On Sunday, India will celebrate its 74th Independence Day. As anniversaries go, this one is special only because it is one short of a number considered to be much more significant – 75, the diamond jubilee year, or, as the government plans to celebrate it, the year of the Amrit Mahotsav. For lakhs of Mumbaikars, though, August 15 will mark freedom of another kind – the freedom to exit their involuntary incarcerations at home, the freedom to go out and earn a living.
For, on that day, for the first time in nearly two years, Mumbai’s lifeline – the suburban railway network – will once again resume regular service, albeit with severe restrictions and catering to a limited number of people. With only those who have completed at least a fortnight after receiving their second Covid vaccine being allowed to travel, this means barely one out of six adult residents of this sprawling urban agglomeration will be actually be eligible to use the trains.
Mumbai is not a city built to human scale. For an ordinary human being in the city (there are, of course, lucky exceptions), it would be impossible to go to school or work or even access the necessities of life without using a complex network of infrastructure which makes life in a mega city actually possible. Without the network of personal vehicles, suburban trains, metros, buses, taxis and rickshaws, not to speak of the vast road, rail and bridge infrastructure needed to keep this traffic going, it would be virtually impossible for most people living in this city to actually go about their day-to-day lives.
In fact, the administration took that first, historic decision to shut down the local train service last year. Starting March 24, 2020, the city came to a standstill for a record 84 days – the longest the city’s suburban train services have been shut in history. For millions of poor, particularly the migrants, it also meant the end of their dreams, of making it in the city of a million opportunities. While lakhs returned home never to return, many hunkered down to ride out the wait.
Even after trains services were resumed in a limited fashion later (staggered timings and only for essential workers with government ID cards), it was not possible for most to actually earn their livelihood. The desperate resorted to creating fake IDs or risked travelling without ticket. For the poor and the hungry, the trains literally symbolise freedom from want and penury. Without the freedom to actually pursue work and earn a living, all talk of freedom and Independence will ring hollow in the ears of the poor.
Anniversaries are times of not just remembrance but of reaffirmation – be it the love which brings a couple together in a marriage or the idea of independence and self-determination of one’s future which creates a nation. In that sense, this Independence Day should be an exceptional anniversary. It will be, for the millions of families that lost loved ones to the pandemic, or the millions more that suffered deprivation and want as a result of the lockdowns, it will be a time of remembrance of the pandemic which exacted such a massive toll from us. It will also be a time of reaffirmation for all of us who have managed to live through the pandemic. A time to reaffirm our hopes and expectations for the future, a time to reaffirm the self-belief which saw us through the tough times of the past year.
For the government and our political leaders, too, it must serve as a time for remembrance and reaffirmation. Remembrance of the struggles and sacrifices of the brave men and women who fought and sacrificed to win us our freedom, as well as the tens of thousands of our soldiers who have sacrificed their lives since, to preserve it. It should also be a time for reaffirmation – a reaffirmation of our commitment as a nation to the ideas of freedom and individual liberty enshrined in the Constitution.
The past year has been exceptional in more ways than just the disruptions caused by the pandemic. It has seen a resurgence of divisive forces which have sought to divide our society along lines of caste, community and creed. The pandemic-induced economic slowdown has exacerbated inequalities in our already unequal society, deepening the divide between the haves and the have nots. For millions of youth, it will be a ‘lost’ year – a year of lost chances to be educated, to be skilled, to get that job or pursue that dream. For their sakes if not ours, all of us as a people will have to recommit ourselves to safeguard our liberties won with such sacrifice.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru called India a “a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.” As we enter the 75th year of Independence, it is time to make that “dream and vision” a lived reality for 1.3 billion people.
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