Social Distancing Is A Cakewalk For Us

Notwithstanding that I am an ardent admirer of Mr. Shashi Tharoor’s prose I have to jump the gun on him this week and propose the word/phrase of the month- “social distancing”. The phrase is rattling off everyone’s tongue like the virus itself and has overtaken those all time favourites- “sedition” and “chowkidar.” The reason, I suspect, is because we Indians are past masters at this, having practiced it assiduously ever since we arrived here from the steppes of central Asia.

The higher castes have for centuries made it a point to keep the lower castes at a safe distance: their water sources, toilets, houses, even cremation grounds have to be in a distant corner so as not to contaminate the twice born. If it was not for our Constitution the chaps would even have been kept away from Parliament. The well to do (usually also the ne’er do well) in cities have insulated themselves from the hoi polloi by building gated communities, clubs and watering holes disguised as golf clubs so that the grime of daily labour does not rub off on them. Death may be the great leveller, but the journey to it is also segregated: the rich go to five star hospitals while the less endowed crawl over each other in the charnel houses that government hospitals are. Our rulers reside among the lush greenery of Lutyen’s Delhi while those who made them rulers infest the bylanes of jhuggi jhopri colonies, 80000 to a square kilometer. At times even walls are built to block off slums, as in Ahmedabad during Trump’s visit, to demonstrate how seriously we take the concept of social distancing. The higher judiciary protects itself by cutting down on its benches and cases, while the 450,000 poor devils it has locked up will continue to sweat it out in far away overcrowded, sweltering jails, waiting for the next date, i.e. when their lordships consider it safe to expose themselves. Justice can wait, what matters now is that our judges survive to become Rajya Sabha members.

The bureaucracy, of course, is in a class by itself and through decades of social distancing from the public has made itself totally immune from the coronavirus. Since they live in ivory towers they can’t be infected; they wash their hands off everything so no virus can ever pin them down; they don’t shake hands, only the feet of their political masters, so there’s no need to wash them; sworn by training not to touch any piece of work, they are safe from any contagion; they wear so many masks to hide their true intentions they are not effected by the shortage of N 99 masks.

It’s the same with our politicians. They are so full of hot air that no virus can survive being in them. They are never in one place, always rushing off to resorts in Gurgaon, Mumbai, Bangalore, Goa, to avoid both, the confidence vote and the virus: the operative word in their case is “defection” and not “infection.” They have such thick skins that no pathogen will ever be able to permeate them. They distance themselves from their voters from the day they are elected so no further social distancing is required: they are safe for at least five years, and thereafter are totally immune for life from any prickings of conscience, mosquitoes and sundry bacillus. Finally, of course, they are a plague by themselves and the corona, in all likelihood, would mistake a politician for one of themselves and pass him by with a cheery “Happy hunting!” No surprise then that Parliament has not been suspended- it’s at such a safe distance from the real world that no virus would be able to jump that distance.

So while social distancing takes various forms in different countries- a stampede to buy guns in America, singing from balconies in Milan, being quarantined in a brothel in Germany, mounting divorces in China- in India it’s no great shakes, we’ve been doing it for centuries. And the irony is that those from whom we’ve been distancing ourselves, the working class families for whom the “one meter distance” and the quarantine is a luxury, are the ones most likely to weather the storm! Figures so far appear to indicate that most of the positive cases come from the better off sections of society.

Time perhaps to remember the poet James Shirley:

” Scepter and crown must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.”

If the coronavirus can teach us just this much, the loss to the GDP may well be worth it.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at

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