A development journalist chronicles tragic consequences of persisting – if not widening – economic inequalities
GN Bureau | February 26, 2022
Faces of Inequality
Stories of the Poor and underprivileged from India’s grassroots
By Pradeep Baisakh
Notion Press, Rs 350, 310 pages
Mandawali, a lower-income locality mostly hiding itself in bylanes behind the proper-middle-class neighbourhood of Indraprastha Extension on the main road rarely makes news. People of Mandawali, surviving on odd jobs, neither lead newsworthy lives nor die newsworthy deaths. But three of them did, in July 2018. Three young daughters of a rickshaw-puller died of starvation. What was shocking for their fellow citizens was probably the fact that people could die of starvation even in the capital.
Jhintu Bariha’s family never made it to the front-page of a national newspaper.
Jhintu must have had a few occasions of happiness, a few glimpses of joy during his 42 years. But mostly it was a struggle to survive, a struggle that ended in September 2009. Siba Prasad, his three-year-old daughter, and Gundru, his one-year-old daughter, might have far fewer peasant memories. They, and his wife, Bimla, 35, all died within three days. Only a seven-year-old son, Ramprasad, survived. To continue the same struggle. The cause of this tragedy? Starvation.
To be honest, the cause of such deaths is not starvation. In the twenty-first century, people do not die of lack of food and nutrition, when so much food stuff goes rotten. Whatever the post-mortem report may say, they die only of apathy. To be more precise in pathological terms, the cause of death is inequality.
As Pradeep Baisakh, a journalist and development sector practitioner, narrates the heartrending travails of Jhintu and many others in his collection of reportage, ‘Faces of Inequality’, it is clear inequality can be dangerous to health. When it does not kill, it still renders their lives less human. Administrations, with right intentions, set out to redress the situation, with ever new schemes, which indeed mitigates the impact to an extent. But bureaucracies are known to be inefficient and in dealing with the great unwashed, they have little incentive to become efficient.
Modern societies are characterized by many kinds of inequalities, over so many fault lines of caste, community, gender and more, but when it is the money that makes the world go round, the economic inequality makes the maximum impact. That was the theme of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests of 2011, and of the “One Percent vs 99 Percent” slogan. French economist Thomas Piketty [https://www.governancenow.com/news/regular-story/indias-1-problem-some-are-less-equal-others] has made that case with incontrovertible historic data, and last month Ofxam again reported how “inequality kills” [http://www.governancenow.com/news/regular-story/two-indias-one-for-the-billionaires-one-struggling-for-minimum-wages]. This abstract trove of numbers and analysis is made relatable in the reports Baisakh wrote for various publications and are compiled here.
Reporting from the grassroots helps readers put faces to data and realize the enormity of the human tragedy unfolding across the country (especially in Odisha, the author’s home state) over the last couple of decades. Even as governments changed, slogans changed, the economy was claimed to have changed for the better, what has not changed is the distress of the downtrodden.
Over the seven parts – devoted to * starvation, * distress migration, * industrialisation, violence and displacement, * RTI, rural employment guarantee and forests, * women and children, * disaster, and * miscellaneous (farmers’ suicide, persons with disabilities, victims of communal violence and of HIV/ADIS – there is a catalogue of the failures of the state to help those who are in position to help themselves. The pandemic – with the reverse migration during the nationwide lockdown in 2020 and countless deaths during the second wave in 2021 – would add a whole section in the next edition, if not a new book altogether.
While long-term solutions can come only from right policies and effective implementation, wider awareness can go a long way in compelling the ruling class to find such solutions. Baisakh’s indefatigable and empathetic work can raise that awareness.
>>Here are some of the ground reports by Baisakh, a National Foundation of India media fellow for 2012, wrote for Governance Now:
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