Byline by M.J.AKBAR: Conscience-Management
The United States started by offering some twenty million dollars, or some such equally stupid figure. It now wants to save the world by raising that to 350 million dollars. How much is the United States spending on the military occupation of Iraq every day? Check out a relevant website; these figures are now posted on the net by the watchful. Let me offer a ballpark figure; even if it is an overestimate, it will not be by much. Would a figure of one billion dollars a day surprise, perhaps shock you? That is one thousand million dollars a day. This may even be an underestimate, because which accountant has the courage to evaluate what the Pentagon really costs?
Holy Quran mentions charity (as in Verse 162 of Al Nisa or Verse 55 of Al Maidah) it always adds a qualification — it asks for "regular" charity, not occasional charity, not mere tsunami charity. It says, "If you disclose charity, it is well. But if you conceal it, it is better."
Why do we need a disaster to provoke generosity? Why is generosity accompanied by PR pictures? It is entirely commendable that the victims of tsunami (now, incidentally, a Hindi word) are being nursed by the rich and the powerful. But do we need an earthquake under the ocean to bring clean water to the children of the coast? Have the owners of this world and spenders of its wealth ever checked the shoreline to find out what kind of water is drunk by the poor when there is no tsunami?
Pardon my cynicism, but is free bottled water another seed being planted in the vast forest of forward marketing? The rich are already being made to pay for what was once considered a natural gift of nature. The poor will pay for water only after the rich have made it standard practice, because imitation is the best form of profitability.
Governments of course have formally abdicated from any intervention into profitability, so there is no reason to suppose that those who have sold water mixed with sugar and carbon as a health drink will not sell plain water as medicine. (If it’s good for pesticide, it can’t be bad for human beings, can it?)
The morality of donors who refuse to give a cheque without a clutch of photographers at their side is only one side of the story. But why do Prime Ministers and destiny-dispensers queue up to accept cheques that are cashing in on publicity? Is it because governments have converted disaster into another instance of taxation? The condom over this tax is that it is "voluntary". It takes a great deal to make this "voluntary", most of all media hype. I wonder whether governments actually need this money. What happens to the cash that goes into the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund? Does it fund help or does it fund only disaster-management? Rajiv Gandhi became deeply unpopular with powerful sections of the country when he spoke the truth and said that 85% of development spending went into that curse called the government rather than to the poor. Since then the situation has changed, but by how much? It was at least partly due to Rajiv Gandhi’s honest rhetoric that the climate was created for privatisation. The model is equally valid for disaster-management. What the government can do — send out navies for instance — the private sector cannot, and there is no donors’ budget that can pay for navies. What the private sector can do the government should not. The PM’s relief fund has an average balance of about Rs 300 crores. Compare this with what the government spends on itself each year. Rs 477829 crores. Put the commas into that number wherever you want because I have lost count of commas.
Extend the analogy. The United States started by offering some twenty million dollars, or some such equally stupid figure. It now wants to save the world by raising that to 350 million dollars. How much is the United States spending on the military occupation of Iraq every day? Check out a relevant website; these figures are now posted on the net by the watchful. Let me offer a ballpark figure; even if it is an overestimate, it will not be by much. Would a figure of one billion dollars a day surprise, perhaps shock you? That is one thousand million dollars a day. This may even be an underestimate, because which accountant has the courage to evaluate what the Pentagon really costs? I am not making value judgements. I am merely drawing attention to the pitiful fact that Kofi Annan has to appeal for a billion dollars and then add that he wants the money in cash because he does not trust commitments that are made for public consumption in the heat of publicity, and then never honoured. This is not an underground anarchist making the accusation. It is the most respected and I daresay respectful man in the system doing so. And he is asking for money for what is visibly the worst disaster in memory, a disaster that has set off unease among seaside property developers from Dubai to New York. Appalling? Don’t be appalled so easily. The European Union, more practical, has announced that it will suspend debt repayments from the affected countries for a year. Suspend the debt, not cancel it, just in case you misunderstood. This gesture alone will save the affected countries some five billion dollars in interest and repayment. You can calculate, if inclined, what the total debt must be. Now to the really bad news. What do you think the governments of countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia will do with the money saved? Spend it on the victims? What makes me doubt that? Trust me, most of the money will disappear into that curse called government gluttony.
Now to the real question. Why doesn’t the world mobilise on a much larger scale, every day of the year, to tackle a much bigger tragedy than the tsunami, that tragedy called poverty? There are at least three hundred million people in India alone who live below the poverty line. Does any reader of a newspaper know what that means? Why is hunger — hunger as a permanent reality, day after day, night after night, with gnawing, restless, tired sleep as the only relief from hunger — less of a tragedy than a tsunami? Why doesn’t President George Bush send his brother Jeb (clearly his preferred successor in the White House) to slums so that he can mobilise the overfed to fight the world war against hunger? Is it because hunger isn’t as glamorous as a thirty-foot wave chasing you like a beast from some horror movie? Is it because there are no tourists enjoying the sun outside hotels, and therefore have no stories to tell their local newspapers in London and New York and Berlin? Is it because the poor don’t rise up to kill the well-fed? When will that great multinational which controls cricket organise special one-dayers to fund food for children who cannot get one meal a day, for girls who succumb to prostitution as their only hope, for parents who cannot convert their only asset, sweat, into minimum subsistence levels of a few calories a day?
Have you noticed any difference in the pictures emanating from the disaster areas in the last couple of days? The initial images of shock, at the horror, and grief, at the loss of relative, have given way to smiles and even the occasional laugh. I am looking at a picture distributed by Associated Press of women sitting in a group awaiting rations, one of them being prodded by a police baton to chuckles all around as all of them wait for the wheel of charity to grind in their direction. Why shouldn’t they laugh? Suddenly there is food available without the pressure of unending effort. Suddenly the children of Aceh and Sri Lanka can try on a dress and choose a colour they prefer. Have you ever thought about this? About the luxury of choice? Do the poor ever have a choice? They wear what they get. The only choice they have is to find something cheaper. Does anyone below the poverty line know what it means to prefer even one vegetable to another?
Disaster then becomes a luxury to the poor. The rich discover that the poor are also alive. Tomorrow — tomorrow, not the day after, for I am in the news business and know how ephemeral is the nature of news — the tsunami will ebb from the headlines. The poor will remain with us. The privileged will return to their indifference. That is why the poor are chuckling today. They are not cynical. They are simple and practical. They are enjoying the brief luxury of disaster while it lasts. The privileged, in the meanwhile, are wallowing in conscience-management. Every so often the rich need a tsunami after another glut of Christmas shopping, or Id wastage, or Puja excess. What on earth would we do if we could not find a tsunami to be sombre about?
Why are we indifferent to poverty? First, since the poor are not one of us, why bother. But I suspect there is more. We also have a politically incorrect and therefore publicly inadmissible contempt for the poor, as if they deserve their poverty because they are lazy, or worthless, or stupid. This is the theory of the caste system, by which the untouchables are condemned to be where they are because they are considered too stupid to be of any other use to society except the disposal of waste.
One of the five pillars of Islam is charity, or zakat. It means purification and is, therefore, a form of the Great Jihad, the struggle for self-purification, to cleanse oneself from within. But when the Holy Quran mentions charity (as in Verse 162 of Al Nisa or Verse 55 of Al Maidah) it always adds a qualification — it asks for "regular" charity, not occasional charity, not mere tsunami charity. It insists on charity as a way of life, not as a balm for death. There is another very real and very realistic instruction from the Holy Book. It says, "If you disclose charity, it is well. But if you conceal it, it is better."
If only the Muslims of this world understood at least this much.