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Toba Tek Singh And The Indian Normal!

The “marginal” population of India, dealing with this concept of "new normal"

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I am quite amused by the heightened interest in the “new normal” nowadays. This will supposedly be a new way of life taking shape as you read and will get established post the pandemic. New terms like WFH have been created, floated and debated. Experts are envisioning how AI will change manufacturing, online ordering will change eating habits and the future EDM shows will be virtual. Analysts are already calculating the values of new normal businesses. Patriots are predicting alternatives to a certain country. Social media discussions, webinars, white papers, research reports and a lot more pampering is going on with how lives will drastically change… for possibly 65 million odd people in the country of 1.37 billion!

In the meantime, our Prime Minister recently announced that 800 million / 80 crore Indians will benefit from free rations under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana till November. Obsessed with numbers, he went on to proudly explain how this is more than two and a half times the US population or twelve times that of the UK. After 73 years of independence, the least one could do is to mention that it is a matter of utter shame that close to 60% of ‘we the citizens of India’ are in this economic state! The political class has gloated over the fact that it represents the ‘poor’. The Indian National Congress used to claim that “Congress party, gareebon ki party.” [Congress is the party of and for the poor.] The BJP proclaims the same during election campaigns now with the same pompous pride!

These two separate phenomena are manifestations of a common underlying apathy towards the “marginal” population of India, which in fact is the majority of the country. They are four specific sections of society – the farmers, the urban poor, the migrant low-skilled workers and the daily wagers. 2019 data estimations show that roughly 700 million / 70 crores are directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture and another 470 million / 47 crores in non-agricultural work, of which more than 90% are in unorganised employment. They make up the 80 crore ‘gareeb’ the Prime Minister spoke of and more.

The “marginal” Indian has been repeatedly and consciously exploited and taken-for-granted by both state and society. This is not a post-independence phenomenon, but a malaise ingrained in our very socio-economic system for centuries. Which is precisely why even after the British left us a divided soul and we gave ourselves a new constitution, the general sense of apathy towards the “marginal” remained almost intact.

“Jai Kisaan” is a cruel joke on the community that still does not get more than 25% of what the market price is, the rest going largely to middlemen and corrupt officials. Allowing a farmer to sell produce in any part of the country is not a solution but mere posturing, for the middlemen remain in the system, even if the farmer from Kota goes to Vizag. The farmer needs 3 clear things from the state – [1] enhancement of MSP to 60% of final market price without increasing the latter, [2] creation of natural and cold storage infrastructure along the Golden Quadrilateral and NSWE Corridor to ensure minimum 90% of produce utilization through the year and [3] provision of mechanisation en masse to small and marginal farmers to improve productivity. 

Only 9.3% of the non-agricultural workforce is covered by any form of social security. This plainly exposes around 420 million / 42 crore workers across the country to all forms of uncertainty, strife and emergency, like the current pandemic. There happens to be a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour that has been sitting on bringing out a Social Security Code for decades. The latest is that they have promised quicker action on this by 2030! They belong to a tribe of policymakers who lost no time in acting on Article 370 and bringing in the CAA in a matter of months. Existing laws and orders on worker benefits in the real estate and construction sectors are yet to be implemented. There are many more glaring instances of open collusion between the policymaker and industry, with society turning a convenient blind eye.

All that the non-agricultural worker asks for are 3 simple things – [1] strict implementation of current laws and compliance with all court orders, [2] mandatories in contract worker laws on % of salary retained by worker and living conditions and [3] immediate creation and implementation of the Code for Social Security.

Basically, they are asking society and state to recognise their very existence and respect their roles in nation-building. India may thrive in her cities but survives in her villages.

Do we have heated debates on such issues on most television channels? Anybody talks of ‘depression’ in these sections of society? Are there webinars organised where industry takes up the cause of the migrant worker? Apart from the customary sharing of photos of jobless workers walking hundreds of kilometres to escape neglect, have we done any more on social media? Do we have ‘civil’ society taking out candle marches for the farmers or the migrant workers? Do we have policy makers hold up the exemplary selfless service of the farmer as much as the soldier? Do we have the judiciary openly castigating the politician-industry nexus for not implementing the law of the land? 

We do not. For the “marginal” are born unlucky. Their perpetual state is their fate. Society uses and throws them as situations seemingly demand. The state exploits them by conjuring dreams which never get materialised. The “marginal” lie in no man’s land…a buffer zone between society and state that can be left untended, exposed and compromised. They are lined by a high wall on each side, one of elitism and exclusion and the other of opportunism and obfuscation. They will never see a “new” normal ever. That shall be the right and the reward for only the society and the state. 

This “marginal” India will be back to normal as soon as either the pandemic gradually recedes, or we get used to living with it, whichever is earlier. The migrant workers will come back to their insecure jobs as they have no sustainable alternatives. The household helps and car cleaners will return to their daily chores. The farmer will continue to be at the mercy of the middleman. The daily wage worker will line the streets again for a half-day job. The free rations will not free them from living in this no man’s land except for enticing them to cast a vote. And all that will be very normal.

In 1955, Saadat Hasan Manto wrote an intensely disturbing story called “Toba Tek Singh”. It is set a few years after Partition, when India and Pakistan decided to exchange some lunatics in their asylums. The central character is Bishan Singh, a Sikh inmate of an asylum in Lahore who is from a town called Toba Tek Singh. Under exchange, Bishan is sent under police escort to India, but on being told that his hometown Toba Tek Singh is in Pakistan, he refuses to go. The story ends with Bishan Singh lying dead in the no man's land between the two border fences, for no one wanted him. "There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh."

The “marginal” Indian is like Manto’s Bishan Singh. Resigned yet resolute. Broken but not beaten. Confounded yet committed. Neither society nor state really wants him. And when hurt beyond tolerance, he snaps back, in Bishan’s words, "Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey mun". [which roughly translated means, "The inattention of the annexe of the rumbling upstairs of the dal of moong of the Pakistan and India of the go to bloody hell!"]        

Jai Hind!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Avik Chattopadhyay

The author is an auto industry consultant and cofounder of Expereal.

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