Opinion | Humane social choices are also the wisest ones for our economy4 min read . Updated: 18 Jun 2020, 06:45 AM IST
Strong social security could create a society that enables the country to withstand economic shocks
As the predawn glow lit the east, I started running towards the dark west. And the phone started ringing. I cut it off, it was not a number I knew. It rang again. And again. It wouldn’t stop. So finally I did, and picked it up from my armband, dreading a dire emergency facing a loved one, and a bystander calling me. The voice was unfamiliar, but the tone wasn’t. “Hum Hindustani bol rahen hain." This is Hindustani speaking. It was 14 May.
Waman, William, Mohabbat, Harold and Hindustani were the five young men I had met in the similar predawn of Labour Day, walking to their homes a few thousand kilometres away. They had reached. Hindustani narrated their odyssey.
On that first day, they walked till noon. Then, a tractor-trolley gave them a ride almost till the border of Andhra Pradesh. Lest they get quarantined, the driver advised them to cross the inter-state border through the fields. They did so at each state border subsequently. Their first meal was at 6pm, bought at a hut. They walked till 10pm and then slept at a shuttered dhaaba, and started at dawn the next morning till they could not bear the blazing sun. Resting under a tree and walking by night, they found another small but open dhaaba. The owner didn’t charge them, saying that the food would have gone waste. A truck stopped for a break, and the driver offered them a lift till beyond Vijayawada.
The ten days that followed were much like those first two. Walking in the scorching summer day, till they couldn’t. Eating what they got. Struggling for water. On the constant lookout for rides in trucks. They managed seven. Four of them free, with drivers stirred by their plight. Two at reasonable charges. One fleecing them ₹500 each in a truck laden with sacks of grain.
“Ab ghar pahunch gaye, sir. Yahaan bhi khaane ke liye nahin hai. Phir bhi sab theek hai." We have reached home sir, there is no food here too, but still all is well. When I met them on Labour Day, they had one question for me, “Why was this done to us?" I had no answer. And I had two questions for them.
One, what made you decide to walk 2,000km in the summer sun? Their jobs had vanished. Food was dependent on NGOs or on scrounging. Used to paying for everything with sweat and blood, now dependant on alms, they were deeply troubled. Everyone around was caught in the same web of hunger and poverty. The powerful people in their life, their employers, had turned away. Room rent, phone, and other small things had depleted their meagre savings. No end was in sight of the pandemic or their joblessness.
Two, will you come back to work in this big city? They did not want to come back. But they could not visualize livelihoods in their village. So, they felt they would have to come back. But they wouldn’t till the pandemic was gone. Because they may be forced out of work again. They were ready to brave hunger in solidarity in their village. But they were unsure of how long they could last.
Hindustani and his four friends changed a practice of 30 years in my life. Now, I paused my running every day to walk with those walking to distant homes. By 24 May, I had similar conversations with 26 groups. I also went to railway stations and talked to “shramiks" (labourers) being corralled like sheep into trains. I asked them all those two questions.
Akin to those five young men, everyone’s expressions of desperation were inchoate. But it pounded their hearts and powered their feet. To the only sanctuary they could imagine. Home. Even if it was a 2000km walk in the summer sun. Equally inchoate but certain was their acceptance, of being mere straws at the mercy of massive economic tides. All they wanted was some certainty for their heads and bit of dignity for their souls.
The pandemic has sharpened discrimination, intensified exclusion, and amplified the bad in us. It has also magnified selflessness and generated heroism, insufficient though it is in the face of our systemic ineptitude and structural moral failings. But if we care to look, it has clarified that the morally worthy choices on the organizing principles of our society are also the most economically wise. Sound social security, strong labour laws, and universal access to good-quality public healthcare and education will create an economy that could absorb almost any shock, because it will build resilience at the level of the individual and the collective around her. People won’t have to flee to imagined sanctuaries. Wherever they are, will be their sanctuary. It will also be a just, humane, and good society.
Through the call, I kept wondering, why did he call me? He answered without my asking. “Rakhte hain phone, sir, apko daudna hoga. Lagaa aapko chintaa ho rahi hogi, iss liye phone kar diya." Let me end the call now, you have to run. I felt you must be worrying about us, so I called.
After walking for 14 days in the Indian summer, expelled from a city you thought of as home, to think about what a stranger would be feeling merely because he stopped and chatted with you. Give us a drop from this ocean of empathy in you, Hindustani, and we will all be better people.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.