Two Visuals of India’s Lockdown: Are they Contrasting or the Same?

In the last many weeks of the lockdown there are contrasting visuals on our digital feed. On one extreme we see migrant laborers walking and cycling 100s of kms and some dying midst their endeavor. Then there are visuals of dalgona coffee challenges and anything that has a little bit flaunt appeal is put out there. Depending on an individual’s interest, one set of images may be of a greater proportion in the feed but with a sure peppering of the other set images.

There has been criticism and judgement being passed on the second set of images. The one criticizing is unable to comprehend how can someone rave about a 3-course meal prepared when the destitute are struggling even for one decent meal a day. This has made me wonder, if we have polarized an all-encompassing emotion of empathy to a serious, lackluster, higher state of humanness that limits its definition to feel only another’s pain and not smile at another’s trivial joy!

In the context of the criticisms, the definition of privileged is around basic needs of access to food, shelter and social security. But in a broader sense, it implies to a certain effortless, autopilot mode of existence. In the last few decades parents of a majority of the populous have dreamt and struggled their way through for their children to lead a far more privileged life than theirs. They set their children on this endeavor along with horse-blinders, lest they be distracted. Nobody asked these kids if they wanted this privileged life. Nobody asked them if their vision can be deliberately limited.

And here they are today, being reminded and somewhat mocked that they are not part of ‘essential services’ and judgement passed as being ‘insensitive’. The reality could not have been any further.

If an entrepreneur does not brave to think disruptively, if the engineer does not device a new machine, if an architect does not draw out a blue print, if an analyst does not predict trend, if a designer does not bring in new aesthetics, if a marketer does not create myths to create artificial demand and so on, then the millions of the migrant laborers would be in a far devastating state. Hence my submission here is, while we finally notice and acknowledge the crucial importance of the worker class, who are indispensable, let our benevolence not come from discounting and criticizing the executive class and pronounce them as snobbish privileged who have regenerating resources.

Coming to insensitiveness, that comment is harsher than one can imagine. In this lockdown a large majority of executives are easily putting in 25% to 30% extra work hours. The screen time has only increased. If you are with a young family the challenges of managing energetic kids takes a toll. If you are a single person locked amidst 4 walls, homesickness inflates further.

Growing up, this class has been on a treadmill running towards no goal, but to keep fit. To add some meaning to that, someone sold them step counters and some level of accomplishment was achieved. A few became marathon runners, training for it and clocking better time than their previous record. A more niche among them invested on geared bicycles and braved the pollution of the city to create a new meaningful lifestyle. All this done with carbs becoming the villain of their new diet. And then these very people see visuals of laborers embark on what started first with 300-500 kms to now upwards of 1000 kms journey on foot. On foot, on the melting tar roads of highways, where there is no respite of shade. People whose diets are sustained around carbs with meager protein and fats, have body reserves that signal to their judgement that they will survive this journey but not survive being stranded in their city of employment.

When the executive class see these laborers, I don’t think there is insensitiveness. No, not at all. There is shame, helplessness, a sense of being inadequate, a deeper sense of the already existing existential crisis comes over. But no, not insensitiveness.

This lockdown is a matter of survival too for the executive class. In the few hours break each day from work and errands, that digital screen is their only window to make themselves visible. They want to project the beauty, creativity and blessing in their life and seek validation, that yes, they matter. They exist! They just want to come out sane. Yes, in some cases they have surplus food, comfortable homes, online get together and other distractions. Not to mention that, there are also a few who do their bit in their own individual capacity to help someone else tide through. They just don’t advertise it and choose instead to talk about their newly acquired culinary skill. But many are also trapped in their minds with nowhere to go.

In a growing grim situation, a lot of the executive populous are also under the anxiousness of, not if they would get axed; but when. Salary cuts are already rolled out. EMIs and Credit Card bills are set to drown anyone floating. The graveness of the situation can only be seen in statistical data points and spread sheets. Not in gut churning visuals that can come even close to the migrant laborers plight. So please don’t call them insensitive, when they are only trying to cope and hold onto whatever shinning slivers they may have.

For the ones who are far more receptive to the plight of the poor, the visuals of the migrant laborers are an avalanche. They clearly know that the direct responsibility lies with the Central Government, for not only first forgetting the labor community but also later not acknowledging a humanitarian crisis created by them, midst of a pandemic. There is anger, rightfully so. But also respect to this group for mobilizing aid and working relentlessly when no one asked them to. Hence its acceptable in some measures if they feel a sense of irritation when they see those images of dalgona coffee challenge. Important to note that, their criticism is not directed at any individual but at the collective conscious of the executive or what they prefer to call as the privileged class.

My greatest worry is that while we juxtapose how the migrant laborers and the executive class are responding to the lockdown, we are deepening the divide of ‘they and us’. We are bucketing and labeling people basis a proverbial statement of ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’. That is not true in this case. The visuals of the migrant laborers is only the tip of the ice-berg which has exposed that they have been continued to serve a raw deal even post 70 odd years of independence, post labor reforms and post liberalization of the economy in the 90’s. We need to get them a far better deal than ration cards and some meager cash in their accounts. Contrastingly, the visuals of the executive class just like the dalgona coffee is only fluff with no stuff. That is a psychological problem that so many people are finding flitting moments of smile rather than real joy, while they sit amidst presumable material comforts. We need to address the growing mental health issues which is reaching a tipping point.

If we need to arrive at a real solution, we need to look beyond what meets the eye. We need to start a conversation and engage with more and more people. Inclusivity should be our only agenda, where we show respect for different opinions and point of views. This is an uphill task, but we need to take the first step. And that first step is by having someone with a higher Emotional Quotient holding the conversation together and with some level of autonomy in decision making. Which means, this person will be able to first see how different sections of people feel socially secured and not how we get the bull raging.

We need across professions today people with higher Emotional Quotient. Only then can we come to truly leverage on empathy – that not only feels pain of others but also know what may bring real joy to another.

And the day to have taken that first step was day-before.

Symbol of Empathy

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