Since a prolonged lockdown offers an opportunity for the creative juices to flow, allow me a little bit of poetic licence this week to adapt the famous poem of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore for a ‘new’ India in corona times (with apologies to Gurudev).
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Where a pandemic isn’t an alibi for untrammeled state power but instead redefines the state-citizenship engagement by putting citizen first. Where rules are enforced not by fear or diktat but by information and knowledge, where prime ministers and chief ministers work together as a collective and not adversaries, where autocratic tendencies are replaced by democratic consensus, where domain expertise is valued more than routine cheerleaders.
Where a national lockdown, even if deemed necessary, is planned through greater consultation and not implemented at four hours notice. Where when just days before the lockdown announcement, a few MPs wear masks and call for parliament to be adjourned, the presiding officer doesn’t treat them with contempt and ask them to remove the masks. Where toppling an opposition state government doesn’t get precedence over a health emergency. Where crucial decisions are taken through a National Task Force comprising the best and brightest minds in the land and not just a small group of Delhi-centric bureaucrats.
Where the health infrastructure of the country is built over decades and doesn’t become a ‘jugaad’ solution to combat an immediate crisis. Where investments in public health take precedence over investing in personal advertisement. Where government hospitals are rebuilt instead of restoring parliament buildings, where quality health centres are given preference over gargantuan statues and boulevards, where pitched battles are not fought over places of worship but over whether a disputed land should be given for a school or a hospital. Where the human development index of a state matters more than the foreign direct investment numbers. Where the wealth of a state is judged by the quality of its human capital and not just by how many MOUs are signed at business summits.
Where doctors aren’t just acclaimed as ‘corona warriors’ in a pandemic but are respected through good times and bad. Where ‘respect’ isn’t about lighting diyas, ‘taali-thaali’ processions and glitzy air shows but is really about giving our health workers better working conditions and quality protective equipment. Where junior doctors don’t have to agitate for higher stipends and seek legal and police protection when they are attacked for doing their job. Where doctors and scientists are awarded and rewarded more than film stars and fashion icons.
Where those who suffer economic and physical dislocation aren’t treated as invisibilised ‘migrant labour’ but given their due as equal citizens with equal rights. Where those who built our homes and cities, our bridges and highways are not one of ‘them’ but are truly one of ‘us’, deserving of social and financial security. Where those NGOs who raise their voice in solidarity with the poor and homeless are not dismissed by the country’s top law officer as ‘prophets of doom’ but are appreciated for being society’s conscience-keepers. Where journalists who report on the travails of displaced labour aren’t labelled as vultures but hailed for showing truth to power.
Where providing basic transport services for labourers to go back to their villages doesn’t become a centre versus state tug of war or pit state versus state but instead offers an opportunity to melt our inter-state borders. Where a UP-bound train doesn’t end up in Rourkela and a railway track isn’t bloodied with the crushed bodies of fatigued fellow-citizens. Where a teenaged girl cycling 1200 kms to take her injured father home isn’t celebrated as a potential Olympic medal winner but is a grim and enduring reminder of the desperate poverty that breeds grit and endurance. Where we stop using catchy buzzwords like ‘Vande Bharat’ for evacuation of Indians by air when we cant provide better options to those stuck on the ground.
Where ‘social distancing’ is not just an elite privilege but an option available to all citizens. Where 50 people do not have to share a single toilet and a dozen people sleep in a single room even as single families can live in multi-storeyed skyscraper splendor. Where the stark inequities are reduced by a welfarist state that places a premium on providing low cost housing for all with basic sanitation facilities. Where Dharavi is not seen as Asia’s largest slum but as a reflection of the degradation of urban life that forces millions to live in squalor. Where an online education isn’t just practiced in a few urban schools but where bridging the digital divide makes technology accessible to all.
Where members of a specific community aren’t ostracized and spurious links drawn between religion and a virus only to further narrow political agendas. Where vegetable vendors aren’t boycotted only because of their religious identity. Where the media doesn’t seek to sensationalise the news in the race for Television Rating Points with provocative hashtags that only spread disaffection and enmity among communities. Where news is seen as a public service and not as yet another commodity being merchandised.
Where a pandemic breaks through all caste and class barriers. Where a co-operative society or Resident Welfare Association doesn’t become a private fiefdom run by individual firman. Where domestic help aren’t stigmatized as corona carriers or denied their wages because they are barred from the forbidding gates of a housing complex. Where the realization dawns that this was not a virus spawned in the slums but imported by the flying class of the country. Where we remember that the affluent can Netflix and Zoom their way through a lockdown but the poor still need to work for a daily income. Where the lucky few can work from home but the multitudes still need public transport to get to work.
Where corporates donate generously to the PM Care Fund but don’t forget to care for those around them. Where all government relief funds are subject to greater public scrutiny. Where job cuts are the exception not the rule and compassion overrides commerce. Where governments provide mega stimulus packages that above all else ensure direct cash support to the most vulnerable. Where we see reform opportunity in a crisis but don’t allow the reformist zeal to descend into cronyism once again. Where reforms are designed to protect the interests of labour and not just of well-networked industry.
Where we look to build a ‘self-reliant’ India, not as an attractive slogan but as a living reality. Where our law-makers abandon the foreign accessories – the branded watches, designer glasses, luxury cars – that are such an intrinsic part of their lifestyle. Into that heaven of true freedom, let my country awake!