Hang in the balance

Omair Ahmad | Updated on June 25, 2020 Published on June 25, 2020

Between the lines: The fear of disease often overcomes the fear of dying of hunger and unemployment   -  REUTERS/ ADNAN ABIDI

People’s pandemic survival strategy abounds with unhappy choices

Like many people only lightly touched by the pandemic, and the resultant shutdown, we have been observers of a tragedy playing out across the country. We are neither perpetrators nor victims. It is, as we understand, a rare privilege to be so. Millions have lost jobs and livelihoods. As the number of infections among those tested continues to soar, the fear of the disease finds a strong competitor in the fear of hunger. The end result — which is a choice between this and that — involves a tricky balancing act.

Caught in our bubble of safety, we do what we can — helping with food, donating to NGOs, or just overtipping the people we now, very rarely, meet when we step out for supplies.

And then, a week ago, my wife came across a couple of youngsters asking for rations. She called up two friends who live nearby — Vivek and Ruchika — because they had expressed a wish to do a bit more in helping people in need. It turned out that these youngsters were part of a group living under a flyover, in a kind of a dwelling that is know as jhuggi jhopdi. A large number of people from the area had already left Delhi, piling into buses that they had managed to hire. The ones who couldn’t afford the buses were still under the flyover, without enough food and of course the means to reach their village in Uttar Pradesh.

When asked if they wanted rations or the money to go home, most of them voted for the latter option. While my wife was talking to the group, a turbaned man from the other side of the road started a discussion with Vivek. Possibly afraid of having more claimants to the offer of help, a person from the group tried to stop Vivek from speaking to the new entry: “He’s not one of us. Don’t listen to him. He’s Muslim...”

“I’m Muslim too,” my wife replied. “Do you want to take my help?”

Vivek, even more upset with the course the conversation had taken, protested: “Stop saying such things.”

My wife and I spoke about this afterwards, lightly, in the way you discuss matters that are hard to address. We did not think the remark was from a deep bias — it was perhaps expected from a group that is thinking of its own survival. Humans are selfish, and under difficult circumstances, even more so. The two of us decided there was no point dwelling on the issue. The people in question had been admonished. End of matter.

It wasn’t so simple for Vivek though. He mentioned it several times as we embarked on the long bureaucratic process of getting passes for the bus we had arranged for the ride to UP. The process is less time consuming than we’d assumed. It took about 15 minutes to match passenger names with IDs, a body temperature scan and preparing a list that needed a signature of the “officer sahib”. The problem lay somewhere else. Instead of sending in one list at a time for approval, the staff at the screening centre in Chhattarpur wanted to send a bunch. This led to a five-hour wait in the sweltering Delhi heat for us and the bus full of adults and children.

We fed them lunch, arranged for drinking water and tea, and, every half an hour, tried to cajole the staff working through the process to send our list in to the “officer sahib”. It did not work. In the meantime, one passenger seemed to suggest that if we hadn’t spent on the bus already, the group might even have reconsidered the idea of returning to the village. We told them they still had time to think over and they did, choosing to go with the original plan. It became clear that the fear of falling sick in Delhi was greater than being hungry and out of work in the village. It couldn’t have been an easy call.

Ironically, the very support we offered had created a distance that we found hard to bridge. Maybe granting the migrants their immediate wish was not the perfect approach, but what more could we do than ask and listen?

In the end though, the bus rolled out for the destination. Next morning, the driver informed us that the passengers were home.

A Muslim man in our colony had to go much further — Assam — to be home. We got him a train ticket, which he deposited in a mazar in the hopes of confirmation. His prayers were answered, and he went to the railway station with Vivek and my wife. He must have called us a dozen times on his train ride. It seems he, too, has reached.

Omair Ahmad   -  Business Line


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

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Published on June 25, 2020
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