Mainstream, VOL LIV No 21 New Delhi May 14, 2016
Fat Men and the Starving Millions
Monday 16 May 2016, by
The Nation Wants to Know
That there are many issues which agitate the minds of the people is beyond dispute. But the minds of elected representatives in State and Central governments appear to be agitated on election issues or matters related to them, rather than the major issues which affect the daily lives of the majority of Indians. If newspaper headlines are an indication of what interests readers and those who make the news which is in headlines, it would appear that the Agusta Westland chopper scam being discussed (if that is the correct word for what happens in Parlia-ment) matters more to the nation than anything else as of now. Yes, indeed “the nation wants to know” who are the big fish in this humungous scam instead of focussing on senior Indian Air Force officers who could not be more than small fry, if at all they are involved in actual graft.
The political parties involved, namely, the INC and BJP, one “Indian” and the other “Bharatiya”, have been shadow-boxing for decades over scams of one kind or another, never going beyond some unspoken point of investigation and prosecution. All accusations inside and outside Parliament are routinely countered by what the accusing party did when it was in power. Commissions of Inquiry are appointed and take years to bring out voluminous reports, which never reach the glare of public scrutiny.
Activist citizens who use the RTI Act to get information, are sidelined or simply denied information, and several RTI activists have been harrassed by governments and some even killed. The politicians’ bottom-line is “Never let the truth out”. It is apt to quote the former Chief Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi, who writes: “There is a very disturbing news reports (sic) about the entire political spectrum agreeing that Right to Information (RTI) Act is misused and some constrictions should be developed to muzzle it. This is indeed a sad state of affairs. Samajwadi Party’s Member of Parliament (MP) Naresh Agarwal has levelled a charge that the Indian Parliament passed the RTI Act under US pressure!” [Ref 1].
In the same article, Shailesh Gandhi goes on: “Praful Patel of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) made a remark, which was still worse. He had objections to the poor—paanwaala and chaiwaala—seeking information under RTI. He then genuflected before the most famous chaiwaala of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and said the PM is an exception.” The truth of politicians across parties protecting each other and of political shadow-boxing with the unspoken connivance of all political parties is difficult to prove, though it is apparent to all but the politically myopic or blind.
But surely the “nation (also) wants to know” what is being done to address and solve the extreme distress in India’s rural sidelines, where large scale migration is happening due to the worst drought in decades. Lean and dehydrated farmers, agitated by their inability to repay some thousands of rupees taken on loan are committing suicide in their hundreds, while powerful politicians help hedonistic fat men who have stolen hundreds of crores to scoot abroad or otherwise shield them. In this worst drought for decades, left with no choice, many millions are migrating from their villages to towns and cities, and leaving behind their old and infirm relatives. Women are reduced to selling themselves and sometimes even their children for small sums of money for food. And while millions of personal tragedies play out every single day within this unfolding massive national tragedy of drought-poverty-migration, these very people’s elected representatives cooly grant themselves upto 100 per cent raises in their own salaries. And an IPL match on television in air-conditioned homes provides what people want to see and hear, saving them the decibels of even what “the nation wants to know”.
This brings to mind P. Sainath’s poignant documentary film Nero’s Guests. In the context of the decades-long history of farmers’ suicides, Sainath brings out how the well-to-do are oblivious or indifferent to the sufferings of the unwashed millions, and how their indifference results in their silence and complicity to all the violence and injustices heaped upon the poor. In Roman Emperor Nero’s time it is said that he threw a lavish party for his guests who did not notice or care that when night fell, light was provided for the revelry by burning the bodies of slaves.
Tears are Mostly Water
Tears were shed on national television by a person at the top of his profession because the government neglected his profession. However, as reported from Palakkad (Kerala) [Ref.2], people’s tears are unseen and their throats dry when the Hon’ble High Court limits soft drink major Pepsico to “only six lakh litres [of ground water pumped out] per day”. Thus Pepsico makes huge profits, even as thirsty people run behind tanker lorries for a 10-litre pitcher of water. In 2007, the Kanjikode Panchayat had cancelled the licence of the Pepsico bottling unit as it was using huge quantities of potable water, but the Ho’ble High Court had annulled the panchayat order. What price tears?
Enough is Enough
The ongoing drought-famine is engulfing over 300 million migrating Indians, whose throats may be too parched to chant Bharat mata ki Jai to show their patriotism. They are thirsting for drinking water, just like their animals, not excluding cows, which are holy to many of us, dying in their hundreds. What matter could be more urgent for our lawmakers than the on-going drought? AgustaWestland??? Demanding that every true Indian should say “Bharat mata ki Jai”???
In the final analysis, there is no real difference between the NDA-1, UPA-1 and UPA-2 govern-ments and the present NDA-2 government, inasmuch as their approach to people’s problems is concerned. Arun Shourie, perhaps in a moment of pique, uttered the truth that “NDA equals Congress scaled up plus cow”.
“Enough is enough” is what one gentleman said about the ongoing shadow-boxing between the Indian party and the Bharatiya party on the AgustaWestland scam, demanding that the guilty should be punished. But “Enough is enough” is also being said in the streets and in the fields (“Gali gali mein shor hai...!”), and there is large-font multi-lingual writing on the wall, indicating that people are more ready to listen to the people-friendly likes of Kanhaiya Kumar than to the corporate-friendly likes of leading politicians across the country.
Unless all political parties pay full attention to the present crisis and make urgent joint efforts to help the thirsty and starving hundreds of millions, they and all of India’s modern-day Nero’s guests will inevitably pay heavily for their self-interested acts of omission and commission. Saying “So sorry!” later will not help, because the deadly bullet of people-neglect will be out of the gun barrel of economic-growth-at-any-cost. As Sufi Omar Khayyam wrote centuries ago:
The moving Finger writes, and having writ, moves on;
Nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a Word of it.
1. Shailesh Gandhi; “Why all are politicians trying to muzzle the RTI”, Money Life, May 2, 2016; <http://www.moneylife.in/article/why...> .
- “Corporates make a killing as villagers cry for water”; New Indian Express, May 1, 2016; <http://www.newindianexpress.com/the...> .
Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as the Additional DG Discipline and Vigilance in the Army HQ AG’s Branch. He is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). With over 480 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his current area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.