The death of more than 150 children due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) in Muzaffarpur has once again proved that the poor people are expendable in India. The callousness with which the authorities dealt with the phenomenon exposes the hollowness of our patriotism. The pseudo nationalists, who shout “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” day in and day out, have nothing to say when more than 150 children of Bharat Mata died due to the sheer negligence of the government functionaries and the system. Their social media warriors are keeping mum.
On June 24, the Supreme Court said that 150 children dying, is unacceptable and asserted that medical care is a basic right. The SC has asked an explanation from the centre and the state regarding the steps taken to control the disease in the AES affected areas. The SC has asked response on three aspects: availability of public medical care facilities, nutrition, and sanitation and hygiene.
Journalist Shobba De in a hard hitting article in The Times of India on 23rd June ( Litchis? It’s govt lethargy, poverty that’s killing kids ) challenged the political leadership for passing the buck and putting the blame on ‘litchis’. Litchis may be an accidental cause that triggered the sudden outbreak of the disease, but the real culprit is poverty and malnutrition. Shobba De starts her write up very sarcastically. “ Children die like flies in India. Nobody notices. Nobody cares. Least of all the government. It was a matter of zero consequence to the powers that be when over 121 kids died of AES in Bihar.” She bluntly says that the children who died are the victims of poverty and malnutrition. She also has questioned the misplaced priorities of our political leaders. “We passively allow thousands to starve to death while we focus on grandiose projects that don’t fill stomachs”.
The reason for the negligence and apathy by the government is that the victims are from the most marginalized sections of the society. Shobha De also questions the discriminatory attitude to the rulers of India. “Had AES claimed even a single middle-class child, there would have been an immediate uproar and nobody would have dared to blame those luscious litchis. Heads would have rolled for sure. Even Nitish Kumar would have stirred himself a little out of his complacent cocoon to get things going on a war footing.”
The social audit of the 287 families of the children who are affected by AES by the Bihar government brought to light the following startling data. 81.9% of the families work as casual labourers; 77.4% have a monthly income below Rs. 5,700, much below the poverty line at present; 66.6% live in kucha houses; 59.2% do not have a toilet at home 31.7% do not have ration card; 21.3% did not eat anything the night before taking ill. (Source: The Times of India, June 24, 2019)
India has been ranked at 103 among 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index, says a report of 2018. India is among the 45 countries that have "serious levels of hunger" as per the report, prepared by Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide. Are our political leaders aware of this situation? Why nationalism doesn’t motivate our leaders to care for the children of Bharat Mata?
The middle class and the rich in India react vociferously when one of its members becomes a victim of violence or government negligence and the government responds quickly. The gang rape of a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern in Delhi on 16th December 2012 invited widespread protest and condemnation not only in Delhi, but also all over India. The government appointed a Judicial Committee under the chairmanship of Justice J S Verma to study and take public suggestions for amending laws to provide quicker investigation and prosecution of sex offenders. On the basis of the recommendations of the committee in 2013, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance 2013, was promulgated by the President Pranab Mukherjee, several new laws were passed and six new fast-track courts were created to hear rape cases. The reaction of the people and the response of the government are to be appreciated. At the same time when poor women in the villages are raped and killed there is very little response from the middle class and the response of the government machinery seems to be very tardy.
The media on 15th June reported that 7 persons, including four sanitation workers, died of suffocation while cleaning the septic tank of Darshan Hotel in Fartikui village of Dabhoi tehsil in Gujarat. There was no public protest and no condemnation of the government apathy to implement the ban on manual scavenging.
Scores of sanitation workers die each year from suffocation while removing waste from underground drains in the country. In spite of banning manual scavenging by law, it continues in different parts of the country. According to Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organization of sanitation workers, there are about 7.7 lakh manual scavengers in India and about 1800 sewer cleaners suffocated to death in the last decade. Most sanitation workers are forced into this profession over generations, as they find it difficult to get other work because of caste-based barriers.
It appears that the death and suffering of poor people due to the negligence of the government does not invite any reaction from the so called educated middle class. On the other hand, some of the middle class are highly critical of the poverty alleviation programmes of the government. They accuse the government of making the poor lazy. The middle class in India has become very much self-centred in a highly competitive atmosphere. Insensitivity to the poor and the marginalized has become one of the characteristics of many rich and the middle class in India today.
The findings of a survey conducted by the Outlook magazine (English) in eight cities of India were published in its June 17 issue. According to the findings of the survey, 35% of Indian youth call the Ambanis their favourite business icon and 16% prefer Ratan Tata. Azim Premji, the second richest man in India, who has set apart a large chunk of his personal property, Rupees 1.45 lakh crores ($ 21 billion) to philanthropy, does not appear in list of their favourites. Another important finding of the survey is that two-third of Indian youth visit a place of worship at least once a week. Contrary to the trend in the western countries the Indian youth are still very religious.
The youth are attracted by Mukesh Ambani who spent a huge amount of money on the marriage of his daughter and son and has built one of the costliest houses in the world. They are not enthused by Azim Premji who is known for paying back to the society through philanthropy. The Indian youth among whom the Outlook conducted the survey are mainly from the urban middle class. The findings of the survey indicate that the youth are not fascinated by sensitivity to other human beings, especially to the less privileged and they have not imbibed the value of sensitivity. At the same time two thirds of them are religious minded. Religiosity has not made them sensitive to the less privileged human beings.
Sensitivity to the less privileged is a sign of spirituality. J Krishnamurti in his book, ‘Letters to His Schools’, makes a difference between ‘intellect’ and ‘intelligence’. According to him, “Intelligence is the capacity to perceive the whole” and an intelligent person is sensitive. “The purpose of education is awakening intelligence in the students,” says Krishnamurti.
Education in India is mostly focusing on imparting knowledge in view of competing with others. The main concern of the youth who come out of the schools and colleges is to win the competition either for admission to higher studies or for getting lucrative employment. In the midst of cut throat competition, often sensitivity is lost and the youth become self centred. This could be the main reason for the rich and middle class in India becoming insensitive to the underprivileged people.
India’s burgeoning middle class has become not only opinion makers in the country but also a crucial vote bank for the political parties. The media is almost totally controlled by the rich and the middle class. The political parties that come to power formulate policies in favour of the rich and the middle class in view of their support in terms of money and votes. At the same time, they implement some populist programmes to ingratiate the poor in order to crate vote bank. But the status of the poorest of the poor remains the same.
A change in the mindset of the rich and the middle class is required in order to realize the vision of India as envisaged in the preamble of the Indian constitution. Creating sensitivity towards the socially and economically underprivileged sections of the society should be an important priority of the educational institutions, especially schools. Development of character and competence should be given equal importance in the process of education. Otherwise our education may produce not only socially insensitive persons, but also monsters. The following words of Dr. Haim Ginott, Child Psychologist who suffered in the German concentration camp, is very pertinent in this context.
“ I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by the learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters or skilled psychopaths. Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”
If education does not make the students more human, the insensitivity of the people and the rulers will only increase and the poor in our country will continue to be expendable.
(Published on 01th July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 27)