How can we be insensitive when we find a scantily-clad woman or child squirming in biting cold and looking into your face with a mute appeal for relief? But most of us in this part of the world do ignore their plight and move away melancholically?
Some well-meaning person might dole out a buck or two but that is not going to help. The shivering person needs some quilt or blanket and food to survive.
The other day I was witness to a similar disregard to basic human values. Even though it was a very cold evening with outside temperature being about 10 degree Celsius around 8pm, I had taken my family to a newly-opened mediocre restaurant wanting to taste some new delicacies they had promised to serve on the New Year.
Before entering the place, we were greeted by a uniformed guard with a salute and a mumble: ‘‘Happy New Year, Sir’’. I noticed that he was wearing only a cotton uniform and his palms were quivering while his foam-stuffed jacket lay on his chair. I could not help asking him about this irony.
He hesitated, looked around and then sheepishly said his employer was not allowing him to wear the jacket because it would cover his uniform. He was bluntly told, ‘‘You are a watchman and you should look like one’’.
The poor man said he badly needed the job to keep his family alive and was prepared to go through such hardship. As he ushered in other guests he said, ‘‘I am only waiting for the harsh winter to end’’.
That was pure insensitivity aka apathy.
I had come across umpteen of such cases during days of my active journalism, in the nation’s capital Delhi and in many parts of the country’s largest state Uttar Pradesh, including Lucknow, its capital. I find that tragically the situation has not changed much during the last six decades.
Apathy, both official and of people at large, continues. There are not many big philanthropists. Those who have money to spare prefer to ‘invest’ in political parties.
With the average temperature swinging between 3 and 16 degrees Celsius, the entire north India is currently under the siege of a severe cold wave which is likely to continue. (This is too harsh a phenomenon for inhabitants of tropical region.) Irrespective of official proclamations, the ground situation is at complete variance.
The most hit are millions of shelterless people who migrate from their villages to cities in search of work which they do not always get. Leaving the nominal cover of their thatched roofs, they are forced to sleep in the open in the already crowded cities.
I have found some of them covering themselves with bed sheets because the family’s only blanket was being used by the rest of the family in the hut back in the village. In the cities, many burn wood chips, discarded cartons and other such inflammable material collected from roadsides and refuse dumps. The available heat sustains them through the night even if it means sitting around the small bonfire.
Tragically, one can see our insensitive officials having arranged bonfires (called Alao) outside the bungalows of equally insensitive VIPs who, however, spend their nights in the cozy comfort of room heaters.
These bonfires are avowedly meant for the poor who either hesitate to congregate in VIP areas or are driven away. However, these bonfires certainly enable the concerned authorities to convince the ruling bosses that everything is in order ‘‘everywhere’’ and the target has been achieved.
Even in this age when we have reached the moon and internet is the key to all our activities, our bureaucracy and its masters, the political class, have lost sense of time and urgency. Lack of imagination and planning, sloth and red-tapism continue to be our road blocks. Orders from the top are flouted with impunity or carried out perfunctorily rendering the objective meaningless.
Every year, the winters, summers and the monsoon arrive almost on schedule. But the authorities start the combat operations when these are half way through or are on the wane.
If a critical self appraisal is not unwelcome, I may point out that in Uttar Pradesh, tenders for purchase of some five lakh sweaters for school kids were floated when the cold season was at its peak around Christmas. Given the long procedure of purchase and distribution in the country’s most populated state, the sweaters would have reached the kids at the end of the winters.
Mercifully, the ill-conceived plan was shelved and the schools were asked to buy these directly from the market with their money to be reimbursed. But with likely unavailability of five lakh sweaters in one go and empty coffers of the schools, the project may never take off.
Once again, the kids would have to go to their school without sweaters while the administration waits for the next winter.
Evidently, the season’s coldness is no match to the administration’s coldness.
Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.