INITIALLY, I joined the School for Democracy to work closely with one of my personal heroes, Aruna Roy. Today, what motivates me to keep at my job — in spite of working through the sweltering heat in rural Rajasthan, in an area without basic amenities — is that when it is complete, the school will be a space where anyone (and not just those who can afford higher education) can learn about the issues that truly matter through a secular, democratic process.
Recently, I came face to face with yet another rural reality. Still in its most nascent stages, the School’s campus is currently under construction near Bhim. Out of curiosity, I asked a colleague how much we pay the labourers to shift cement bags over a distance of 40 metres. For a moment I was confused by his answer: was Rs3- Rs4 per bag too little or too much? There was only one way to find out. I decided to join the labourers in their task.
I consider myself fairly strong — I am 6 feet 2 inches, had been the captain of St Stephen’s basketball team, and continue to love all kinds of physical sports. There were 168 bags to shift that day, of which I shifted 37. While the first five were fairly easy, I soon began to feel that I was about to crash-dive into the hot gravel. The labourers taught me the correct technique — how to distribute the weight evenly, how to hold the bags — but even so, it was one of the most difficult physical tasks I had ever undertaken. After shifting 37 bags, I went to my colleague and asked, “So, how much have I made?”
“A hundred and forty eight bucks,” he answered.
Doing yatras in central Rajasthan villages, I had met Partabi Devi, 65, who had worked as a labourer all her life. Entitled to a monthly pension of Rs 500 from the government, she could barely afford one meal a day. I had tried to recall the last time I had been hungry and couldn’t eat because I had no money or food in the house. I couldn’t remember such a time. I have always felt a sense of guilt in my gut. People around me toil for most part of their lives to make other people’s houses and schools, and cannot afford a home of their own or send their children to school. That was the first time I had asked myself, “Where is the equality our Constitution promised us at the dawn of our Independence?”
Rs 148. This is all a labourer will earn, after toiling in the sun all day. After a hard day’s work, walking to get some water to drink seemed like a Herculean task. Why does anyone do this, I asked myself, although I knew the answer: to eat and survive. I had heard these words often enough, but to feel the workers’ burden on my body added an unknown dimension to my perception of the world. My experiences of working in rural India have added to the empathy for the poor and reinforced the logic of social policy and welfare that we are working to build in Bhim.
Back home, there are those living room conversations, which I no longer know how to respond to: why is the government spending so much on pension for the unorganised sector, or, why is the government giving so much money to social welfare. Yes, it is the government’s duty to look after its citizens, whether they are rich or poor. But how can we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of looking out for fellow human beings? Of respecting the value of their work, and realising how essential it is to our lives?
I now know the answer to what I was first curious about. Moving 37 bags of cement, that grow heavier with every step, over 40 metres equals Rs 148. Multiply that with a lifetime of backbreaking labour, add to it a gnawing hunger, I’m left with another question that I can’t answer: “What is the price that one has to pay for basic human dignity?”