Last week I spent a long, hot afternoon trying to rescue an eight-year-old street child from the clutches of the Indian State. Suraj Mahadev Chavan was born on a Mumbai pavement. His mother died when he was a baby and his father is disabled. So a Christian charity has taken upon itself the task of paying for his education in a residential school in Ahmednagar. This little boy is part of a community of street people I know well and he was in Mumbai for his summer holidays when the police arrested him. He was trying to help his father by selling bangles on Marine Drive but was arrested for begging.
This was late at night and I could not go to the police station in time to prevent him from being confined in the state-run Dongri Children’s Home that is the terror of every street child. It is a children’s jail not a home and those who get locked up here can be released only through a court order.
I went to court to try and give a personal bond to release Suraj. I went in the mistaken belief that if adults could get bail, so could children. I was wrong. The presiding judge, a plump, middle-class woman, gave me a cold stare and said, “Sorry we have to follow procedures and the procedure is that he needs a certificate from the school saying that he is a student there.”
I pointed out that this meant that his sister, who has a small baby, would have to travel to Ahmednagar to get it, since the school is closed for the summer holiday, but she said she could not care less because “procedures are procedures”. So Suraj, a small, skinny boy, remains in the ‘care’ of the Maharashtra government. When I met him he wept and begged to be taken away because he was being beaten up and tortured by older boys. I could do nothing.
The reason why I tell his story here is to draw attention to the horrible truth that the most difficult legacy Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to deal with is changing the nature of the Indian State. It is a hardhearted, pitiless, brutal State manned by officials who take pleasure in crushing ordinary citizens under their mighty jackboot. Their most vulnerable victims are India’s poorest citizens, and the ugly truth is that the only people who seem not to know this are those very political leaders who bleat on endlessly about “the poor”.
The poorest people I know live in the streets of Mumbai and their biggest problem is the Indian State. They are of no fixed address so people hesitate to employ them, and they are forced to rely on selling whatever they can off wooden trays that they hang around their necks.
No sooner does a policeman see them do this than he confiscates their goods. If they try setting up a pavement shop, municipal officials come and smash it down and if these street entrepreneurs happen to be children, they are arrested for begging.
No Indian city has affordable rental accommodation for the poor, so in a city like Mumbai they are forced to build frail shelters of plastic and bamboo on unoccupied land. This time they have been prevented from doing this despite appealing to local politicians and officials to allow them to build temporary shacks for the four monsoon months.
I wrote in this column some weeks ago about how officials came and demolished their shacks and cordoned off the rocky wasteland where they stood. They did not give up and went to appeal to the Collector of Mumbai, who told them that her job was to demolish the shanties in which they lived not to provide them with alternative accommodation.
It is only when you see the Indian State through the eyes of India’s poorest citizens that you see it in all its ugliness and brutality. If any single political party can be blamed for this, it is the Congress party. In the name of the poor, it has in its long decades of ruling India created a State that despises poor people. It will not be easy to change this mindset, but unless it changes, there is not the smallest chance of India ever becoming a fully developed country.
In emulation of the Prime Minister, the new BJP chief minister of Maharashtra spends a lot of time travelling to foreign lands to lure investors. Has he thought what they will make of a city in which children are jailed on the pretext of taking them into state care? Has he thought what they will make of a city that treats its poorest citizens as if they were sub-human? It is a legacy issue. But, it must be dealt with urgently.
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