Of lockdown laziness and change agents

Britain’s alcohol consumption has gone up 48 per cent since lockdowns began. A survey in India would probably reveal that sleeping has risen by 148 per cent. I am writing this at the start of yet another weekend when my bankers will take no calls on the eve of the three-day closure so considerately arranged by the West Bengal authorities.

Such laziness is all the more reason for saluting the courage and enterprise shown by a 25-year-old Banaras Hindu University law student. Ananya Choudhary compelled the Rajdhani Express from Delhi to take her to the contractual destination of Ranchi instead of dumping her 300 km earlier at Daltonganj at 6.40 in the morning. 

Negligent at the best of times, our public sector undertakings have become even more lazy during these months of lockouts. Take India Post. They have delivered just three letters to me in six months, all three from London. Obviously, “atmanirbhar Bharat” ignores desi mail. Yet, lights burn till late evenings within the bolted and barred post office near my home, making me curious about what the staff might be up to.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited provides an even more outrageous example. Someone who went to report that neither his landline telephone nor his Internet connection was working (they still aren’t) found that BSNL staff had not yet reported for duty at 11.15 am. He was told at 1.15 they were at lunch. When he returned at 2.15, they had finished for the day. A written complaint and one from his mobile resulted in a text message assuring him that both faults had been “set right”. Neither had been. He was also instructed to convey the “happy” news to two BSNL officials whose names and numbers followed. One did not reply. The other did to say he had retired two years earlier and was not interested.

An institution I visit regularly is now in a semi-coma. The empty rooms are unswept. Cobwebs festoon the walls. The staff — on full pay of course — loll about and spend hours chatting to friends and relatives on the telephone so that incoming calls are blocked. I cannot but contrast this living decay with illustrated e-mails from London’s British Library (of which I have been a member for many years, membership and its attendant privileges being free) describing its enthusiastic return to the task of serving the global reading public’s intellectual needs. Each mail makes me thank god the British firmly refused India’s demand (followed by Pakistan’s) for the old India Office library. That rich collection might have been colonial loot but little of it would have survived in South Asian hands to enrich scholarship.

Today’s understandable focus on saving lives has exposed the shameful neglect of health services. The government accounts for a disgracefully low 26 per cent of medicare spending. Many government hospitals are a scandal. Private investors account for 74 per cent of the budget but the courts had to upbraid them recently for what amounts to profiteering because insurance companies complained of their extortionate fees. 

There are far too few doctors, nurses, trained para-medics and hospital beds. Laboratory equipment, medicines and personal protective equipment are in desperately short supply. China may loom large and ominous as the adversary, but despite China’s painful birth, shorter history as a people’s republic, and much larger population, it has made “atmanirbhar” a glorious reality. Not an empty slogan politicians mouth for their own glorification as the economy shrinks, unemployment soars, illiteracy is officially encouraged since the illiterate most fervently support retrograde religious biases on which obscurantist parties thrive, and parliament is gagged. 

One hopes some effort will be made to correct all this when disease and dying end at last and reconstruction begins. That herculean task brings to mind Rabindranath Tagore’s deathbed lament about the aftermath of British rule. “When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last,” he cried, “what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind!” Without fully endorsing that dismissal of British rule, it must be admitted that the scourge of Covid-19 has brought out some of the worst aspects of the Indian character. It has encouraged the trend to cut corners, exploit shortages, make a fast buck (as Americans say), and evade responsibility. 

The Delhi-Ranchi Rajdhani Express would not have forcibly offloaded more than 900 ticket-holding passengers if today’s Indian Railways were motivated by the service-above-self spirit of the old East Indian or Bengal Nagpur Railways. Nor would passengers have meekly submitted if state undertakings had not become synonymous with bullying. 

Ananya Choudhury has shown it need not be so. People have rights. They elect governments to serve those rights. A government that cannot or will not do so has no right to exist. That is what democracy is all about.

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