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Covid-19 a social leveller? Why trust New Normal when Old Normal wasn't normal

By Umang Kumar*
It is open-season for the business of imagining a new post-Covid-19 world. All manner of idealistic, air-brushed versions of a new reality are being put forth -- versions which visualize a world more aware of our interdependence, our common vulnerabilities and our social proximities; versions which offer advice on “slower pace of life,” and a more holistic living, whatever that may mean. We are actually witnessing a pandemic of “New Normal” mantras from New Age prophets.
There are various economic models also being brought out of cold-storage and being re-heated and re-served as ideal organizations of socio-economic life that will put us into a brave new world. Many such models advocate indigenous systems and localized sites of economic activity, such as swaraj, swadeshi, Make in India etc., flirting with nationalistic notions in the process.
There is the general hope expressed that, despite social distancing, the “joint struggle” against the pandemic has annealed our national character such that we can only emerge resistant to the corrosiveness of entrenched social and economic divisions.
But, how do we, in India, even begin to pay heed to such pious platitudes? Especially when we have seen resurface in the run-up to and during the Covid-19 situation, instances of deep-seated attitudes of bigotry towards minorities and those whose class and caste are deemed “low?’ Does everyone have the luxury and the privilege to imagine a “New Normal” when suddenly jolted by a pandemic?
In fact, for many Indians currently, the priority is to ensure a “normal” quota of two-square meals a day, their lives having been thrown into disarray. Surely, millions of Indians, under various kinds of marginalizations, imagine a “new normal” every day, even without a pandemic, as a matter of their engagement with life.
We tumbled into the Covid-19 lockdown from an “Old Normal” marked by severe dissatisfaction and opposition against laws like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the carnage in the North-east Delhi in which the poor -- and poor Muslims specifically -- were disproportionately affected.
Deep-rooted inequality and inequity characterize our society and economy. The Niti Aayog, the country’s premier official policy think-tank, reported increases in poverty and inequality (over a 2018 baseline report) in its 2019 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) report (December 2019).
According to a Business Today analysis of the report, “The Niti Aayog data shows, 22 states and UTs taking a hit in 2019 over its 2018 index -- indicating that poverty is going up...”
Not just poverty, inequality had also gone up. According to the analysis referenced above, “When it comes to the 'SDG Goal 10: Reduced Inequality', the same pattern is repeated... The SDG Goal 10 index captures growth in expenditure, women in panchayats, SC/ST in assemblies, transgenders in labour force and utilisation of funds earmarked for ST/ST sub-plans.”
Quite obviously, the country had not been too mindful, as usual, in keeping its promises to the ‘SC/ST’ slice of its population. The Niti Aayog report came on the heels of other damning reports such as the Global Hunger Index (India 102 out 107 countries) and the general malaise in the economy (always to be blamed on rural demand), as indicated by companies like Parle announcing fall in sales. Other reports such as Azim Premji University’s State of Working India 2019 highlighted rising unemployment and a 2018 report by economist Himanshu had also flagged unprecedented rates of inequality in India.

Forced distress

If the conditions leading up to the Covid-19 lockdown period were hardly rosy, the situation created by the lockdown blew away any fig leaves we were using to cover ourselves with the notion of “we are all in it together.”
The forced distress to the migrants on account of the lockdown was mind-numbing in its callousness. Despite all claims of being fully prepared - and looking after the interests of the most vulnerable - the action ended up causing acute misery to innumerable workers, especially the migrant workers, our fellow citizens.
If anyone had any doubts regarding India’s socio-economic divides, the debilitating impact of the lockdown on the daily-wage workers would hopefully have put them to rest.
The vilification of the Muslim community after the Tablighi Jamaat incident was a shameful example of our biases baring their fangs in the middle of an already difficult situation. All pretence of a country coming together as one to wage a righteous struggle against a common enemy was quickly “unmasked,” shall we say. In fact, several "hardline Hindutva" supporters openly expressed sentiments such as, "We are not in it together," soon after the Jamaat incident.
It seems the pathologies of the bigoted mind are not magically transmuted to feelings of universal fellowship and understanding under conditions of general stress, as is being hoped by the “New Normal” proponents. To suggest that certain trying circumstances, a pandemic included, might suddenly transform the deep-seated tendencies of human beings or disabuse them of narrow-minded prejudices in a short while almost seems like extravagant and idle thinking.
Illustrations of age-old dissensions, social cleavages and negative social attitudes continuing unaltered despite encountering traumatic events abound in India. We have been through horrific communal clashes, such as those in Muzaffarnagar and Gujarat; we have been witness to continuing distress among our primary food-producers, the farmers, leading to their suicides, ongoing for years now; we have seen the dispossession of resources and habitats from our adivasi fellow-citizens; and, we have borne witness to the ongoing humiliation of Dalits, in settings rural and urban - and educational.
We had also hoped to awaken into another New Normal soon after the end of colonial rule, as encapsulated in the first prime-minister’s storied speech: 
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes, but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

State of minorities

But Dr BR Ambedkar was not confident of this poetically imagined “new age,” which promised a New Normal then, for he knew that the transfer of power was being effected to those with majoritarian interests who would not easily share power - so he pressed for constitutional guarantees for the marginalized. 
As he pointed out in his work, States and Minorities
“Unfortunately for the minorities in India, Indian Nationalism has developed a new doctrine which may be called the Divine Right of the Majority to rule the minorities according to the wishes of the majority...Under these circumstances there is no way left but to have the rights of the Scheduled Castes embodied in the Constitution.” Over the years, none of the phenomena mentioned above, the partition of the subcontinent included, have proved instrumental in bringing about some kind of a New Normal that has made us even think of a more equal and just society. 
Injustices against the Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims continue unabated; brazen self-enrichment and the misappropriation of public funds by bankers and businessmen, for example, is an ongoing story; and the condition of rural India has not seen any significant attention being paid to it -- out-migration from the poorest districts has only seen an uptick over the years.
How, then, can we expect something like Covid-19 with its very overt and stark class-based (and therefore caste-based) effect on people’s lives, to be a transformative phenomenon which will give rise to a “New Normal,” especially one that will represent more just ways of life?
In the process of the current lockdown, the avenues of self-reliance of some of the most enterprising and creative people like the Adivasis and the Bahujans who make up the majority of the migrants, have been forcefully taken away.
How can one argue that the many little businesses that we see all over our cities and towns -- a tailor with a sewing machine under a tree, a key maker by the road, a shoe-repairer in some corner, a vada-pav thela near the train station, a chai establishment near an office complex, large teddy bears being sold on the sidewalk - are not examples of swadeshi, swaraj and Make in India?
This is not a romanticization; it is seeing the realities of economic life as they play out in India. It is going beyond text-book economics and the debates over skilling, full-employment and precarity. It is giving the dignity owed to each attempt at securing a livelihood, such as the ones enumerated above.
To now suggest other artificial modes of economic organizations as hallowed alternatives post-Covid-19 is a display of cultivated ignorance. We have inflicted harm upon existing mechanisms of sustenance of the poor and now to put forward some fancy boutique-economy project for them to participate in is to add salt to injury. 

Self-ghettoisation

When the enforced “stay-at-home” measures confined much of the upper classes in the relative comfort of their homes, away from the chaos being visited upon the workers’ lives, how do we expect empathetic feelings to wash over members of that class?
As it is, much of the urban classes have walled themselves off from the world outside by sheltering within their gated complexes, which have created a condition of “first world inside, third world outside.” This self-ghettoisation is a conscious choice. 
How can one reasonably expect such a class to feel sincere oneness with the common-masses who are nothing more than lowly service providers for them? How can we even conceive of a society based on communitarian principles to suddenly spring up from the background of willed social segregation, based primarily on class and caste? 
Much of urban classes have walled themselves off within gated complexes, creating condition of first world inside, third world outside
In the middle of the anti-CAA protests last year, several industry leaders gathered at a business meeting when approached by the Indian Express “excused themselves from talking on the ongoing protests.” One of them who did respond, said that “he doesn’t know who is right and wrong and that he doesn’t know much about the issue.” 
It is one thing not to mix business and politics -- which is more the exception than the rule, by the way -- still another to admit not knowing much about the issue; that points to a not-unexpected but still regrettable disconnect from pressing, popular issues in the country.
Dr BR Ambedkar fervently wished for fraternal relations to mark a flourishing society, which would be a basis for democracy. As he expressed it in Annihilation of Caste (AoC), 
“There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association...This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint, communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards one’s fellow men.”
India is very far from any significant “attitude[s] of respect and reverence towards one’s fellow men.” The lockdown has demonstrated attitudes of disdain, control, and disrespect towards our daily-wage and migrant workers. Residential complexes have routinely vilified healthcare workers, denying them access to their own homes. Even many of our respected society members, such as nature conservationists, have indulged in simple-minded accusations and blame-games concerning the origin of the virus. 
The Covid-19 situation has hardly been the social leveler that many who are envisioning new normals are raving about. We yet do not have a socio-economic analysis of those affected in India, though people like D Raja of the CPI have surmised that the poorer settlements will be more affected
In countries with racially mixed populations, the virus has affected races differently. It is being called The Black Plague in the US for its disproportionate effect on African-Americans and very recently, similar differential effects are being reported for Britain too.
There is no harm in imagining new futures but one would expect such imaginings would have some grounding in reality. In fact one should not have to wait for a major health crisis to be jolted into thinking about alternate economic visions. 
Such thinking and practice have existed for a long time in India and around the world; countries like Cuba and Venezuela encapsulate different attempts at organizing society and economy, while indigenous communities around the world still try to practice sustainable, non-capitalist ways of living. 

Economic arrangements

In the Indian context, if one must reconsider the modes of economic arrangements, one would hope for deep and sincere rethink of structural issues with the economic system. This would involve investigation into its basic anti-common people orientation, which deepens inequalities, not as some necessary intermediate states, but by design, progressively establishing a sharply divided society.
For starters, we have to acknowledge that there are several constitutional guarantees and policy provisions for the most marginalised which, at a minimum, must be delivered. Yet, we saw above that in the Niti Aayog’s estimation for 2019, it had been lagging in delivering on its promise to the SC/ST citizens. 
On a related note, the SC/ST Atrocities Act, which seeks to provide some protection from the routine violence, is constantly meddled with. How then do we hope to even begin addressing issues of social discrimination when we renege on promises and guarantees to the marginalized population?
Part of the economic disparity and causes for out-migration is on account of under-development, however defined, in the districts with the most chronic economic issues. That these districts (now referred to as “aspirational districts”) from the so-called Bimaru states have not really had their issues attended to across political regimes over the years should say something about our political will and our commitment to socio-economic equity and justice.
India’s agriculture has been undergoing a crisis for a while. Among the few commentators who have drawn attention to it recently, in relation to the migrant worker crisis, is Christophe Jaffrelot, a political scientist. He has pointed to the underlying causes of the migration, by presenting a well-argued case with relevant data for attending as soon as possible to the rural crisis: 
“Thus, the COVID-19 crisis, by revealing the magnitude of the migrant worker phenomenon, should open the eyes of the urban dwellers to the grim situation of India’s agriculture. This sector of the economy should become a priority again in term (sic) of policies.” Are we, “the urban dwellers,” ready to open our eyes to what is afflicting the food producers and tillers of the land? Are we ready to open our eyes to the many forms of discrimination around us based on caste, class, ethnicity and religion? If not, then all breezy nostrums about a “New Normal” will mean nothing.
Veteran journalist P Sainath had described the attitudes of general apathy, cluelessness and opportunism in his classic book about drought in rural India, "Everyone Loves a Good Drought". One hopes one is not forced to rephrase much of those descriptions and arguments for the current environment, in similar matter-of-factness and cynicism, as Everyone (seems to) Love a Good Pandemic.
--
*Writer based in Delhi NCR. Blog: migrantworkerscenter.wordpress.com

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