Mera Bharat kaise badal raha hai?
Exactly 31 years ago, Kalahandi gnawed at India's conscience when stories of farmers selling their children for food were narrated by the national media.
After a national outcry over the plight of Kalahandi residents – ironically called Sukhbasis (those living happily) – the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the region and announced a grandiose plan for the district.
Since then, every few years, Kalahandi bursts onto the nation's radar, crying for attention and relief from drought, unemployment, hunger, malnutrition and the sale of children "for a price less than that of a bowl of curry."
The heart-rending story of Dana Majhi, who walked 10 km carrying his wife's dead body on Thursday, shows that not much has changed in Kalahandi, or in the system that continues to deny people the right to live and die in dignity.
The image of a poor man walking for kilometres on a paved road, carrying a dead body wrapped in a sheet on his shoulder, accompanied by his crying daughter holding a schoolbag should haunt India, and hurt the pride of its people for a long time. It is shameful that Majhi walked for hours with a dead body through the heart of an Indian state and people just kept watching like voyeurs, without offering to help.
This apathy and insensitivity has become symptomatic of the Indian society at large. In a country of 1.3 billion, ironically, each person in distress almost always finds himself alone, proving that our collective conscience is in gradual demise and that the societal bonds have snapped irreparably.
A few days ago, India was shocked by the plight of a man lying unattended for hours on a Delhi road after being hit by a vehicle. Instead of helping the dying man, people drove past him, as if a fellow human's misery just didn't matter to them. To our collective shame, the only person who went near the accident victim stole his mobile phone and disappeared.
The argument proffered for the apathy was that people are scared to help victims because of rigid laws and fear of harassment. But, what was stopping people from helping Majhi, as he walked in full public glare for several kilometers?
"I told the hospital authorities that I am a poor man and cannot afford a vehicle. I kept requesting them but they said they could not help," Majhi told a television crew that found him after he had walked about 10 kilometers with the body.
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has been running the government for 16 years. If he has not been able to provide basic facilities in his state, wonder how he has been convincing voters to elect him year after year. Kalahandi was the famine and hunger capital of east India in the 80s; it still is. In many places in India, even dead cattle get the dignity of being transported for burial. In Patnaik's state, even humans are denied the option.
The Indian Babudom, as Majhi said, has always been a heartless beast that turns servile only for money and power. Government hospitals have always been synonymous with inefficiency and insensitivity. So, it isn't surprising that they ignored Majhi's pleas.
The way the system functions, it won't be a surprise if they connive to give each other clean chits and put the blame for Majhi's misery on the victim himself. Through the eyes of the Indian 'system', the fault is always with the 'other' and the officials, being paragons of virtue that they are, always answer the call of duty, without favour, greed or any expectation.
Majhi's story tells us many other things about India, and point at a status quo. His wife Amang died reportedly of Tuberculosis, a disease that mainly strikes the poor and malnourished, the traditional afflictions that plague Kalahandi.
With proper medication and timely follow-ups, most patients can be cured of TB. But, as Majhi's plight shows, the fight with this deadly disease is restricted mostly to urban centres and TV campaigns.
So, don't delude yourself by arguing 'Mera Bharat Badal Raha hai'. Kalahandi is still stuck in the hell-age (it is not in Pakistan, by the way), its residents are dying of hunger, poverty and malnutrition; while our Babus are still a self-serving lot, devoid of sympathy and kindness and our society's conscience has been numbed by apathy and selfishness.
In India, every Majhi is still walking alone.