COVID, poverty and right-wing populism drive India toward crisis

By B. Prasant in Kolkata

Everywhere you go in the rural districts of north India, you find billboards springing up with garish colours and misspelt letterings – touches of haste clearly on show. They read, “Come Back to Kerala. Come Back to Andhra Pradesh. Come back to Maharashtra.” And so on.  “Come back to where you chose to migrate from when the coronavirus started eating up jobs. Come back to the new normal of old jobs rising up from the moribund. Abandon home, return and embrace financial security yet once again.”

The response is disturbingly widespread. Buses are refurbished, fueled and lined up – ready to go. People line up at the bus depot, bundles of pitiful belongings of varying sizes and shapes left on the wet grounds beside vehicles to mark places in the. Some start on foot, luggage once more piled on their heads as it had been months ago when they had trudged back to the assumed safe abode of their villages – away from joblessness, away from death. And once more, to fend off the menace of starving families, they set off for where they had left. Only this time news is not being made; photographers are not around. The poor are seen off only by their tearful sobbing families – faces crumbling with fear and uncertainty.

Why would these poverty-ridden men and women, with children in tow, choose to abandon the comfort of home and go back?  They had returned to their homes to try and earn some kind of a living and had looked to the respective state governments for a minimum of help for survival. Their demands were minor – food, farm implements, a small cash advance for setting up shops.

None of this was forthcoming in adequate measure. The state governments condescended to a sporadic dole of a few kilograms of rice and some vegetables each week, which is a starvation diet. Cash grants never came. Farm implements were promised, but that was all.  Bitter and angry, the poor chose the trek back. They knew the terrible risk in a task fraught with uncertainty, but to remain was face complete ruination.

Elsewhere it is business as usual, with the Hindutva brigade led by Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) going gleefully ahead with their long-awaited foundation-laying ceremony of the proposed Ran Mandir Temple. The event was enough to send a chill down the spine of India’s large Muslim population, as they realized that attacks on their lives and livelihoods were poised to commence with a renewed religion-fed energy. It called to their terrified minds the thousands slaughtered in the wake of the demolition of the Babari Masjid mosque, where the temple is slated to rise resplendent in the glory of its million-rupee budget. This, even as rural India starves and frets under an increasing burden of grinding poverty.

Hundreds of people have been killed in the wake of the riots that took place from the time the Hindu populist forces won their second term in office in Delhi and several states. The minorities stand in terror at the possible outcome of the latest “triumph” of the votaries of “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.”

In the meantime, COVID-19 deaths shoot up – active cases number over 3 million and the death toll stands at nearly 60,000. The death rate per hour is nearly 200. All attempts by the central government’s publicity blitz, to reassure people that the Modi government is on the verge of containing the viral pandemic now carry little or no weight. A half dozen cabinet ministers are now afflicted with COVID-19, including the home minister. Nationwide, millions have been rendered jobless. The GDP has maintained its downward spiral and prices of consumer commodities have started to increase. Social unrest is on the rise, as is violence. Local groups inspired by Islamic State are already organizing, as in Madras where several people died in recent riots.

COVID, poverty and right-wing populism are bringing ever-greater challenges to the working class and people of this ancient civilization.

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