According to Dr Harsh Vardhan, who is our Union minister for science and technology, earth sciences, environment, forests and climate change, those who are “poor and wear torn clothes” can justifiably attract our repulsion. However, if they follow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat initiative and keep themselves clean, they can graduate to “gaining our sympathy”.
This Mary Antoinette-esque statement was made by Dr Harsh Vardhan on Twitter, predictably setting off protests.
— Dr. Harsh Vardhan (@drharshvardhan) September 30, 2017
The insensitivity of the statement – the “us and them” framing of the minister’s Twitter followers and the poor, the assumption that we are in a position to offer the poor sympathy or repulsion, and hence are in a position firmly above those poor, and that the onus of moving from repulsive to sympathy-worthy is on the poor – would have been distasteful in anyone.
That it is coming from a Union minster is worrying. That he put the statement in the public domain, presumably seeing no wrong in it, even more so. Dr Harsh Vardhan is in the position to frame and influence policies that impact the lives of the poor. It is the government’s job to provide a life of dignity to the most disadvantaged in the society, which the minister himself says in another tweet:
Wear clean, eat in clean, live in clean surroundings is a basic human right we need to provide to poor to restore their dignity in society— Dr. Harsh Vardhan (@drharshvardhan) September 30, 2017
But the first step towards dignity for all is the belief that everyone is born equal. Dr Harsh Vardhan’s condescending tweet reeks of the long-held Indian belief that those born in lower castes, or classes, are basically inferior, beholden to the largesse of the better-born.
Gaining the “sympathy” of those above is not a goal that a poor person need aspire for and work towards, by keeping himself clean. Children in torn clothes – the picture Harsh Vardhan tweeted to make his point – is a failure of the government and its policies.
Poverty is not a choice, Dr Harsh Vardhan.
“Keeping clean” is not easy if you are poor in India. Most urban slums and villages do not get regular water supply. That the administration is aware of soaps and detergents not being easily available was made clear in another insensitive act of the UP government, which distributed soaps and shampoos and asked Dalits to “take a bath” before CM Adityanath visited their colonies.
Sewer workers in Delhi, from where Dr Harsh Vardhan goes to Parliament, are yet to get basic protective gear. Who is responsible for their cleanliness?
Dr Harsh Vardhan is no stranger to controversies. In the past, he has made claims that Hindi is the national language of the country, told international audience that the government will put in place a scientific committee to probe the goodness of cow milk, and that sex education in schools should be banned.
That he is seemingly unaffected by past rows points to a dangerous trend within the BJP government – of never admitting mistakes, of managing controversies by trying to discredit critics.
Also, his statement bolsters Rahul Gandhi’s claim that the NDA government is a “suit-boot ki sarkar”, where the poorest are children of lesser gods, waiting to be uplifted.