Who killed Muniyappa?

This is not a crime thriller but a true story. Right in the heart of metropolitan city Bengaluru, with its 30 lakh vehicles (at last count) for a population of 90 lakh plus 1,300 new vehicles registered every day, a person dies. And no one cares!

Muniyappa didn’t die of infection or injuries. He died of malnutrition and hunger, even as the parliament was passing the historic Food Security Bill. Rather, he was murdered – by a government that focuses on GDP growth, FDI and “market reforms” rather than the poor and destitute, who are also human, and for whom we are supposed to be “developing.”

Muniyappa died of criminal neglect of an administration’s obligation to ensure that at least the laws that are on the statute books, for the benefit of the disadvantaged poor, are implemented, for those who need them for survive. 67 years after independence, and 63 years after adopting a Constitution that forbids discrimination, and promises basic entitlements. To all — rich, poor, powerless, oppressed. Especially, the oppressed.

If I starve or enslave someone, I get arrested. If an apathetic government, headed by netas intent on lining their own pockets, defaults on its basic obligations, no one gets arrested or punished. Muniyappa was a victim, of criminal political hypocrisy, professing egalitarianism while disregarding the needs of the poor.

Life entangled in loans

He was a scrawny and lanky twelve-year-old when I first saw him, two decades ago. His father, a poor roadside cobbler, had died, leaving him, the eldest of three siblings, to keep the family fed. He took his place inside the tiny, ramshackle, one metre square kiosk on the pavement and began repairing shoes, earning some days Rs 15, other days Rs 40. His widowed mother helped him, but the income was never enough.

The mother fell sick; Muniyappa borrowed Rs 3,000 from a moneylender for treatment, and the usurious interest on it alone came to more than what he could earn in a week, leaving the family half starved. The lender turned up regularly, every month, and threatened to send goondas if he did not pay up, even abduct his teenage sister. There was no chance of the principal being repaid. The mother wanted the sister to be married off, which meant further debts.

I decided to help at least this one family rise above the dire poverty it was mired in, and lent him money to repay the loan, so that at least the interest would not accumulate. Correction — not lent. I had to write it off. On days when he earned nothing, I gave him food. I knew this was like pouring money into a black hole, but I saw no other way out. I gave him my old newspapers to sell for some additional money each month, and passed on my son’s outgrown clothes and sweaters.

Marriage didn’t light up his life

At 21, he fell in love with another roadside waif, a pretty 16 year old orphan girl who sold flowers, and the two married. They had a daughter, then a son. The boy was constantly sick and allergic to the dust in the crowded slum that was their home. Afraid that he may not survive, Muniyappa’s mother urged him to have another child. Children, especially sons, are the only old age security for the poor.

With a wife, three children and a mother to feed, life got harder. The police picked up Muniyappa’s 18-year-old brother, beat him badly and locked him up  after his employer accused him of theft (wrongly as it turned out). The experience traumatised him, threw him into bad company, and he became a vagabond, and disappeared. The mother died — and Muniyappa got into debt for another Rs 22,000, for hospital charges,  medicines, cremation, puja, bribes for documents. The official charges at the electric crematorium are only Rs 50 according to a notice, but Muniyappa can’t read. He paid whatever was demanded, at every turn.

The state and central governments have several schemes with fancy names like Arogyasri and Bhagyashree, for health insurance for the poor, free medical treatment, free education cycles, et cetera. I told him about these schemes, explained what he and his children were entitled to, but every time he took precious time off from work to visit government offices and register for various entitlements, the clerks sent him from one desk to another, demanding salary certificate (from a roadside cobbler?) caste certificate as a Dalit (the tahsildar made him run around for months till he gave up, unable to afford to take time off or bribe the clerks) age proof for mother’s pension, (she had none).

Honesty unlimited

I tried hard to get him a ration card. The ‘procedures’ were maddening — and futile unless we bribed at every step. He couldn’t afford that. He was told to “wait” till someone came to “verify address” at the slum. No one came.

Every time the papers carried large, half page ads boasting of the “development’ schemes that the party in power had put in place (the Congress, BJP, Janata Dal), it was a mockery of Muniyappa’s  attempts to claim what he was entitled to. When the BJP introduced the Vajpayee health scheme, he ran around, from corporation office to clinic to hospital to notary, trying to register for Arogyasri healthcare, as his wife was by now quite ill, but without bribes nothing works. Finally, he gave up. I had by then moved away and saw him only occasionally.

I gave him odd repair jobs and paid him Rs 100. He always protested that it was too much and tried to return change. If only those in power had one tenth of his decency, morals and ethics !

The daughter learned nothing at the government school she went to, and got beaten by the teachers; school terrified her. In May 2013, she dropped out of school to look after her ailing mother. The medicines for her cost Rs 1,200 — a whole month’s earnings for him. If he took time off to take her to the PHC and wait for the doctor to turn up, his earnings dropped. So much for 67 years of social and democratic development, garibi hatao, whatever.

On 28 August, I went to his kiosk with some biscuits and clothes for his children but a notice posted there said he had died. The roadside key maker and a coolie friend had spent money on printing a “shraddhanjali” poster, and strung some flowers on it. Rest in Peace.

How many more Muniyappas?

What happens to his wife and children now? How do they survive? What protection, safety, physical and economical, does a pretty, homeless, 28 year old widow have, in our society? How many lakhs of such Muniyappas are there around the country, unable to access even the minimum basics, unable to get a better deal at least for their children despite GDP growth (4.4 % or 8.9 %? Makes no difference to Muniyappa and his ilk)? What is the children’s future, even in the centre of a metropolis where fancy air-conditioned cars mill around the shopping complex? Bangalore is home to 13,130 millionaires (the second highest number in India) and 102 multinational company offices. That’s progress.

Tell that to the Muniyappas among us. Their crime is that they don’t have money to bribe, have no clout because they are poor, and unaware of even their entitlements because of illiteracy.  The rich get flyovers, signal-free corridors to the airport, a Rs 46,994 crore traffic plan to ease movement for the affluent, malls and multiplexes. The poor sink deeper into destitution, with no clean water (there were 570 slums in Bengaluru at last count, up from 420 five years ago).

Garland Gandhi’s statue on October 2, but forget his ideals, and sweep the poor aside like vermin, while you go after GDP and FDI in the name of development. Saving the rupee is more important than saving the poor.

Muniyappa died of hunger and poverty. His wife and children will, too. Or, while the country celebrates its centenary in 2047, they will be sitting in that kiosk stitching shoes (if some goonda doesn’t appropriate that kiosk by then) .We pat ourselves on our backs about our Food Security Bill (though many questions about who will foot the bill etc, remain unanswered) . Pass a law, and feel good, never mind about implementation, whether it is a dowry prohibition bill, eradicating untouchability, or education for all (260 million illiterates at last count, six decades after Constitutional guarantees of universal education for all.) Feed 670 million people (or is it 810 million?) under the new law? We couldn’t even feed one family of five. I don’t know about our MPs, and MLAs, but I am hanging my head in shame.

I have another clipping dated 6 November 1994, reporting on a “rosy election manifesto” from the Congress party, promising “Zero level poverty” in five years. That was 19 years ago. That same party is now in power, flying its chief to the US for a health check-up while there is no money to ensure that Primary Health Centres around the country function satisfactorily. Muniyappa’s crime was that he was not a VIP, a minister or IAS babu. Although that same Bharati also sang, “Everyone will be a king in independent India — ellorum innattu mannar…”

‘No money’ – that’s the usual excuse for not ensuring basic facilities for the poor.  But a spanking new health centre offering Panchakarma therapy has just been opened for MLAs in Bengaluru, with plush upholstered chairs. Money is not a problem. Moral obscenity  in the corridors of power is.

Who is the better citizen — MPs who draw salaries of Rs 1,25,000 per month plus perks, and enjoy tea @ one rupee per cup and chapati and dal @ Rs 1.50, in their Sansad canteen, while focusing  all their efforts on retaining or seizing power — or  people like Muniyappa who refused to beg, wanted to work honestly to feed his family, and asked only that the “schemes for the benefit of the poor — free health clinics, subsidised grains, education for the children — are actually accessible to those needing it, without bribes? Muniyappa paid taxes every time he bought a match box or medicines for his mother. MPs’ salaries are tax free.

Party workers go from door to door in slums, with folded hands, seeking votes and distributing saris, cash and  other goodies as ‘incentive‘. Did any of these same parties go from door to door, to help enrol the poor for ration cards, tell them about welfare schemes available for their benefit,   organise awareness creation camps, or monitor the state of their schools to ensure that at least the next generation could climb out of poverty?

Muniyappa’s death certificate says died of “kidney failure”.  Sure. If you don’t have access to clean water, enough food, or basic medicines during frequent illnesses triggered by malnutrition, your immunity drops. Your kidneys fail.

So who caused Muniyappa’s death?

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About Sakuntala Narasimhan 69 Articles
Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Jayanagar based writer, musician and consumer activist.

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