A week ago, half the city of Mumbai was brought to a standstill because the auto-rickshaw drivers went on strike. Predictably, they were demanding higher fares. On the day of the strike, in spite of the inconvenience, I have to say that the city looked beautiful, and felt quieter. The loud giant wasps exhaling black fumes, flouting traffic rules and running a drilling machine from one ear to another had gone on a day-long excursion! Besides this though, there was little relief. People walked kilometers in the sweltering heat; dozens of them ran at the sight of a taxi, only to be quoted exorbitant rates by the cabbies. Refusal, arrogance, shamelessness were the order of the day.
The newspapers reported the next day that 80,000 auto-rickshaw drivers had gone on strike that day, out of which the transport authorities served “showcause notices” to 198, and apparently only one cared to reply. There was no report on any action taken on the remaining drivers, including the taxi drivers who were having a field day ripping people off.
It is not just about the strike. Even on a normal day, taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers take liberties to say “NO” to wherever you want to go (actually, they just make the most constipated face and make a “click” sound that makes you feel you’ve just asked them to drive into a morgue). The rate and frequency of refusals have gone up exponentially in the 2 years that I have lived in this city. Sometimes I really wonder where they actually want to go, or whether they want to go at all. Sometimes, out of exasperation, I ask them, and some care to tell me stories (“don’t have gas, will go the other way, need to hand the auto over to the next driver”), some just do the “click” and drive away. Add to all this the reckless driving, the fake inflated fare charts, the tampered meters, the unionized refusal to move away from the ridiculous mechanical meter (which looks like it’s jumped out of a 1950s movie) to the electronic meters that are rotting away in government warehouses (they went to the Supreme Court for this!) – and all this in a city that is known for the availability and ease of public transport 24×7. Imagine the plight of the commuter in other Indian cities, where these problems are beyond the realm of conversation (in Chennai, they asked me for Rs.300 for a distance of less than a kilometer; in Bangalore, they refused to take me when I was carrying a heavy box in the rain and had agreed to pay extra; in Delhi, auto-rickshaws are a rarity – they should probably be put in a museum).
The problem is beyond just public transport. The low-income community (yes, better known as slum) next to my apartment is always in party mode. It’s either a wedding, or a religious festival (and we have innumerable religions in India, each with innumerable days marked on their calendars), or Dr.Ambedkar’s birthday, or the day Sai Baba attained enlightenment, or the day the Buddha shook himself out of meditation and decided he needed to pee. The celebrations are loud and expensive, and let’s not ask where the money comes from. They are marked by loudspeakers blaring the latest Bollywood “item numbers” and people congregate to show respect by doing pelvic thrusts. And while I don’t care much for Ambedkar or Sai Baba or Buddha, I am almost hypnotized into doing the pelvic thrusts at home because how else am I to deal with such blaring music? I once called the security guards downstairs and asked them to get the volume lowered, failing which I would call the police. They counseled me out of the idea, not because they were scared of the police, but because they were scared of the slum dwellers.
It is interesting that while we sympathize with the unhygenic living conditions, meager incomes and lack of amenities for our poor, and some of us even attempt to find solutions, we ourselves are victims of their quirks, idiosyncrasies, and worse still, anger and destructive tendencies. Our governments have not given them a respectable life, have not given their children schools to go to, or their women the safety and dignity of bathrooms, but as if to make up for all this, have given them the privilege to riot, to burn, to kill, and to go scot-free after they have done all of those. What is most disturbing though is not what they do or what they are given by the political leaders, but what they perceive to be their rights. Ever wonder why there are no protests demanding schools, hospitals, sewers? Our poor have stopped asking for water, electricity, food, shelter, clothing, education – and have convinced themselves that the privilege to wreck unprosecuted violence is what makes them powerful, is what ensures their respect in society, is what will lead to a better future. This is downright fatal, to say the least. If social development were a war, then the physical squalid conditions of the poor is the “vanilla” artillery. The potent nuclear weaponry is the squalid conditions of their minds.
And through this celebration of “the world’s most populous democracy”, in which politicians secure vote banks by criminalizing the poor, emerges a new class of underprivileged. Yes, that is us. You and me who are educated to read this, are intelligent to understand this, and care to process this. It is us, the “professionals” who earn “fat pay packages” every month, the face of India Shining, the middle class that was earning in hundreds 3 decades ago and now earns in hundreds of thousands, that are forced to buy apartments in hogwashingly exotic-sounding condominiums (“New Cuffe Parade” is actually located in Wadala!) at inflated prices; buy cars to escape the nightmare of public transportation and actually get to work on time so that we keep our jobs and remain the poster-boys of India Shining. We want to go on strike too, you know? We want to protest against the lack of amenities in spite of high income tax we pay every year; against the exorbitant taxes for eating at a restaurant, watching a movie; against inflated airfares, unavailable train tickets, overcrowded buses; against the continuous hike in fuel prices. So here’s what we do to hoodwink ourselves into thinking we have privileges too – we go to Ramlila grounds and shout a few slogans for a doddering septuagenarian who has suddenly risen from his grave to save the country, we get on Facebook and “like” every single anti-government and inspirational post we can see (clearly we need a LOT of inspiration!), and some of us even blog about it knowing that only a handful people will read this.