By Nikhila Natarajan
New York, May 30 (IANS) A toddler plays with a shroud covering his dead mother at a station in Bihar, a man at Nizamuddin Bridge breaks down when he realises he may not be able to see his year-old son, another man cradles his dying friend while the two were trying to make their way out of Surat to Uttar Pradesh, a human exodus explodes into the streets in Ghaziabad, desperate to escape the lockdown that manifests as policemen, barricades, hunger, unbearable thirst and tears.
Thumb-stopping images of migrant workers from the public space that city dwellers have vacated have come to define the cracks in India’s response to the COVID19 pandemic. In the process, the ordinary Indian armed with a mobile phone and internet connectivity – an emblem of Digital India and its data revolution, has transformed into the everyday kind of digital radical during India’s COVID19 outbreak, finding ways to connect with the lives of strangers when sharing tangible objects of any value or even grief is harder than ever before.
These are not always the influencers with a gazillion followers on social channels, they are ordinary folks simply alarmed by the implosion in the public square and oddly strengthened by the shifting meanings of freedom of speech on online platforms. By opening a camera lens to what’s out there, forwarding memes, still images, videos and political cartoons in the everyday rhythms of internet use, their digital signatures are seeping into the collective reaction to India’s response to COVID19 and co-creation of India’s Page One.
In the age of the digital platform society, the unstructured crowd is a powerful force. India’s mobile phone customer base (across 2G, 3G and 4G) rose by 5 million subscribers to 1.16 billion in January, latest data released by the country’s telecoms regulator show.
More than at any other time, our mobile phones have collectively turned to our country’s rickshaw drivers, housekeepers, farm hands, construction workers who make up the lion’s share of India’s labour force and now find themselves sidelined. Those on the streets didn’t come there to protest, they ended up there because they decided they must escape somehow to places they call home.
Unlike scenes in America, India’s migrant labourers are not on the streets because they are rejecting the system. Our reactions to what’s out there have moved inward, into the same mobile phones, messaging platforms and informal communication channels that once sparked civic mobilisation on the streets, in pre-lockdown times.
When the story of political response to the pandemic is written, it will be, as it is now, a contest between story and data. Even then, it will be impossible to comprehend its wreckage. In the present, shared digital images and chatter are shaping our memories of this moment, showing both politicians and citizens the gaps that exist in the public delivery of essential services despite a billion-strong biometric identity network (Aadhaar).
“The way people in power are handling the situation has just annoyed me to the core”, says Anand J, an innovation consultant in Pune. Twitter is his “breathing space” and his newspaper.
“I have stopped believing in news channels. I find people’s opinions and investigations much more authentic and covering a wider perspective than these paid media houses having myopic and one-dimensional takes.”
For people like Anand, the digital public square delivers what he calls “emotional connection” and holds a mirror to the limits of political intervention in a crisis.
Narendra Modi’s political promises have highlighted India’s adoption of digital tools and the promise of presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery. From the time of the BJP’s 2014 manifesto which urged us to strive for “maximum application of technology” to his COVID19 prime time remarks, Modi continues to push for “tech-led”. In his most recent address, he reminded us about India’s role in the Y2K moment and encouraged Indians to be self reliant.
How did that land?
“Something snapped”, news photographer Atul Yadav told IANS, “after Lockdown 2”. People just wanted to go home. Nothing that the government is telling them is making any sense anymore, he says, trying to find words for the stories his pictures tell.
From somewhere in Surat, Barkha Dutt tweeted: “For 63 days I’ve tracked Migrant Workers. I’ve seen them move from fatalism to surrender, anxiety to despair. Now I see Rage. It’s a Tipping Point. In this report from Surat, workers said they’ve sold phones,gas cylinders. An Activist said there’s enough food, a fight breaks out.”
Dutt’s despatches tell us all what we should be afraid of when the promise of Digital India isn’t able to deliver to the last man standing with a mobile phone in hand and a ragged cloth mask on his face: an explosion in slow motion.
(Nikhila Natarajan is on Twitter @byniknat)