Evening in Bhopal

Dhruva Desai | Tuesdays April 14/ May 12, 2020

For the two weeks of lockdown that we have seen so far, a group of us here in Bhopal have been trying to get supplies to some of the most vulnerable and hardest hit communities – dalits, adivasis, DNT (De-Notified Tribal) groups, migrant labourers, rag-pickers, certain muslim communities, and many more in the bastis of Bhopal.

Some of us have been working with some of these communities and in these areas in the past, and that’s where we started. From the very first time though, as we would pull up to our drop-off point and start unloading supplies, people would walk up to us and ask what we were giving – ready to accept anything from anyone in this moment of extreme vulnerability. We never have enough to give – what we designate for a community is already woefully short for their needs, and they further divide it among more people than can be calculated for; in times like these people are helping each other at their own cost. But it’s never enough – and scarcity doesn’t always bring out the best in us. There were also arguments, and complaints of hoarding by the designated distributors. Soon, we started getting calls from people we’d never met, who were looking to us as the answer to their problems. We tried to answer these calls, to get something, anything, to most of the people who called, and that resulted in even more desperate phone calls. Soon the calls started getting overwhelming, more and more coming in from all corners of the city – someone had heard from a sibling, someone from a friend, someone had just ‘received it on whatsapp as the number for getting supplies’. Our phones are ringing every 5 minutes, and to a majority of callers, we have to say we can’t help them at this time. We have only two cars, and those too are frequently stopped at checkposts by the police, we are told ‘there is no permission to move around now, go home’, our explanations falling on sometimes deaf and sometimes aggressive ears. We muddle through anyhow, buying supplies from the few wholesalers across the city who are still functioning, getting donations in cash and kind (bags of rice, wheat, oil and so on). We are fighting with the residents of our own neighbourhood who think that we are putting them at risk by driving down the road too often (a particularly classist complaint, actually – their issue is with the drivers of the loading autos helping us out). We are fighting with the police at every barricade. Worst of all, we are fighting with the very people we’re trying to help – scolding them on the phone, demanding that they stop passing our number on, yelling at them like an angry school teacher while we’re dropping supplies – ‘stop crowding us or we’ll start the car and drive off!’, our frustration at our own failure to help in any meaningful way spilling out and onto those who have already been brought to their knees by this pandemic, by this system.

Through all this, as the despair and frustration threatens to overwhelm us, as we snap at each other and fight over who to give the last remaining packet of dal to, as we get increasingly harsh with the phone calls that come our way, one starts to wonder – who can help in a situation like this? It seems so overwhelming, so impossible a situation – how do we feed all these people (to say nothing of getting them access to healthcare or secure housing) at a time like this, people who live right on (and in some cases off) the margin even at the best of times? Is it even possible? Who can achieve something at this scale?

And then one wonders why we are even asking such a question? We have an answer. It is the responsibility of the state, of at least one of the various governments we elect, or one of the various administrations that is supposed to be in charge. Isn’t this the premise of democracy, of governance? We do not use rashtrapati bhavan or the CM’s house as a public toilet, we submit to the lathis and fines of the police, those who can pay their taxes pay them (though those who should pay the most often don’t) and in return the government is supposed to make sure that we are looked after. It can be up for debate what that looking after entails, but surely ‘having access to either a way to make a living (note that we are not even demanding the living itself) OR food’ is a very, very low bar. And yet even by this incredibly low standard the state is failing us spectacularly. I am finding it difficult to differentiate between the central and state governments here because they all seem equally useless at this time. Madhya Pradesh is perhaps particularly poorly prepared because in the weeks leading up to this crisis politicians were more concerned with toppling/desperately holding on to being in the government rather than overseeing preparations.

In the last two weeks, in Bhopal at least, from authorities across the board we have seen either empty promises or promises that are not implemented where the need is greatest, or promises that simply are not implemented. The district administration gave us a ‘toll-free number’ (in one area that we know of) which one could call to collect rations for up to 20 families. We tried this number from four different phones over several hours, it was not answered once. The central government promised 500 rupees for every woman who holds a PM jan-dhan yojana account and when women lined up to collect this money (note that it was only 500, coming after weeks of near starvation, and that too only for the people who have the specific account), they were shouted at, threatened, and in some cases attacked by the police for ‘violating lockdown orders’. When, after 7 days of the lockdown, government PDS (public distribution system) shops were opened we thought there would be some relief. (Why were the shops closed for the first 7 days of the lockdown? We’re too tired to even wonder about such a question right now.) In the week since, we’ve heard people tell us that they weren’t allowed to make it to the ration shops by the police. We’ve heard some say that their card was taken by the shop officials and they were promised that they would receive a call when the supplies were ready. It’s been more than a week now, and they have received no calls (in fact, in some areas when our car pulls up, we are mobbed by angry citizens demanding their share from us; they think we are PDS distributors). We’ve heard from people who don’t have ration cards, from people who are registered in different districts and are trapped in Bhopal, from people who have been told that their biometrics don’t match the database and many more similar stories.

Of course, through all of this there has been one consistent aspect of the state’s involvement – the at best apathetic and at worst violent and aggressive intervention from the police. Wherever we go, we experience and hear of stories of police aggression, thuggishness, and their complete lack of sympathy. What is to be achieved by bullying vendors to close their shops and move their carts, and frightening citizens who are out just to get enough vegetables for the next day’s meals, and all this 6 hours before the extra curfew norms are set to apply? Why tell us that all unnecessary traffic is stopped when they can see our pass (stamped by the SDM), the sacks of wheat and rice in our car, and the fact that the same people are driving the same car full of the same kinds of rations day after day past them? Why threaten people who are out to get their relief rations, or people on their way to the PDS centre, or people lining up in front of the bank/LIC office/post office for their government allotted funds? How have we managed to add to this crisis of health, with a crisis of law and order – and even that in the wrong direction. The police, during ordinary times, tend (heavily) towards abuse of power. In these times of emergency, the negligence of the government has emboldened them further, to the detriment of our citizens.

We are a small group of people trying to help those who are struggling most – and making not even a dent. We are reaching, at best, two to three thousand families, and even then with insufficient supplies. There are many more efforts like ours in Bhopal and all over the country – all of them put together are making barely a mark. Whether we like it or not, the only ones who can change this situation, the only ones with the infrastructure for intervention at this scale are the state. As they plan for the future, whether or not the lockdown continues, whether or not testing increases, whether or not a vaccine is found, they must plan keeping in mind the vulnerability of these huge sections of our society. Perhaps we can avoid midnight pronouncements of lockdowns, appeals for plate-banging and lamp-lighting, and instead make sure our PDS systems are in place before we announce anything dramatic, that those without ration cards (and even without Aadhar cards) can access some form of supplies. Perhaps we can ask the police to stop threatening incarceration when someone steps out looking for supplies and instead task them with getting rations to those in difficult situations. Perhaps we can stop punishing a desire to survive and instead, as a state, help people fulfil that desire.

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Dhruva Desai | Bhopal | April 14/ May 12, 2020

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