Who will cry for my country?
Indifference, not corruption, is the
most threatening malady that ails
A statue of the animated movie character Shrek outside a recycling shop in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai
I had seen her while on my way
back from work one day, in a
crowded second-class compart-
ment of Mumbai’s indispensable
She was old and frail and
could barely keep her balance.
She was holding onto a clutch of
glittery arm bands, the kind very
often sold by hawkers on the
city’s beaches. But among the tired, world-weary com-
muters in that compartment, there were few takers for her
The old lady’s heavily wrinkled face broke into a grateful
smile as a kindhearted woman bought an armband and
handed her Rs 10 note.
Mumbai’s jam-packed local trains — as any hardened
commuter will tell you — strain one’s limits of endurance,
and sometimes one’s conscience. There are heartbreaking-
ly young children fighting through the crush of bodies to
sell their goods, limbless hawkers dragging themselves on
the mucky floor and blind beggars haplessly being pushed
around during rush hour.
After nearly a decade of traveling on local trains — and
nearly three decades of living in a Third World country — I
had considered myself to be immune to the naked truths of
poverty. But something about the woman on the train that
day, with telltale signs of how cruel life had been to her, had
dented my jaded demeanor.
I had read in an article years ago that even First World
countries have their share of poverty, but they don’t suffer
the kind of debilitating penury billions of people in Third
World nations live with. The kind of poverty that doesn’t let
you breathe, that drags you down. In India, the poor often
have nowhere to go; even the Lord Almighty can’t save
A friend of mine recently met two extremely young, des-
titute boys at the non-governmental organization she
works in. The boys told her they had escaped from their
respective homes in rural India in search of a better life in
Mumbai. Homeless and penniless, they had found them-
selves in the vicinity of one of the city’s biggest temples.
When they were caught unawares by the incessant rain
Mumbai is notorious for, they had sought shelter in the
nearby gas station, eateries, housing societies and finally,
the temple. They had been turned away at every door; the
police personnel manning the temple compound had told
them that it had shut for the night.
This particular temple, reportedly on the target list of
some terror outfits, has in the last few years turned into a
fortress with mammoth barricades, metal detectors, strin-
gent security checks and watchtowers manned by bored
policemen. While hundreds of thousands of people jostle
with each other to get a glimpse of the resident deity every
day, the temple authorities allow a separate, quieter
for those willing to pay. There is a third entrance for
VVIP devotees — superstars and politicians — who visit the
temple in the dead of the night to avoid the public. The
temple never shuts for them.
We can brag about being the world’s largest democracy.
But as long as millions of our poorest, hungriest, youngest
and oldest citizens continue to get the short end of the
stick, we will remain nothing but a hollow version of a
The basic tenet of a democratic society is the right to
equality, a goal we have failed to reach even 64 long years
after Independence, as tens of millions of Indians remain
damned, more unequal than the others.
We can take the easy way out and blame successive gov-
ernments for failing millions of its people, but as the more
privileged members of our criminally unjust and unfair
society, have we bothered to do anything to right this
This year, we celebrate 20 years of the liberalization of
India’s economy. Liberalization ended the stifling License
Raj system and redefined the great Indian middle class. It
ostensibly gave many, many Indians the power to chase
their dreams. But it also helped in creating a splintered
nation of hundreds of thousands of haves and hundreds of
millions of have-nots. Those who had some, have much
more now. Those who had nothing, still don’t.
Sanchari Bhattacharya is News Editor, Rediff.com
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