By Ayesha Talreja
My role model is a 12-year-old girl named Ananya.
Perhaps she doesn’t realize how resilient she is, even though life keeps throwing hurdle after hurdle at her, at her family, at her mother – a young woman a few years older than I, managing a house of three girls and one husband – no easy task for anyone, let alone one living in a small, ground floor room in one of the many slums that dot Mumbai.
Ananya, like many other students in my classroom, has a powerful inner strength. But in many ways, she is different than the others. There is something about her that reveals itself when she quietly decides what she wants: not just in accepting the cards that she has been dealt, but also in the ways in which she fights.
When her mother and younger sister were recently ill, not only did Ananya spend all day caring for them, sometimes being unable to attend school, but making sure her homework was completed by checking with her neighbourhood classmates. Her own personal family dynamics are messy, yet she does not let those complications come in the way of her compassion for those around her, even if they’re quite clearly at fault, always shines brightly whether it is in the empathy and care for her friends or when she prefers to give them the spotlight instead of accepting praise herself. I often remember her excited face as she runs up to show me the latest origami that she’s made, or display her newest hairstyle, or her nervous but poised presentations in front of her peers at a Model UN conference.
She accepts everything that comes to her with an unbelievable maturity and a calmness of spirit. In some ways, she feels much older than me, having seen so much more.
The sole earner of the family is Laxman Mandal, Ananya’s father. He is a daily wage earner who works in construction. In India, that means having to expose yourself to an extremely dangerous environment, working with a near total lack of proper equipment, toiling in a precarious job that can disappear at any time.
At one time, Indian workers, especially those working in the so-called formal sector – in manufacturing, auto, mining, railways, banking, government workers, ports – were well organized and often represented by vocal, active and sometimes militant trade unions. The bulk of India’s working class though, was found in the non-formal sector – where hundreds of millions worked in agriculture – where they had little to no protection, but nevertheless constituted substantial voting blocs who would send many elected representatives to parliament which sometimes enacted legislation that offered some benefits to the working class .
Things changed soon after the Cold War ended and liberalization was embraced by much of urban India. In less than two decades, those unions shrank and militancy was beaten down in India, as it was in most parts of the globe. Farmers too were on the retreat, their subsidies and minimum support prices more or less withdrawn, land reforms totally suspended or reversed. A new kind of economic and political landscape emerged, promoting the language of small government, efficiencies, casual work, individualism and consumption. And the situation seems to be getting worse. Though there have been recent isolated instances of urban worker militancy, and the nation has witnessed massive farmers’ protests; the neo-liberalism machinery is now in full swing, and the country is being handed brick by brick, through crony capitalism and corporate giveaways. Added to this volatile mix are the resurfacing of age-old caste tensions compounded by the growing lethal sentiment of ultra-nationalism and Hindu fundamentalism.
This is where millions of families like Ananya’s find themselves. Like most of India’s so-called migrant workers, Ananya’s father joined millions who left villages in search of work once economic liberalization had strengthened its hold in the countryside. He found employment as a construction worker in the massive towers and office blocks that now punctuate many Indian cities and towns. But the dead halt of COVID-19 has utterly destroyed his livelihood; to add to his woes, his worries go beyond his unsteady employment. Ananya tells me every now and then how worried her father is about getting his daughters married as quickly as possible. On the other hand, her mother is a pillar of strength, insisting that her three girls get a decent education, and Ananya works very hard to prove her years of schooling will not be in vain.
Today, while doing my weekly grocery run during this unprecedented lockdown, I thought of Ananya and her family. While I carried my overpriced groceries, walking on a shady side street barely one kilometre from the residence of India’s richest billionaire, I saw a worker in a dusty lungi, barefoot, struggling with pushing a heavy iron wheel down the sidewalk, while his fellow labourers dug deep holes to repair the road. I wondered if this was considered an essential service – repairing a side road mostly used by wealthy people? The man and I made eye contact for a brief second, till I looked away uncomfortably. Being hunkered down at home, I had forgotten the layered dichotomy of what it meant to live in urban India, a place with inequality so staggering that it knocks you off your feet when you first encounter it, until, if you stay long enough, you weirdly become almost used to it, and walk in the street without a second glance at, say, an intoxicated man passed out on the road, or past a family where children with distended bellies run around. You learn not to be affected by it, and find a way to live your life in the rat race, and move on.
And then comes along something that makes the world slide under your feet all over again. COVID has exploded everything in India, unleashing a crisis that goes far beyond a medical catastrophe. It is hardly surprising that it is during this massive calamity that all of India’s social and economic, caste-based inequalities come to the fore: the country teems with uncertainty and tension as people scramble to make sense with what is unfolding. But what has become inescapable, in this moment of lockdown, is that while India’s rich and middle classes stay home catching up on their internet videos, enjoy their food deliveries and digest their hysterical news channels, the real stories – the ones of the bulk of the country’s population, the desperately hungry, medically vulnerable poor – are more or less invisible, lurking below the surface.
This is the country where an acquaintance once boasted that he made a whopping sum of 50 crore on the stock exchange that day, while in the slum not too far from his house my student’s mother explained tearfully to me that in their Uttar Pradesh village, they had taken on a loan of one lakh rupees in a failed attempt to rescue their tiny farm. This sum seemed utterly inconsequential and miniscule compared to the shareholder’s windfall, but India’s vulgar, wildly and striking inequalities don’t even seem to be surprising to anyone, at least not anymore. They almost seem to be normal and starkly stare you in the face until they blend into the background, even as the gap between rich and poor, landlord and tenant, master and servant keeps growing ever wider.
In their own small way, people are making efforts. Many informal citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals are doing what they can. I’ve come across many people, many networks, who are extending themselves to come together as a community to serve pockets of the most vulnerable sections in this time of frantic need. That is why my coworkers and I, as well as local champions and NGOs, teamed up to raise funds and provide dry rations to our students and others in their communities. At the time of writing, we have helped serve more than 35,000 meals and are in the process of understanding how we need to move forward with more ration preparation. Lockdowns keep getting extended though, and civil society is now looking to the government for contingency plans which never seem to materialize.
But try as we might, the glaring holes in India and Mumbai’s infrastructure are protruding through frighteningly, especially in the spheres of public health, housing, sanitation and in the worlds of work and employment. The government is clearly unable or unwilling to meet the overwhelming demand: on what was going to be the last day of the lockdown in April, thousands of stranded workers staged a protest at a local railway station, after patiently waiting for weeks without steady food or employment. They were completely stuck and wanted to board trains to return home, but instead, they were met with police batons and brutality. And stuck they are, if India does not ramp up its testing exponentially, and also finds a way to deliver the needs to this most exposed sector of society. If not, this disease is sure to ravage much of the population of the world’s second largest nation, most of who are poor, malnourished and precariously employed.
The class divide has been cracked wide open here, as it has been around the world. The Indian government’s recent decisions and the way it introduced the lockdown were short-sighted, and made plainly clear which sections of society it was most willing to protect, and which it was willing to let fall by the wayside. This, despite the somehow-shocking-but-not-really realization that the entire country’s economic system depends on millions of domestic working class, low paid migrants who labour in jobs that allow the billionaires to flourish and the cash to keep flowing into the Bombay Stock Exchange, into the hallowed mansions of the Delhi elite, and meandering to the towering IT buildings of Bangalore. It is these very workers, who are working in grocery stores and clearing the garbage, taking care of sanitation, keeping the water and electricity running, despite the very real dangers and risks they face in these times of the pandemic.
One can only guess what this kind of a situation means for people’s physical and mental health. But those considerations are largely absent from mainstream response. Instead, religious name-calling and discrimination, after what can only be described as an ideologically charged winter for the country, has once again frothed to the surface, accompanied by frenzied sensationalized and dramatized finger-pointing about who is responsible for the spreading of the virus. Scapegoating has become the norm, instead of finding meaningful steps to face this crisis head-on.
Without access to work, housing or money, many workers were left with no choice but to head home – with thousands of people walking on foot – making their way back to villages where they may have found a tiny measure of comfort struggling side by side with their families. Ananya and her sisters could have been among the tens of thousands of people on the march, trekking to their villages over a span of tens of days and hundreds of kilometres, facing unimaginable obstacles along the way. Instead, they stayed behind in Mumbai, like millions of people left behind in the cities, most without access to regular food supply, healthcare and sanitary toilets.
The virus is spreading rapidly, especially in the hotspot zones of many slums where communities have been sealed, meaning no one can get in and no one can get out. In those narrow alleys, and the tiny crowded rooms, physical distancing isn’t really an option. If you’re stuck there with the virus, what will you do? How can you seek support? Do you go to an overcrowded hospital? Or, do you just wait it out?
These kinds of thoughts are on my mind as I make my way to Ananya’s house. It is located in a relatively less crowded lane in the slum of Mariamma Nagar, adjacent to what once was a stream, but is now a slowly moving heap of garbage. I am struck not just by how terrible the conditions are, but by how eerily similar they are to images of other such slums that I have seen – the favelas of Brazil, the refugee camps of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, the refugee settlements on the Syrian-Turkish border – everywhere that the current economic and political system has wreaked its havoc, sometimes over centuries. Sadly, I am unable to see her and to say goodbye.
Now that I am back in Canada, I often find myself remembering Ananya. How she fights each and everyday, in ways big and small. For me, she remains a heroic figure, despite her young age – her strength, resilience, and sheer determination. I find myself wondering how things will be for Ananya and my other students, in the years to come.
The names of people in this article are changed to protect their privacy.
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