Why I’m afraid for my land

Omair Ahmad | Updated on October 16, 2020

C/o destiny: We may have clawed out of the extreme poverty that colonial rule left us in, yet the filthy streets the poor call home cannot be overlooked   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Where are the leaders who can nudge us towards a future where children have something more to delight in than dirt?

About a week ago, walking through the narrow alleyways of Gorakhpur I came upon three children playing. The joy of children at play is a common enough sight. What was different here was the poverty in which they played. One of them scooped up dirt and gravel from a pothole in the road — more pothole than road — and threw it up in the air with a delighted cry of “Holi hai!” as the others, too, cried out in happiness.

The sight broke my heart. It was not Holi or any time near it, and yet this is all the children had to play with, in the broken streets of my hometown. Furthermore, I saw little that promised a better future for them, not in the image of the dog sitting in a drain of black water, not in the electricity cables hanging like decayed cobwebs over the streets, not in the crumbling houses that surrounded the street.

Every time I go home, to my corner of Uttar Pradesh, I am seething with a rage that I cannot control, short-tempered and incapable of doing the simplest of tasks. As a schoolchild I read in a book that anger is often born out of fear, and if we recognise our fears and control them, our rage, too, will go away. This seemed to make sense to me, and so I try to understand the fears that move me to anger.

Those children are my fear; those streets, they are my guilt and my crime, for which I have little in the way of an answer. I fear that every time I return, things will have changed little, or not at all, and that all my actions in the world will have little consequence for the good of the place I call my own.

I am not one of those who believe that nothing good has happened since we gained freedom. We know our economy has expanded manifold, we know that Indians, or people of Indian origin, can be found at every level of power across the world. Nor is this change only for a handful. The literacy rates, however weak the education system, the extended lifespans, the lowered mortality rates, all stand testimony to the fact that, overall, Indians have clawed themselves from the extreme poverty and deprivation that colonial rule had left us in. Simple things, such as not seeing children afflicted by polio, are a change I have seen in my own lifetime.

All of these things I know, but I cannot overlook the filth on the streets, the ribs showing under the skin of a man on a cycle rickshaw as he pulls his passenger along for an amount which I would leave as a tip for a cup of coffee in Delhi.

A year or so ago I was attending a leadership conference in Berlin. They had us break off into pairs, and do a walk-and-talk. For the first eight or 10 minutes one person would speak while the other listened, not saying anything, and then the other would speak while the first listened. I was paired with a woman who was doing her PhD on how climate change affects marginalised communities in parts of southwestern US. She said she was not sure what she was doing there, and whether she could properly call herself a “leader”, and had doubts about how her work fit in to what the rest of us were doing.

By the time she finished I was barely holding on to my promise not to interrupt her. Everything she said seemed to ring true for me as well. In an essay, former US president Richard Nixon wrote that a leader is somebody who has followers. This may seem all-too-obvious, and yet it hides a deeper truth.

Anybody with aspirations of leadership is representing some people; without engaging that community no change is truly possible.

This, I think, is my deepest fear for the land I call my own — that these people are spoken about, spoken to, but never listened to; no leader actually hears them, sees their needs. Many of those with marketable skills leave, others who have achieved some level of prosperity, close in on themselves — the wealth and opportunity kept behind closed doors.

How then will the roads be paved, how then will the drains run clean? How then will we imagine a future where children have something more to delight in than dirt? These are the fears I have, and cannot master.


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 October 16, 2020
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