For the growing Indian upper middle class, the second wave of Covid has been a revelation. For the first time in 30 years, we have understood what most of India experiences in terms of healthcare, or even the system working for them. Encased in our bubble of privilege, we set up separate systems of education, health, housing so that we didn’t have to interact with the rest of India. We put up our barricades, cocooned in the comfort of being with people like us, with the great unwashed masses kept outside our lives, our schools, our hospitals, and the spaces in which we congregated – except when they had to serve us, as the invisible masses. Those barricades were swept away by the ferocity of the second wave.
A system built without a strong foundation is doomed to crumble. And this is the reality that the creamy layer of the Indian nation faced in the months of spring running into the summer of 2021. Our systems, well-designed to keep out the ‘other’, were simply not enough to battle Covid. It was the publicly funded system that came through for most. For those not fortunate enough to gain access to the overcrowded public health system, the prospect was bleak. Families and individuals found themselves coping with not just grief, but the financial repercussions of battling the illnesses brought about by the virus.
Need for social security
There are appeals on social media, where families have paid tens of lakhs of rupees and are looking to raise tens of lakhs more. This is combined with the fact that many in this class are also facing financial ruin because their jobs have disappeared. For the first time, this class understands the need for social security. And the only ones who can provide it are people like them, on social media, who may contribute funds (or not). And, suddenly, our lives, like that of millions of others, has become a game of chance.
For those Indians who grew up in the pre-liberalisation era, there was no choice but to opt in. The hospitals we went to, the schools we attended, the institutes of higher education we studied in, were socio-economically integrated. There was a shared universe of experiences, shortages, and service expected. That changed with the coming in of liberalisation, and the ability to choose the services we could afford. And many of us, who entered the workforce in the early 90s chose separate universes, rather than fighting to improve the universe that we shared with others.
As we chose separate, and in our head, equal lives, we saw ourselves as a part of a larger national grouping with common interests. More focused on national power, national policies, and even international ones – forgetting that most politics is local; just as most services are. Having a vocal view on American healthcare reforms, or theoretical views on the power of market forces in determining healthcare outcomes was great on social media, or in drawing room conversations, but didn’t do us much good in terms of getting us the help needed, when we needed it. To change this, we need the vocal middle class to opt back into the great Indian polity.
Joining the mainstream
MS Sathyu’s seminal movie, Garam Hava is the story of a Muslim family in Agra, at the time of Partition and their dilemma on whether to stay in India or move to Pakistan. In the highly polarised and charged times that follow the bloodbath post- Partition and Gandhi’s assassination, the Mirzas face many upheavals, and many taunts on their position of wanting to stay. At the core of the family’s issues is the family patriarch Salim Mirza – possibly Balraj Sahani’s finest role – who believes that the family should not get involved in the politics of the country but focus on what it does. At odds with him is his son Sikandar (Farooque Sheikh), who believes that the family needs to be part of the mainstream. The film ends with the family choosing to stay, and symbolically participating in a protest – indicating their joining the mainstream of society.
While many refer to Garam Hava as symbolic of the Muslim community – especially in northern India – and its participation in the larger socio-economic conversations in India, for me, this is more reflective of the way the Indian middle class has behaved, especially since liberalisation. It is time we became part of the whole – take part in conversation around basic systems that we share with the rest, and bring about change.
Change is not brought about by talking about it. It is brought about by feet on the ground. It happens by being part of the local community. It is local reforms and activism that bring about genuine change, be it better schooling for the children, or better healthcare for yourselves. Those barricades with which we have segregated ourselves from the issues and problems of the larger part of the population need to stay down. We are already amongst the highest taxed in the world – between the direct and indirect taxes we pay. It is time we demanded better services that benefit all Indians. Not just our limited community of people like us.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker