An exodus of distraught villagers, fleeing their parched farms, staggers toward Calcutta. “Woh raha Kulkutta [There lies Calcutta],” a haggard young farmer says, pointing with hope to the city on the horizon. The hope in his eyes quickly turns to fear of what the city may bring.
The historic city Calcutta, capital of the eastern state of Bengal, does crush the hopes of the villagers. The city offers the squalor of the footpath for a home. The specter of death continues to haunt. There are no jobs. The rich are garishly materialistic. The powerful in the city—as in the villages left behind—exploit helpless women with a cynical sense of privilege. Hence, when famine conditions ease, many who survived their trek to Calcutta and its harsh life return to their villages. For India’s most vulnerable people, there is no home, no gainful work, no dignity. The reverse trek—from the city to the village—is the expression of that despair.
These scenes are from the movie Dharti ke lal (Children of the Earth), a 1946 portrayal of the 1943 Bengal famine. In discussing the movie, the twenty-seven-year-old emerging cinematic genius Satyajit Ray wrote, “The raw material of cinema is life itself.”1
Touching gingerly on one of India’s deepest wounds, the movie showed segregated relief kitchens for Hindus and Muslims. The partition of British-governed India into India and Pakistan was approaching. The reality was forbidding. In August 1946, coinciding closely with the release of Dharti ke lal, Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other, leaving between five thousand and ten thousand dead in the “Great Calcutta Killing.” A year later, with partition now imminent, millions—Hindus toward India and Muslims toward Pakistan—crossed the eastern India-Pakistan border that ran through the state of Bengal. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi—Mahatma Gandhi or simply the Mahatma, the great soul—prevented another episode of disastrous blood shedding. He gathered Hindu and Muslim Bengali leaders in Calcutta. Together they sat through daily prayer meetings and walked the streets in demonstration of communal solidarity. But Hindu-Muslim violence took on epic proportions on the western border running through the state of Punjab.2
In that moment of shame there was also political inspiration. Just before midnight on August 15, 1947, as brutalities raged in Punjab, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke to the sovereign Constituent Assembly in the Indian parliament. To the new India, with 70 percent of its 360 million people depending on a fickle agriculture for their livelihoods, Nehru made a promise: India’s democracy would work to honor the Mahatma’s pledge, to “wipe every tear from every eye.”3
Indian leaders quickly established a nation based on high principles. The Constituent Assembly enacted the Indian Constitution, which gave every adult a vote and established the essential institutions of a modern democracy. A determined effort brought more than five hundred previously disjointed princely kingdoms into the Indian union. India’s early leaders emphasized religious tolerance. The goals of national unity and a secular democracy soaked into the national psyche and influenced the outlook and values of many Indians across generations.
Independence also brought material gains. After stagnating in the half century before the British left, average incomes of Indians increased, gradually at first and more rapidly after the mid-1980s, when millions of Indians emerged from severe poverty.
Yet the gains were tenuous. While poverty fell alongside high GDP growth rates achieved after the mid-1980s, a question mark hangs over the extent of the achievement. The difficulty arises in defining who is poor. Analysts had long followed the World Bank convention that a person was poor if he or she was unable to spend even $1.90 a day on consumption needs. By that definition, 22 percent of Indians in 2011 were poor. But by then India had graduated from a low- to a lower-middle-income country. And with the rise in income and life’s complexities, the social benchmarks of humane existence had increased, which meant that $1.90 per day was no longer sufficient to buy minimally acceptable necessities. In 2017, the World Bank acknowledged that people living in lower-middle-income countries needed at least $3.20 a day to meet their essential needs, and it computed new poverty estimates for previous years. By that more reasonable definition, India’s poverty rate was 60 percent, rather than 22 percent, in 2011.4 I refer to the 38 percent of Indians who lived in the zone between the two poverty lines—the old $1.90/day and the new $3.20/day—as the precariously poor. Such families were typically one illness or one job loss away from falling back below the miserly $1.90/day poverty threshold. In India’s precarious zone lived hundreds of millions of farmers, construction workers, and low-skilled service-sector workers. Over time, matters became worse. An official 2017–2018 survey—which the government tried to suppress—showed that even the share of those living below the dire, $1.90/day line had crept up.
By my analysis, the illusion of economic dynamism burst in August 2018, when the finance-construction bubble deflated. Soon after, Indian democracy also suffered a grievous, possibly irreversible, blow, when money, muscle, and Hindu nationalism won the vote in the 2019 election.
In January 2020, a new coronavirus entered India: SARS-CoV-2, which caused the disease known as COVID-19. On the evening of March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that, starting at midnight, the country would be locked down for the next three weeks. Severely restricting the movement of people was necessary, he insisted, to prevent the spread of the highly contagious and lethal coronavirus. On April 14, Modi extended the lockdown. By now, the virus was unforgivingly exposing an India in 2020 that had troubling echoes from Bengal in the 1940s.5
As in Calcutta then, cities now were inhospitable to rural migrants. Now, the scale was much larger and made horrifying by the lockdown. Even in Delhi, one of India’s richest cities, migrants from rural areas “survived in the nooks and crannies, picking up whatever [job] came their way—construction, plumbing, loading goods, pitching tents for events.” They earned a wage on the days they got work. Since the lockdown began, they had yet to earn a rupee. They had no social safety net and wanted to return home to their villages and families. But the lockdown prevented travel. The “garbage- and excreta-laden banks” of the river Yamuna on the outskirts of Delhi filled up with “men who could not go home.”6
Delhi’s trapped migrants were but a small fraction of India’s one hundred million “temporary” migrants, about 20 percent of the nation’s workers. Such rootless Indians were mostly men who had moved from their villages to cities in the hope of beginning better lives. Often as many as seven shared a single room to sleep at night. Whenever they could, but especially at harvest time, they returned to their village families and homes. The luckier migrants, who had moved as families to places such as Mumbai’s iconic slum Dharavi, congregated—commonly between five and ten of them—to live and work in one room. They queued up in long lines to use public toilets located alongside open sewers. Now, as work and incomes vanished, about 150,000 of Dharavi’s one million residents joined the swelling reverse treks from hostile cities to far-flung villages.7
As reports of panicked migrants spread, the government turned on its media critics, accusing them of spreading “fake news.” Prime Minister Modi summoned owners and editors of print media organizations and asked them to publish “positive stories” of the government’s efforts to contain the crisis. The Supreme Court echoed the government’s narrative that the media’s “fake news” was a “menace.” Most journalists followed the court’s instruction to shade the dark reality with the upbeat official accounts.8
On April 10, 2020, the government of Uttar Pradesh ordered the police to press criminal charges against Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of the online news portal The Wire, for reporting fake news. The Wire had mistakenly attributed a statement to the chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Although Varadarajan quickly corrected the error and reposted the article, Uttar Pradesh police served him with a notice of criminal investigation. The flutter about misquotation distracted attention from Chief Minister Adityanath’s COVID-related transgressions. Two weeks earlier, he had twice violated social distancing guidelines, both times in the cause of Hindu religious priorities.9
The Hindu-Muslim divide of yesteryear had reemerged in virulent form. Even as the Yogi (as he was commonly known) displayed an assertive Hindu religiosity, Hindu fanatics—backed by the state—targeted the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic evangelical organization whose members had met in various parts of the country in February and March. On March 23, the day before Modi’s lockdown directive, they had convened at a seminary in Nizamuddin West in Delhi and in the following days some members of the Jamaat died from COVID-19. The police accused Jamaat members of causing a spike in COVID-19 cases and arrested some of them. The virus of hate spread. Across much of the northern belt but also in the southern state of Karnataka, attacks against Muslims surged. In the eastern state of Jharkhand, a pregnant and bleeding Muslim woman was beaten and turned away from a hospital. She lost her child. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, a government-run hospital segregated coronavirus patients by religion.10
And economic inequalities now had become much wider. With exquisite timing, on April 22, four weeks into the lockdown, Vogue India invited its readers into another Mumbai world, the twenty-seven-story Mumbai home of Mukesh Ambani, India’s reigning business tycoon and one of the world’s richest people. The Ambani home, located eleven kilometers (seven miles) away from cramped Dharavi, has ceilings so high that the structure is tall as an average sixty-story building. It is equipped with three helipads, a theater that can accommodate eighty guests, a spa, and a garage for 168 vehicles. The “sun-kissed living area” offers a “breathtaking view of the sea.”11
In the India of 2020, the Hindu-Muslim divide and egregious economic inequalities were reverberating echoes of Bengal in the 1940s. And disconcertingly, despite decades of economic progress, the echoes also sounded in the economic desperation of the reverse trek from the city to the village. The ongoing reverse trek revealed the continued risk of sudden income loss, health catastrophe, and the loss of even woeful living spaces: it revealed an India that was broken for hundreds of millions of Indians.12
This book is my attempt to explain why India, for so many, is broken.
1. Satyajit Ray, 1948, “Indian Films,” Statesman, October 2.
2. Nisid Hajari, 2015, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, Kindle edition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, location 147.
3. “Jawaharlal Nehru: ‘Tryst with Destiny’ Address to the Constituent Assembly of India in New Delhi,” American Rhetoric website, available at www.american-rhetoric.com/speeches/jawaharlalnehrutrystwithdestiny.htm.
4. Francisco Ferreira and Carolina Sánchez-Páramo, 2017, “A Richer Array of International Poverty Lines,” World Bank, Washington, DC, October 13; see also chapter 20.
5. Vidya Krishnan, 2020 “The Callousness of India’s COVID-19 Response,” The Atlantic, March 27; Niharika Sharma, 2020, “India Extends Its Nationwide Coronavirus Lockdown Till May 3,” Quartz India, April 14.
6. Supriya Sharma and Vijayta Lalwani, 2020, “Hell on the Yamuna as Hundreds Starved for Days after Delhi Shelters Went Up in the Flames,” Scroll.in, April 15.
7. Al Jazeera, 2020a, “Concerns after Mumbai’s Dharavi Slum Reports COVID-19 Cases,” April 3; Smruti Koppikar, 2020, “Dharavi’s Economy Goes Down the Tubes,” Mint, April 18.
8. Caravan, 2020, “Speaking Positivity to Power,” March 31; Meera Emmanuel, 2020, “Coronavirus Lockdown: Fake News and Panic Driven Migration Caused Untold Misery to Migrant Labourers, Supreme Court [Read Order],” Bar and Bench, March 31.
9. Business Standard, 2020, “About 3,500 Jurists, Artists Slam FIR against Varadarajan, Call It Attack on Media Freedom,” April 14; The Wire, 2020, “As CoV Cases Spike in Nizamuddin, Nehru Stadium Becomes Quarantine Centre,” March 31; Sharat Pradhan, 2020, “Adityanath’s Role in Shift of Ram Idol at Temple Site Upsets Some Ayodhya Sadhus,” The Wire, March 20.
10. Sruthisagar Yamunan, 2020, “Tablighi Jamaat: How Did the Government Fail to Detect a Coronavirus Infection Hotspot?” Scroll.in, April 1; Joanna Slater and Niha Masih, 2020, “These Americans Came to India to Deepen Their Faith. They’ve Been Detained, Quarantined and Prosecuted,” Washington Post, August 27; Samar Halarnkar, 2020, “Why the Slow Drip of Anti-Muslim Poison in India Is Now a Flood,” Scroll.in, April 10; Aditya Menon, 2020, “Attacks on Muslims in the Name of COVID-19 Surge across India,” The Quint, April 8; Abhishek Angad, 2020, “In Jharkhand, Pregnant Woman Says Told to Clean Up Blood, Loses Child,” Indian Express, April 19; Al Jazeera, 2020b, “India Hospital Segregates Muslim and Hindu Coronavirus Patients,” April 16.
11. Nitya Chablani, 2020, “29 Stunning Pictures and Videos That Take You Inside Antilia, Mukesh Ambani & Nita Ambani’s Residence,” Vogue.in, April 22.
12. See chapters 20 and 23.