The pandemic is about eyes shut -Rajendran Narayanan

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published Published on Jul 8, 2020   modified Modified on Jul 9, 2020

-The Hindu

There is a resonance between Saramago’s literary world and the migrant labour distress in contemporary India

The novel, Blindness, by Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago, is strikingly prescient about a sweeping illness. The plot revolves around a mysterious epidemic because of which people suddenly turn blind.

The thread

It starts with a person driving his car who turns blind while waiting at a traffic signal. He pleads to be taken home and a man, on the pretext of helping, takes him home but soon after runs away with his car. The contagion spreads rapidly and all those affected by the epidemic are quarantined in an asylum. The novel follows seven people, who do not have names but only descriptions: the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with the dark glasses, etc. Lack of equitable delivery of food, inhospitable and unhygienic living conditions, police brutality and apathy of power structures lead to panic among the blind. They are on the brink of starvation. Seven characters escape the asylum and enter the city where they came from only to find that everybody in the city has become blind. Lacking any support, the country plunges into utter despair before resurrection happens quite magically.

Apart from the obvious connections with the pandemic, there are other, numerous and allegorical ways in which Saramago’s world resonates with contemporary India.

Data and worker anonymity

Consider for example, the case of blindness regarding the number of migrant workers. The government’s own data sources are inconsistent and are a massive underestimate. The office of the Chief Labour Commissioner stated that there are 26 lakh migrants while various estimates, including the Economic Survey, put this number above 8 crore people. The anonymity of the workers has been reinforced as governments have not kept records of who they are and where they are working. This lack of accountability has given a free rein to the complex web of contractors and sub-contractors to exert various forms of exploitation. The migrant workers, like the characters in Blindness, have been rendered nameless in this unequal power gambit.

Then, there is the blindness about hunger and deaths. On June 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced free food grains for National Food Security Act (NFSA) beneficiaries till November. While it is a welcome move, it yet again excludes those without ration cards. As per estimates of Meghana Mungikar, Jean Drèze, and Reetika Khera, roughly 10 crore eligible beneficiaries continue to be excluded under the NFSA . This is because the central government is still using 2011 Census data and hence underestimates NFSA coverage. Moreover, migrants and many self-employed workers do not have ration cards. At a time when the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India have 2.5 times the buffer stock norms, not universalising rations is inexplicable.

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The Hindu, 8 July, 2020,

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