January 08, 2005

60 years for a seminal moment

In “Nonsense By Any Other Name”, below, I spoke of a small family who live near a railway crossing. In fact, they gave me their address so that I can post them the photographs I took of them. The address includes the line “Near Railway Gate.”

That gate is an important part of their lives. Not just because it is part of their address, but because the family has lived here, in their thatched shack, for 60 years. Yes indeed, since before their country became independent. And even if it’s been that long, think of this: they don’t have electricity. Muthukumaran took me through the shack to the room at the back, his and his wife Rani’s “bedroom” that’s so dark in the middle of a sunny Cuddalore district afternoon that I need a few moments for my eyes and brain to adjust. To see.

Now I can step outside Muthukumaran’s home and fire off that 21st Century marvel, a SMS. But this family doesn’t have as much as an electric light.

Oh yes, Muthukumaran lost a boat and his nets to the tsunami, and is therefore wondering what to do to bring in some money to feed his family. But me, I can’t decide what is the tragedy here: that loss? Or that in 2005, I can find, without any particular difficulty, an Indian family living in the same darkness their forefathers knew, going back to Ashoka and Nero and homo erectus?

Back in Chennai, I have a conversation with Manjeet Kripalani, the award-winning journalist who writes for Business Week. Manjeet also travelled through the affected areas of Tamil Nadu, and we met for dinner one night in Pondicherry. She tells me that her feeling is, this disaster was horrific, but is nevertheless a “seminal moment” for India. Why? Because, she says, it marks the first time middle-class Indians have responded so readily and generously to a calamity that’s really so far removed from their lives. This is, says Manjeet, the beginning of the end of the “us” and “them” feeling in India, the distinction between rich and poor that we’ve always had, and have never paid much attention to.

I truly, whole-heartedly, desperately, want to believe Manjeet. Because if she’s right, the next time I pass through that railway crossing Muthukumaran’s hut will likely have a bulb or several burning. Hell, it may not even be here at all, that hut. Quite possible that Muthukumaran will move into a pucca house somewhere. Which would be a fine silver lining indeed, to this gargantuan death wave.

But if Manjeet’s wrong, I can return here another 60 years from now and I’m positive I will find the same darkness Muthukumaran and ancestors have known always.

And I don’t know how to tell you how much I wish she’s right.


Anonymous said...

Your coverage of the disaster is so heart wrenching. Thank you for capturing it for us. I have said this before, but will say it again, you have a fantastic page here.

Quizman said...

It is indeed a seminal moment exactly for the reason Manjeet explained. Here in the US, the fund-raising by NGOs has reached monumental levels - all done by individuals working in companies, off their own accord. There cannot be a finer tribute to capitalism, globalization and economic freedom.

There are several interesting points that you have raised. If property rights were indeed protected per the laws, the family would probably have ended up living in a better place. Why? Simply because of the fact that their wages would have to be high enough to sustain their life there. Many sympathetic people miss this argument (explored in depth by the Chilean economist Hernando De Soto. Also see the PBS program on Daniel Yergin's book 'Commanding Heights.

Second, they pay extraordinarily high rents to live illegally. They pay more for whatever basic services they get(to illegal 'service' providers e.g. local mafia) - or transfer the cost to some other poor villager.

Now, the notion of property rights correlates with the economic turnaround of our country. It has nothing to do with our citizenry being philanthropic or believing in vague notions of equality. Hard as it may seem, economic incentives would probably have ensured some sort of consolidation of fisheries in TN. That would have enabled the larger fisheries to procure insurance.

Property rights and economic freedom are the sole reason why the G7 countries (for example) never have large casualties due to natural catastrophes. Additionally, they are the quickest to recover from disasters due to simple financial tools like insurance.

K. said...

Interesting takes on the sights and sounds of the coastal regions post the killer wave...Don't know what's more spine-chilling..whether the fact that the living conditions of these fisherman have been destroyed beyond recognition or whether the ground reality was the fact that they did not have a "living" condition to begin with in the first place...

Charukesi said...

thanks Dilip for these updates from a ravaged Tamilnadu. they have been very insightful and at most times, gut wrenching. Amit writes that you both plan to revisit the affected areas after a few months - to see if good intentions have been transalated into anything more meaningful. and I sincerely hope and pray that you do find houses (including Muthukumaran's) lit up once more when you go back.

ak said...

I come back here after around a month and you're still producing articles as meaningful and good as earlier. Congratulations!