Republic of the unseen… by Pritish Nandy

Do you realise that India has the world’s largest constituency of invisible people? They are in hundreds of millions. Yet no one notices them. They are a blind spot for us. Yes, they have voter IDs. Some have PAN cards. Nilekeni will soon give them UIDs. Just as the telecom companies have given them cell phones. Banks have opened accounts for them and provided ATMs in remote areas. Despite all this, they remain the lost children of this Republic.

Most of them are young, unemployed. Others are old, unemployable. They are all part of an India that has been left behind. No, they did not make that choice. The choice was made for them by a wily political class eager to have a vote bank they could manipulate. That’s why, six decades on, they remain faceless and anonymous. They don’t belong to the mainstream, the India that everyone’s clapping for. They are certainly not part of the technology revolution. Cell phones are not a substitute for electricity and drinking water. They haven’t heard of economic reforms nor benefited from them. They don’t even know that the India they live in is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. They won’t believe it if you told them. For it hasn’t made the slightest difference to their lives.

They don’t know Raja has walked off with Rs 170,000 crore of public money. They wouldn’t know to count a crore. They haven’t heard of the Commonwealth Games. Nor do they know about the Adarsh Housing scam. But they are aware that politicians are untrustworthy, Government officers won’t help them, and justice is simply not affordable. So they live their lives without any expectations. They don’t give a damn whether Kalmadi goes to jail but they can do with jobs, public toilets, hospital beds, roads to walk on, parks to take their children to, police stations where they can file a complaint without being humiliated. They are proud Indians. They want to live with dignity. They may not know who the President of India is. They can’t name three Cabinet ministers. That a Gandhi rules India is all they know. Ask them which Gandhi and they will stutter.

Most of them are poor. So poor that it will embarrass you to know the extent of their poverty. They are the stats we read in the newspapers. They are part of the 65% who go to bed hungry at night or the 68% who can’t read or write or the 74% who have no access to healthcare. We don’t know them as people, real people. So when they come knocking on our car windows asking for help, we pretend not to hear them. Our drivers shoo them away. Cops pick them up and throw them out of our cities at will. They embarrass us by just being there. We wish they would disappear.

We ignore them. We think we do enough by paying taxes so that the Government can draw up fancy schemes for them. But we also know the schemes don’t work. The money vanishes long before it can reach them. What’s worse, no one cares. That’s what makes it so easy to steal these funds. No one would notice. No one has the time in this bustling economy to listen to some poor villagers complaining that the jobs and moneys promised to them haven’t reached.  The urban poor are even worse off. Nobody cares for them. No one even wants to help them because they have been labelled as unwanted migrants. Yes, migrants they are. But not in the way we think. They are mostly migrants from the same state, driven out from their villages by extreme poverty and loss of their land. They are not outsiders. They are the unwanted insiders who we want to hide from the world, as well as from ourselves.

For, like the other big nations of the world, we too have now learnt to be ashamed of our poor. They remind us of our failures. We want to talk to the world today about our ambitious space programs, our nuclear expertise, our defence capabilities, our economic power, our IT genius, the amazing steps we have taken in biotech. We want to boast that four of the top ten richest men in the world are Indians, and that’s not counting our politicians, many of whom hold their wealth in unaccounted assets.

But India can’t go ahead unless it takes into cognizance this large invisible constituency. For if we keep ignoring them forever, one day they will get onto the streets and start protesting like the Egyptians are doing today, the Tunisians, the Libyans. There’s a limit to which people will tolerate the indifference of their Governments, the corruption of their leaders. Once that threshold is crossed, things begin to fall apart. As Gandhi wisely said, it’s the poorest Indian who actually decides where our future lies. But then, if we had our way, we would make even Gandhi invisible today.


26 Responses to “Republic of the unseen… by Pritish Nandy”

  1. Nice and a thought provoking post. These things occur to almost all citizens but then whats the solution? Probably nobody knows. So as usual even after reading this post, we all will move on and continue to do what we do best…pretend there is no problem.
    In my opinion, nothing can change as we prefer to be led by politicians not leaders. We have at least one proven leader in our country but he has been tagged as communal, aggressor, dictator-kind even though his state outshines all other states put together.

    As for mass protests, it would never happen in India. We are far too many religions, too many castes, too may states, people with too many languages to ever come together to fight a common cause like poverty.

    Amit R Jain

    • Your point on the uprising in valid. There would be riots between people if they take to the streets.

    • curious to know who is that proven leader u were mentioning?

    • “even though his state outshines all other states put together.”

      That’s a bit exaggerated. If you see the planning comission figures, Gujarat has similar growth rate to most other industrialised states in India.

      In GSDP, it is 5th behind Maharashtra, AP, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.In GSDP per capita its 4th. Gujarat state’s total GSDP is somewhere around 350K crores to Maharashtra’s 660K crores.

      Some of these figures are from last FY as this year’s are not published as yet.

  2. Amit – Well said. I agree, we read, write, talk and move on. I too move on. Just speaking aloud here.How about you and I starting small and taking responsibility? How about the next time a beggar comes to our car window, we offer food and maybe a small job if possible.? If we do this one thing, we can go on to do better and bigger things. What say?

    • Yes Agreed. This post is good to remind ourselves of our duties towards society. My point is, as long as there are lakhs of crores being stashed away, poverty can never be removed. we can do our bit, just like our parents did and probably our kids will do…but poverty wont go, poor will remain where they are…at signals. To solve that we need leader not politicians.

      Btw, one good way of making small differences to help employment of the neglected lot is via I and my family use this.

      • Thats absolutely right. The Indian money stashed away in Swiss banks can eradicate poverty in a jiffy if brought back. thanks for the link, looking at it.

  3. Dear Sharmila,

    We can do our bit by supporting the ‘White Cane Society’ and other such organizations, that work towards the general upliftment in the lot of visually challenged people worldwide. However we can certainly see an attitude of indifference to the needs of all sorts of physically challenged people here in India. Our public as well as private spaces and services are planned and designed without considering the needs of people with special needs. As for Govt. schemes, less said the better.

    • So well said Melwyn. People with special needs are probably the most ignored in India. I must add that way the developed countries are marvelous in their treatments towards them. No wonder they are called such. Thanks for the reference of White cane society. Will surely look it up.

  4. Sharmila,

    I am on a sabbatical. This comment is an exception. It is persuaded by a 2 hour long international conversation with Aishwarya.


    Firstly, about Mr. Nandy’s post. Rather nothing about the post. More about your reaction to it.

    I do not see any motivation for a public outcry or activism in Mr. Nandy’s post.

    Most of the salaried class in our nation is triggered into action by conscience, fear, loyalty, duty, guilt and sacrifice. They call it a code of morality which it is not.

    Because of this, any opportunity for free speech results in cynicism and faithlessness. The internet is full of such examples.

    Cynicism and public sloganeering is not a show of integrity. Padmashri, Padma Vibhushan and Bharat Ratna do not come from infecting the public with negative energy. Activism is not a crusade. An activist is not a crusader.

    For instance, an unknown government officer was burnt alive by the people in Maharashtra. Both the officer and the people are Indians. Tomorrow an Arnab Goswami or a Barkha Dutt may be burnt alive. After that the feudals and the celebrities.

    Those who are burnt and those do the burning both are our countrymen.

    Hate the systems, save the citizens. No one is an alien.

    Great nationalists did not use an opportunity to speak freely for spreading contagious frustrations. They had a positive objective and mission that brought people together. For example, I can never think of killing a single human being to save a wild beast.

    Life is full of pain for all classes. The rich and famous carry the burden of their own ambitions. The employed class strive to form their own convictions. The labor pray for justice.

    Gandhi’s principles are well known to many across the world. Howevr, his practice is known to only a handful. He had an amazing sense of humor. He laughed and smiled at anything that did not agree with him. Gandhi was a crusader.

    Here is a royal mix of all that I have said above. Every concept is drawn into a role play. See which one you think meets your standards:

    • Welcome back! So long as the per capita income of the country is steadily increasing, I doubt people will take to the streets like the way it is in Egypt now. Our per capita income is now Rs 46,000 , it has increased by Rs 2,000 since the last. Paltry increase, but it will keep the majority happy. They will even put up with corruption and nepotism for as long as there is money in the pockets. If there is a severe economic crisis, and a long recession like situation, people out of jobs, especially when the strong and large middle class is in crisis, that is when India will go the Egypt way.

  5. Sharmila,

    To close that on a postivie note, following is my choice of managing pain:

  6. Reader,

    What is the difference between an activist and a crusader? How can we bring about a change, without hating or hurting people of any class?

    Gandhiji walked barefoot in the sveltering heat from place to place bringing people together, spreading his mission and objective. Today, despite communication at our fingertips, we dont seem half as successful. Its usually finger pointing and blame games, right from the media to the politicians to the bureaucrats to the middle class and amongst each other – a game of passing the parcel. The one with the parcel in hand when the music stops is disposed of. And the game continues…

    Where and how do we find a solution for the betterment of all countrymen?

    • Aishwarya,

      Historically, religion has survived on feudalism. Religion was removed from politics in nations where feudalism was replaced by socialism, democracy, capitalism or communism. That change is a crusade.

      An activist is a potential extremist or a terrorist.

      About Gandhism… look at India as one nation of one people.. do not split it into states, types, categories or names… do unto others what you would do unto yourself…. democractic freedom is a treasure that needs to be respected.. it is sustained by politicians… not by despotic, suicidal activists…

      With the Gandhian outlook all solutions fall in place.. one at a time.. no one said it is easy…. thousands of people died between 1942 and 1947… he called it passive resistence… peaceful, non-violent, non-cooperation… it works at home.. it works in the society.. it works across the nation… one half-naked fakir’s idea brought down a global empire… we only need to believe in it and smile with real confidence…

  7. India has some 50% population under age of 21 or 25 – something like that. There are going to be heaps of graduates looking for work in the coming decade. A uprising like the one in Egypt or Tunisia doesn’t seem far away if the industrialisation and jobs don’t reach them in time.

    Great article by Mr Nandy, but he has unnecessarily criticised cell phone penetration. It is to be applauded. Indians now have 700 million cell phones. It is not a substitute for other basic amenities, but it does help millions of poor including farmers. It shows what wonders privatisation and competition can do.

    • I agree, there is nothing wrong with technology and progress. India has the deepest penetration in terms of cell phone numbers which is to be appreciated. Privatization is the only sensible means for progress. Regarding cell phones, I have seen beggars with them, not a basic mean, but the fact that they can afford technology is also a sign of progress!

  8. Any game plan…!? Anybody..!?
    I believe almost all literates are aware of such problems.
    Everyone knows there is no place for poor in this entire world.
    One has to be strong enough to surve…Survival of the fittest is all time rule and ..”Jungle Rule” still prevails…nothing new about it..
    Why should Readers find it amusing…which is already known to all..the all time problem which is almost unsolvable as none wish to solve it…none find or show any close to perfect solution to it..! Including Mr.Writer..
    Privatization would seem to work wonder initially…he end result…it builds Giant corporates and rest others their slaves..

    • One way is to get back the black money , one trillion dollars stashed in Zurich and the Cayman Islands back and redistribute it. Sigh, never going to happen. Albeit, a sure shot way of getting the per capita income tripled …

  9. ‘Colors’ – Phil Collins

    Deep inside the border
    Children are crying
    Fighting for food
    Holding their heads
    Breaking their bread with a stone

    All along the roadside
    People are standing
    Watching the sun
    Shielding their eyes
    Brushing the flies from their face

    Tell me, what can you say
    Tell me, who do you blame
    Like a mirror you see yourself
    These people each have a name

    All around the township
    Young men are dying
    (of) hunger and thirst
    The well has run dry
    The tears from her eye feeds her son

    Tell me…

    You can say you’re pulling back
    We see the pictures everywhere
    But what we don’t see is what’s
    Going on behind the closed doors
    And you don’t seem to care

    Do you expect me to believe you
    How can you really think
    You can take your horse down to the water
    Hold a gun at his head
    And make him drink

    No matter what you say, it never gets any better
    No matter what you do, we never see any change

    People living without rights
    Without their dignity
    How loud does one man have to shout
    To earn his right to be free

    You can keep your toy soldiers
    To segregate the black and white
    But when the dust settles
    And the blood stops running
    How do you sleep at night?

    No matter what you say…

    What makes you so high and mighty
    What makes you so qualified
    You can sit there and say
    How many have their freedom
    But how many more have died

    You decide to sit in judgment
    Trying to play God yourself
    Someday soon the buck is gonna stop
    Stop with you and no one else…

  10. Anand Khare Says:

    Sorry to say nothing wonderful in this article from a journalist of repute like Mr. PN. It sounds like an essay by a student of Class X.


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