Among the protests, India’s poor get on with life
“Shoe polish, sir?” That was a quote your correspondent was not expecting to record as he paced through the crowds protesting in New Delhi in solidarity with Anna Hazare, the 74-year-old poster boy for India’s fight against endemic corruption.
Among the waving flags, painted faces and punched fists of thousands of mostly students and young professionals on Wednesday, were beggars, trinket-sellers and shoe-shiners plying their trade seemingly indifferent to the din around them.
The sight gave pause for thought as to how far the spiralling protests against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s scandal-plagued government have trickled down to an underclass of hundreds of millions of Indians living below the bread line.
Hazare, a self-styled Gandhian activist, has caused huge embarrassment for Singh’s coalition for months, staging street protests and fasts demanding tougher laws against graft.
He has tapped into a groundswell of discontent against the corruption which touches Indian lives every day. Protests have erupted in cities throughout the country, from the hilly northeast to the southern tech hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad.
But the question remains whether this week’s protests are mostly confined to relatively affluent urbanites who have thrived from two decades of economic boom but are tired of the older, corrupt elites governing their country.
On Wednesday, protesters had gathered at India Gate, a colonial era memorial that has turned into a tourist hot spot in the Indian capital, hence a magnet for those hoping to earn a few rupees or dollars from visitors. Ice cream carts, soda carts and ornaments laid out on mats were still parked next to TV vans.
While I was interviewing a group of students and young IT professionals who had travelled from the trendy city of Gurgaon, next door to the capital, shoe-shiners and trinket sellers approached us several times, and were ignored or spoken over.
The group, who wore paper signs on their chests criticising Sonia Gandhi, the country’s most powerful politician, was later making jokes about Singh being Sonia’s “toy” when children in bare feet prodded them, asking for money.
They were gently but firmly brushed away, a common sight in Indian cities where toddlers dance acrobatically and older or disabled men and women knock at car windows and prod travellers in auto rickshaws for money.
The beggars did not share the excitement of the protests, just as it is not clear how much of the news of scandals involving politicians and bureaucrats on trial have filtered down to rural areas, where concerns of jobs and where the next meal is coming from dominate.
In a recent poll by the Hindu newspaper, only 45 percent of respondents had even heard of Anna Hazare. The figure dropped to 39 percent among rural respondents.
When I asked the protesters why they had come to protest, their gripes against corruption had a distinctly middle class flavour. Manas, a student with a goatee wearing huge sunglasses and a rucksack on his back, told of how he was asked to pay $8,800 as a bribe for college admission.
“The principal said we’re not worrying about your mark sheet, just give me money and you’ll get in,” he said.
The crowds met at India Gate on Wednesday afternoon, either leaving work early or bunking classes. They marched in circles, punching the air, shouting abusive slogans against several leading politicians, and crowding around TV cameras and yelling as correspondents were giving updates to the studio.
But as the crowds thinned out, marching onwards to another, bigger protest nearby, kids and older men, armed with large, dirty white sacks, were rooting through the trash left behind by the protesters, looking for something usable to sell.