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Poornima Joshi

Urban avalanche redux

Poornima Joshi | Updated on April 15, 2020 Published on April 02, 2020

Surviving Self-Distancing-Day 4

In a world turned upside down, the urban avalanche that shifted the epicentre of urbanisation from Latin America to India in the past few decades is reversing in a matter of a week. One doesn’t know when we will have the decennial Census exercise but it would certainly have a very different story to tell as an unaccounted number of daily wagers and contractual workers are on the move in what reporters and photographers on the field describe as the second biggest and sudden population shift since the Partition. Since the declaration of a national lockdown by the PM, poignant images of children, men, women walking thousands of kilometres on foot to their homes in small towns and villages.

“At least we will have food to eat even if we get the disease,” a woman walking back to Mainpuri, 350 kilometres from Delhi, told a friend who has been tracking the reverse tide since Day 1 of the lockdown. The urban poor do not have the liquidity to survive 21 days without getting paid. This simple reality somehow escaped the planners of the lockdown. Nothing describes the character of our ruling class better than a comment put out on twitter by former BJP MP and commentator at large Balbit Punj. “Why (sic) migrants leaving Delhi? For want of money or food? NO. Just irresponsible. There is no money/ jobs waiting for them back home. It’s to utilise their forced ‘chutti’ to catch up with their families or errands back home. Gravity of situation hasn’t dawned on them,” Punj tweeted.

If this doesn’t repel decency, I don’t know what else will. But this is a class that thrives on the endless stoicism and fatalism of our people. You can cause havoc in ordinary people’s lives without any political repercussions as we saw in demonetisation. In one stroke, a sudden reversal has been caused of the phenomenon comprehensively enumerated in 2011 Census that detailed the creation of as many as 2800 new urban centres with slum-like infrastructure around cities like Delhi which grew into global business hubs. Migration to the cities has coincided with the transformation of character of Indian economy in the last three decades which saw a rapid decline in the agricultural sector without the emergence of manufacturing like China or any other economic structure geared towards alternative job creation for the masses. This is the reality of the process of globalization that smashed the self-sustaining and sustainable character of villages and small towns such as the one some of us grew up in. A pandemic has now smashed the new reality and no one knows when or whether we will recover from this.

The lot of educated migrants such as myself is so vastly different from the working class that I am almost embarrassed by my little fears and anxieties. We’ll all survive this, a little poorer and battle-scarred perhaps but people like us will get through this. For the majority of our urban poor, however, life would have changed drastically. No one has a clear idea about how the contagion will spread when vast masses are walking together for weeks together. What is clear is that they have never mattered and they continue to not matter. If the disease spreads, we are definitely not testing enough and know enough in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to tell how many of our rural poor and working class will suffer. There are only theories but in the absence of concrete action, one can only depend on the cruel Indian summer to stop the contagion and hope that our poor have better herd immunity than those in the West. This is a terrible, terrible time.

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Published on April 02, 2020
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