Indian playwright and theatre director Abhishek Majumdar has been living in Bengaluru for quite some time. These days, however, the city has started to look unfamiliar.
The glittering posh areas of the city, the various gardens, the shopping malls, have all begun to develop cracks that are only visible to those who have seen the other side of the otherwise glamorous city - the poverty, the misery, the devastation - all brought about by government apathy.
Abhishek, who is best known for plays such as The Djinns of Eidgah and Pah-la, both of which have been staged in London, began relief work amid the coronavirus crisis.
Abhishek and some of his acquaintances run a free school in Bangalore. Amid the lockdown, they decided to support the families of the students with ration. The relief work, however, became a bigger operation after other people began approaching them for help.
In conversation with The Logical Indian, Abhishek opens up about how the pandemic made him realise that Bengaluru is no different from a labour camp.
Government Apathy, Rampant Corruption
"We began visiting certain areas we knew about, where people were in need of essentials amid the crisis," Abhishek says. "But little did we know hidden away in parts of the city are areas nobody knew of, with scores of families struggling to make their ends meet."
"As we began visiting the slums, we started getting calls from people who claimed that we missed giving them the kits although we visited their areas. We realised that there were small families living in places nobody ever comes across - in a small, stuffy alley between two buildings, in areas that are nowhere along the main roads where people would notice them," he says.
Authorities have done little to help these people, says Abhishek. All these months, they have been living off the bare minimum, hardly eating, hardly having a peaceful night of sleep. Rampant corruption has engulfed the city.
"We started to discover such areas hidden away in corners of east Bengaluru, corners no one ever cares to pay attention to. The mystique surrounding the city has for years refused to shed light on the plight of these people - as the city sparkled with joy, people in these slums starved,"says Abhishek.
While privileged people were provided with essentials they may be able to do without, the poor continued to suffer.
"The government distributed essentials among those who were not in need of them, while giving constant assurance to the poor that they will be helped too. However, days passed, people starved and struggled to arrange one meal a day. Only when the situation began to get really bad, and news about the condition of these people began to spread, that the government decided to extend some help to them," Abhishek says.
Before the government reached these areas, it maintained that everyone in the city was being fed. A few groups, including Abhishek's, surveyed these areas only to discover that no kits had reached them. Authorities began to step in under pressure from these groups.
"I was dismayed to learn that authorities divided and subdivided the packages that they owed these people. For example, the kits had about two kg rice, two radishes, two carrots, one capsicum, one packet of salt and one cabbage. One such kit can feed one person about two meals. This one kit was given to about 17 people," he adds.
Abhishek says that despite help from NGOs, scores of people in the city are in a very bad condition.
"The numbers are such that they can be fully helped only when the government steps in, comes up with proper policies, and executes these policies without any malicious intent. There is a huge crisis, because even though some people technically have their jobs, they are being paid about one-fifth of what they were paid earlier. For instance, security guards who worked six days a week before the lockdown now work for only one day," he says.
"We are only a small volunteer group, and we can do only so much. We have seen people literally boiling potatoes and eating, and yet, no authorities cared to intervene," Abhishek adds.
"I See Desperation And Devastation Every Day"
Abhishek and his group once visited an area in an almost abandoned place, beside a shallow lake, inside what seemed like a forest.
"We were taken there by the police, who are very much aware of the condition of the city's poor people. They informed us that not a single government van has stopped here," says Abhishek.
"Here, I saw an elderly woman feeding cows and dogs. Some people around her were arguing with her, asking her why she was feeding the animals when they themselves were starving. I heard her tell them that the animals were not at fault, and they did not deserve to starve either," says.
"This incident left an impact on me. I see desperation and devastation every day, and I see apathy and indifference on the part of those in power. And yet, I see that humanity exists among people who are unable to feed themselves," he adds
Abhishek meets new people every day, and he says that each man or woman he helps, or every community that he assists, has different stories to tell.
Recalling an incident that impacted Abhishek deeply, he says: "We once visited this area in Iblur in our truck to distribute food, an area which has such narrow roads that it was difficult to drive the truck around. We stood on one side of the road and saw a group of people on the other side. They kept looking at us but did not come over to collect the kits," Abhishek narrates.
"A little confused, I walked over to them and asked them why they weren't crossing the road. Upon having a conversation with them, I learnt that they were Dalits. The caste division, even in a city like Bengaluru, is such that they are not allowed to gather on the other side of the road," he says.
"I was shocked to learn that although some government vans have visited this area, they, like us, could not cross the road. The Dalits saw the vans but could not come and collect the essentials, and the authorities did not make the effort to cross the road and distribute the food," he adds.
Narrating another incident that he says was "absolutely heartbreaking", Abhishek says: "We reached a certain area with the kits, and as soon as the children found the packet of salt, they ran with it, tore it open and began licking them. Just imagine, a packet of salt worth Rs. 10, that we can so easily buy, meant the world to them. I cannot get the image out of my head."
Some days back, Abhishek and his group were distributing essentials among two groups of migrant workers who live about three roads away from each other in the same locality.
"One of the groups requested us to distribute the kits separately among the two groups, because apparently each group refuses to give them to the other," says Abhishek.
"I later found out about the kind of corruption that led to this division. Both the groups were separately told by authorities that they distributed essentials among the other group,who refused to share them outside of their group. In reality, none of the groups actually received what they needed," he adds.
There is corruption everywhere, Abhishek says. He narrates an incident that opened his eyes to the kind of dishonesty, deception, misconduct and manipulation that run the world today.
"I was once in this area distributing kits with essentials to a group of people. Some distance away from me, this MLA was also distributing kits, announcing that the kits were worth Rs. 900. Both the MLA and my group bought the essentials from the same wholesaler, who was right there. I saw the MLA's bill - he had actually bought essentials worth Rs. 300," Abhishek says.
"Just imagine, the MLA gave them kits worth Rs. 300, but would send the government a bill of Rs. 900. And when the poor people open the kits, there is hardly anything inside," he adds.
Abhishek has visited conflict zones in Kashmir, and other areas where the plight of human beings is unbearable. He has written about vulnerable human lives, men and women struggling to stay alive among war and under turbulence.
Little did he know that the city he calls his home is no better than a war zone - with rampant falsification plaguing its corners, with flawless public facade masking hopelessness and anguish.