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