The newspapers in Mumbai carried a shocking story under the headline ‘The State is out of lives” a couple of years ago. It was about one Mhatre, an ailing pensioner, getting his gangrenous foot amputated by a Mumbai local train after discovering that it could not be removed for less than Rs. 15,000, the amount demanded by a Mumbai hospital. In another incident, newspapers were splashed with pictures of a youth in Lucknow burning himself to death as policemen looked on. He had reportedly been harassed by police. A third was equally pathetic: four persons stood holding chador around a pregnant woman who had to deliver the child on pavement outside a government hospital in Kolar (Karnataka). The poor village woman had been denied the privacy of the hospital merely because she could not cough up a bribe amount of Rs. 500 being demanded by the lady doctor.
The three episodes betray how distant the administration has grown from the people, notwithstanding the sanctimonious posturing of the Constitution. One only wonders if liberalization and crass pursuit of elite goals is alienating the masses from the state.
“No wait at the bus stops, own your automobile.” Advertisements such as these had enticed the commuters in Indian cities into acquiring two or four wheelers all through the 90s. Today narrow roads of our cities lie choked, full of automobiles. Everyone who sought short cut to freedom ‘from exasperating wait’ for public buses continues to mutter curses. The target of curse is not the urban transport bodies. It’s city’s narrow roads and perhaps the city fathers. And there is no escape from the wait. It has merely shifted from the sidewalks and the bus shelters to the middle of a roads, amid acrid fumes, heat and noxious yells from behind. As for the auto-makers and dealers, they have discovered new slogans. Moral: The liberalization can put cars under millions of hands, but cannot add an inch of road space. While Europe has banished cars from core of its cities and refurbished its public transport, we have political parties who promise abolition of parking fee during civic elections.
It is not only automobiles that are being foisted on hapless consumers. A wide range of products have stealthily crept into their lives. For instance, municipal authority’s failure in fumigating the mosquito hatcheries have spawned an industry of repellents and coils.
Deficient water supply is providing the opportunity for our being seduced by dealers of private borewells, sumps, overhead tanks and in poorer households, a bevy of pots, pans, jars and drums. And if all these do not help, mushrooming trade in ‘potable’ water which is costlier than milk sold by the State dairies. Water filters and laser purifiers are the latest acquisitions flaunted by the housewives. Voltage fluctuations made us buy remedies in stabilizers. Poor coaching at Government schools has led to brisk sale of guides, keys to textbooks, guess papers, and if all these fail, tutorial classes. A callous police and emboldened criminals have resulted in homes and establishments getting swamped with safety gizmos and phone locks. The poor thieves have to be content with the unprotected homes of the less privileged.
Our snail paced mail has yielded place for umpteen number of courier companies, each more unreliable than the other. A sneaking fear is if postmen are regularly bribed by courier companies to cause delays.
These neo consumer durables are products of scarcity. Scarcity borne out of the state’s inability to provide for people’s basic amenities. The State and the rich have effectively seceded from the masses. The emails, couriers and flyovers do ensure privacy, security, speed and efficiency – the mantras of globalization. But the poor have to be content with snail mails, unsanitary dhabas, overloaded passenger trains and if extremely lucky Sulabh toilets.
The appetite for private comforts is constantly whetted by the liberalized media. So people cannot wait. Nor will the eager entrepreneur. As the public transport vanished, the auto makers stepped into the arena. When notoriously functioning state power boards ran out of power, gensets and inverter sellers made hay in the reigning darkness. As potable water quality deteriorated, filter makers came with the promise of aqua pura. An American friend visiting an Indian home wondered if an average Indian city dweller is so ever ready to face a war, studded as they are with the bewildering array of emergency gadgets. It did not take him long to sober down. Some sessions of power cut, a few mosquito bites and a bout of diarrhoea did enough to convince him that all those gadgets were merely supplementary aids for a scarcity ridden economy.
But an industry churning out repellents, stabilizers, or water filters certainly cannot be making positive contribution to the economy. Even if it does, it will include the tale of social and economic disparity where the poor have no stake in the State and the system. This substitute consumerism gives the rich the capacity to manipulate equitable distribution of resources.
Far from symbols of middle class tendency to splurge, all these symbolize the Indian state’s exit from the life of its citizens. The elite and the middle classes who opt for substitutes buy fake satisfaction. Even most US homes are devoid of these standby gizmos, something that speaks of dependability of the infrastructural base of those societies.
Owning a car may lend an individual independence and mobility. But it does create a mess on the streets. A genset may occasionally lend relief from darkness or heat but in our congested localities it spews fumes, noise and death. A sump merely lends our homes a storage advantage over the neighbour. Imagine how many flasks have to accompany the lakhs of school kids in our metros merely because the metro water is suspected for its potability. Those inverters and power charging batteries constitute a drag on the power system and in longer run ensure longer power cuts.
Now health care in glitzy hospitals does not start with a trained medical practitioner and a sick person but with an investor in search of a more expensive medical technology. Then why wonder if a poor Mumbaikar applies for grotesque surgery under a local train.
The questions that arise are: Does the State really care for the poor? Has Indian State’s agenda changed insofar as the Government shuns its basic duty of ensuring security of life, limbs, property and honour of all? Can the State abdicate its basic duty of ensuring social, economic and political justice? Is it not immoral for a State to invest all its energy, imagination and ingenuity in finding ways to make it easier for a few businessmen and buccaneers to prosper while the common man seeks solace in a Mumbai local?