In the last one week, as India battled its greatest public crisis—the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic—since its partition in 1947, one friend confessed to being worried about ‘being alone in Delhi’, by which she meant that she and her elderly parents did not have other relatives living in the same city.
This is a fear I share, having moved with my parents away from our two home bases, Jamshedpur, and Kolkata. While, like her, I know many people in Delhi, and in many ways, some of my friends are as close as any family member, this anxiety is something deep-seated, an unerasable dread of being left only to one’s own resources, devices, and contacts.
There are historical reasons for this, especially in the north of India. With every invasion, the ruler changed, and survival was dependent on the support a tight network of kith and kin (and often caste) could provide. At the oppressions became crueler, these networks, and dependences on them, became more urgent, more fundamental. More contemporary reasons for this network anxiety include, simply, that in an emergency there is no 911 (U.S.) or NHS 111 (U.K.). One feels, particularly in India, that one is merely as strong as one’s familial network, since accessibility to the state and its resources have never, historically, been easy, with arbitrage extracting brokers in between. In turn, groups negotiate better with the state to extract benefits under our system than individuals can. While with the coming of the use of digital technology many things have become streamlined, many capacity issues are still being addressed.
This network anxiety has often been used to explain why there has, traditionally, been less of a focus on the individual, and on individual rights, in India, than the rights and demands of the collective, of sects, and groups.
These networks have always been the first port of call for almost all Indians and had been nourished for ages by the old Indian joint family, a system where many branches of a family would live together and share resources as well as space. India’s banking system still has the provision of an ‘undivided family’ bank account where various members pool resources.
In the last three or four decades, with mobility, and the exponential growth of the nuclear family (and the dispersion of the old joint family system), younger Indians have discovered new networks, in cities where they may have moved from their hometowns to work, and through social media. Friends, as it were, became the new family. Through this process, though, there has always been a lingering sense that many were seeking to replace their lost familial ties with bonds that would be equally strong—and, importantly, would be as resilient in a moment of crisis. It should be underlined that the demographic we are talking about applies to most Indians irrespective of class.
These networks are part of the reason why Indians do not rise uproariously against the daily inequities where supply of goods and services in critical areas like healthcare rarely ever meets demand in any comprehensive manner.
But the coming of the second wave of the Coronavirus has put a question mark on this dependence on personal networks. When the cases started to first rise, many did not believe that their networks would collapse so spectacularly. After all, there was always someone to call for help, someone who knew someone, who knew someone.
Soon enough, though, it was apparent that there was only so much that networks could do. Family and friends could only help if there was a hospital bed or even an oxygen cylinder available. Since in many cases these were not, no matter how strong and close-knit the network was, it was of no use.
If kith and kin networks struggled, so did their more modern avatars. After several days of breathless begging for help by tens of thousands on Twitter, there is a palpable sense of helplessness and fatigue—a recognition that infrastructural issues left unaddressed for decades cannot be resolved by some swift network effect alone.
The tech age places much hope in the power of networks, and indeed in many cases, as evidenced by strangers rising to the occasion and helping people just on the basis of a tweet or a WhatsApp message, it could work well.
But a real crisis—Indians have been taught through this process—needs public funds and public goods of governance. We cannot rely on our networks, both of kith and kin, and the more modern kind using digital technology, to replace the role of public infrastructure, one that requires a much deeper commitment from us, the public.
This is perhaps one of the biggest, if not the biggest, lessons in the limitations of networks in India, and if its message is well understood, we can only become more committed to the raising and efficient use of democratic funds.
Views are personal. The author is a historian and a columnist. He is a multiple award-winning author of nine books.