Dina Ma­jhi's In­dia

Dina Ma­jhi's 12 km walk with his dead wife on his shoul­ders says a lot about ` Dig­i­tal In­dia'

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - RICHARD MA­HA­P­A­TRA

In­dia may be dig­i­tal now but it still could not pro­vide an am­bu­lance to a poor tribal to carry his dead wife

DINA MA­JHI, a tribal res­i­dent of Odisha’s Kala­handi district, is well-known across In­dia to­day. He walked 12 km car­ry­ing his dead wife on his shoul­ders as he couldn’t af­ford a hearse van. His in­hu­man and hu­mil­i­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence stirred na­tion-wide sym­pa­thy; Del­hi­ites in packed pub­lic buses and rain-caused traf­fic grid­locks for­got their in­con­ve­nience for a few min­utes to talk about Ma­jhi. The me­dia reported the in­ci­dent with the ex­cite­ment they had shown while cov­er­ing the launch of Re­liance’s Jio and Dig­i­tal In­dia. In Delhi’s Press Club, a few spir­ited me­di­a­per­sons at­trib­uted Ma­jhi’s ap­pear­ance in the na­tional head­lines to Dig­i­tal In­dia. “With­out the smart­phone, he would have just been a lo­cal piece of news,” said a se­nior me­dia pro­fes­sional who still re­mem­bers his “heart-break­ing” re­portage on Kala­handi’s star­va­tion deaths in the 1970s.

Af­ter­wards, there was a del­uge of many sim­i­lar in­stances on TV. But a month later, Ma­jhi’s story, an ugly news spell , seems to have been for­got­ten. Rea­son enough that it must be re­told. Be­cause such re-ren­der­ing of hu­man sto­ries in a news-dense coun­try like In­dia al­most amounts to re­dis­cov­er­ing it.

I was born in Kala­handi—near the place Ma­jhi was spot­ted by lo­cals car­ry­ing his dead wife—at a time when famine-like sit­u­a­tions reg­u­larly killed peo­ple by the hun­dreds. Most died while on a long and un­cer­tain jour­ney to search for food. Some would carry the dead on their shoul­ders to the near­est point where they could give them a de­cent burial. The lucky few who reached food dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tres would nar­rate a story very sim­i­lar to Ma­jhi’s. At the time, there was nei­ther any am­bu­lance ser­vice that could be ar­ranged with a phone call, nor any four-wheeler driv­ing jour­nal­ists em­pow­ered with wire­less ac­cess to the world.

But in the 21st cen­tury, Kala­handi’s painful past no longer lingers in na­tional con­scious­ness as more than 60 per cent of In­dia’s cur­rent pop­u­la­tion was not even born then. Rather, news­pa­pers have reported how this district has wit­nessed a turn­around in its fate due to govern­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes. Star­va­tion deaths are now very few in num­ber.

But Ma­jhi’s plight is still not an ex­cep­tion. It is a reg­u­lar sight. One of­ten sees many Ma­jhis car­ry­ing peo­ple dead or alive to hos­pi­tals, not in am­bu­lances, but on cot­sturned-biers lifted by rel­a­tives. Peo­ple still walk many kilo­me­tres to get to govern­ment-run fair price shops for food­grain. They of­ten need three days to trans­port 25 kg of food­grain. It is an equally com­mon prac­tice to walk long dis­tances to bribe elu­sive lo­cal of­fi­cials to get the be­low poverty line sta­tus that gives ac­cess to many ben­e­fits.

This is where the old and new In­dias look alike. Dig­i­tal In­dia broad­cast Ma­jhi’s story in a few hours. More­over, like in ev­ery other district across In­dia, Kala­handi too must have had four-digit helplines to help peo­ple ac­cess govern­ment ser­vices. Ma­jhi must have crossed at least four such sig­nages on his 12-km walk to get to an am­bu­lance.

So, what failed Ma­jhi? He doesn’t carry a smart phone that re­port­edly makes ev­ery govern­ment ser­vice ac­ces­si­ble now. But he was tend­ing to his sick wife at a district head­quar­ters hos­pi­tal from where all such helplines op­er­ate. His re­quests for trans­port to of­fi­cials were met with no re­sponse. We need in­fra­struc­ture to work for peo­ple at the right time. There is al­ways a per­son sit­ting be­hind a helpline phone to an­swer and ar­range these ser­vices. They have failed Ma­jhi. The dig­i­tally em­pow­ered me­dia used tech­nol­ogy to tell his story but it will never re­port why such tech­nol­ogy-driven so­lu­tions don’t re­place the peo­ple who rep­re­sent the sys­tem.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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