former, which has a curious echo in the way India has been handling the extended lockdown in this country of 1.3 billion which began on March 25 and was scheduled to end on April 15, but has since been extended to May 3 in its battle against COVID-19, which has been spreading its terror across the globe in the last few months. The general consensus is, Dickens who grew up in abject poverty understood the depth of the dehumanising indignity of poverty intuitively unlike Thackeray, incidentally born in India, who is described as coming of a well-established middleclass stock. For Dickens, poverty was a lived experience and is represented not only by a spectre of homelessness, destitution and hunger, but the helpless despair that this predicament may prove to be fate’s prison. For Thackeray on the other hand, poverty was more akin to living on credit for some time, never in doubt that this is only a passing phase. Hence, Dickens’ Nancy in “Oliver Twist” and Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in “Vanity Fair”, are completely different portrayals of poverty, and response to poverty, to take just two prominent fictional characters of the two novelists.
This closer look at two different understandings of poverty perhaps can throw light on the seeming faults in attitude to poverty by the political leadership both at the Centre and in Manipur in the wake of the fight against COVID-19. The appeal for people to be kind to the poor, help them during these times of common hardship and confinement at home etc., betrays the same attitude to poverty that Thackeray is charged with, for the matter is not treated as a life and death question, but a temporary misfortune which the poor too must endeavour to bear as a sacrifice for the greater common good of the nation. As to how far this idealised vision of the misery is accurate is there for everyone to see in the manner migrant workers in the metropolises of India have been coming out in hordes from their rented shacks, breaking curfews and even proceeding to walk home to their native villages and towns several hundred kilometres away.
The first time this happened was when a 21-day nationwide lockdown was announced with just four hour notice on March 24, and then again on April 14, when an extension till May 3 of the lockdown was announced. That a great many share this same understanding of poverty is seen in the many trolls taking to the social media platforms to term this as public indiscipline born of illiteracy. This is rather incredible for it ought to have been obvious that for these fleeing migrants, it is the Dickensian sense of doom they were running away from. The lockdowns have deprived them of their jobs and livelihood means putting them into immense difficulties in the alien cities where they now live in cheap and congested rented accommodations in slums, sometimes several of them sharing a single room. Not only this, in these uncertain times, they have no guarantee at all if the day jobs they were engaged in will be there for them when the lockdown ends. That they broke curfew several times at several cities, blindly scrambling to find any straw to hold on to, is a measure of this despair.
Not only from the moralistic point of view of helping those in difficulty and despair, this failure to understand and empathise with this despair by those at the helm of political power can result in serious compromises of strategy to prevent and contain this pandemic. If any of those in the crowds of migrant labourers which broke curfew had the virus, it is only imaginable how many more could have become infected, and if they managed to disperse to their native villages, it is a foregone conclusion how impossible contact tracking to keep the virus pinned down would become. We do hope this has not happened already.
In Manipur, the conceptualisation of poverty by the administration has not been much different either. The persistent message has been this lockdown is for everybody’s good and all must bear it out together. As everywhere else, it is true there is no better way to fight this virus than for people not to come in contact with it, therefore the importance of lockdowns. This will be at least till a preventive or curative vaccine is found. However, to ensure complete compliance to these lockdowns, the administration needs to understand the reason that may compel people come out of their homes. Few or nobody would ever want to die or kill. If despite the possibility of causing either of these consequences, there are people still coming out, it would have to mean there are other more compelling reasons to do so. One of these, as we have said, is the fear of starvation. This is the reason why the administration needs to see poverty from the Dickensian vantage, and factor in measures to mitigate this dread amongst those who have little savings or adequate stored food to last out the lockdown.
As a way forward, just as a crowd-funded CM Relief Fund was set up to meet COVID emergency, perhaps the upper echelon of the protected government services could also be made to take a pay cut, and from this fund, vulnerable families can be given Rs. 5000 to Rs.10,000 for every month the lockdown is extended as survival cash. The higher salary Grade-1 and 2 employees for instance could be made to take a 30 percent and 20 percent pay cuts respectively for the purpose for the next few months. Minsters and MLAs could be clubbed with Grade-1 category. If this were to be so, in all likelihood the lockdowns will be much more successful, besides saving misery to thousands. In the meantime, as we have written earlier, once the picture of the presence of the virus in our midst has been mapped successfully during the lockdown, a calibrated restriction placed on suspected clusters must replace this total shutdown so that the economy, and jobs in the informal sector, are not damaged irreversibly.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author