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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Between black and white...!

The article ‘Between black and white...!’ appeared in The Hans India, Hyderabad on October 26, 2011.

To those who are familiar with the ways of working class women in the north coastal Andhra districts, it is no surprise to see them carrying their cash, notes and coins in a small cloth bag tucked into the sari at the waist. The small bag that can be closed with a draw string, tucked into the waist is safer than a man’s pocket. Also to those familiar with the area it is no surprise to see cigars smoked with the burning end held in the mouth. Perhaps the nicotine intake provides the necessary physiological relaxation from back-breaking manual labour under a blazing sun but nobody could ever explain how the weird habit of smoking with the burning end in the mouth came about. Both men and women indulge in this rather bizarre habit that is cause for statistically significant incidence of oral cancer in the region.

However I was pleasantly surprised to see a woman take out a mobile phone and a battery charger from her receptacle at the waist and seek a socket to plug it in. She was the maistree for women manual labour. She has on call a number of women workers. They assist masons in construction work by carrying in bricks and cement mortar and carrying out debris in large metal basins as a head load. This was in 2008 when I spent a couple of months back home for renovating our ancestral home. The masons and the coolies commenced their work between 9 & 10 AM and broke for lunch at 1 PM. The men went to the terrace for a smoke and a snooze and the women retired to the hall. Unbidden, they switched on the ceiling fan and lied down for a brief rest. It appears they have fans and colour televisions at home and on the days they didn’t work, watched the telly, especially the ‘serials’.

But according to the mason-contractor (having graduated from mason to contractor he didn’t do manual work any more!) who engaged them there were no days when they didn’t work. During summer they were busy in construction work. In early monsoon, they worked as farm labour. And there was construction work again between the monsoons. He said thanks to the rural employment guarantee scheme nowadays it was difficult to engage them.

Rajiv Gandhi had the candour (or naiveté) in his early days as a professional politico to confess that of every rupee the government spent only eighteen paise reached the intended beneficiaries. That his acolyte Mani Shankar Aiyar – who is never tired of singing Rajiv carols - put a new spin on the economics of poverty alleviation in a recent television debate is another matter. According to Mani, who can spin words as well as the next man the eighty-two paise which fall through the cracks in the system were actually ‘administrative’ expenses. You can’t beat Mani in ‘spin’. He loves the sound of his voice, can pontificate in a phoney Oxbridge accent and make the most inane utterance sound ‘intellectual’ as if to say, ‘I’m Sir Oracle; let no dog bark when I speak!’ He quotes Marx and Engels and many others with unpronounceable names to make a point that India would be better off without computers and blue jeans. For him it would be best if the stock markets were closed as they were the play-fields of only the super rich; that Pakistan is really a ‘saint’ state and an ally.     

The rural employment guarantee scheme may be full of chinks and the system might be leaking like a sieve making many middle men rich but their hard work did enable the working class women (and their men) to watch colour television and loll under a ceiling fan on a hot day. These people may not have been aware of a gentleman called Pramod Mahajan whose tenure as telecom minister made it possible for the woman maistree to carry her cellular phone (and charger). They may not also be aware of a gentleman called A. Raja who milked the same telecom for his ‘social justice’ projects. He is a part of the society, isn’t he? What’s wrong if he did some ‘social justice’ for himself?  It is true, not all of us were aware of the enormity of A. Raja’s ‘social justice’ projects, back then.

But then this is the third India between the India of the rich and the ‘other’ India that is the darling of the prophets of doom, the ‘raison d’ etre’ of our bleeding heart liberals. Between the black India that can stow away cash on the black in those famed Swiss banks and the white or the ‘other’ India that sets hearts racing to bleed there are a myriad shades of grey.