Guilty by Complicity?

This is what it says in the picture…..

“The photo in the mail is the “pulitzer prize” winning photo taken in1994 during the Sudan famine. the picture depicts a famine stricken child crawling towards an united nations food camp, located a kilometer away.
The vulture is waiting for the child to die so that it can eat it. this picture shocked the whole world. No one knows what happened to the child, including the photographer Kevin Carter who left the place as soon as the photograph was taken.
Three months later he committed suicide due to depression.”

Reminds me of a question that a viewer asked Ron Haviv, the war photographer (who became noted worldwide during the yugoslav civil war) on BBC. He was asked ” do you feel guilty when you are clicking the photographs in these places, when you know that you can get away anytime you want but they cant?”. I don’t remember what Ron replied but what i do remember was his sad, ironic smile as if this was one question he had dealt with all his life and still not found an answer, perhaps never destined to find one. After that he didn’t matter what he said because obviously he said yes, he was, always. Maybe Kevin Carter felt that too.

I don’t know how many of us are faced with this dilemma in our lives, the way we are, living behind high fortresses of comfortable images and notions about the world. Sometimes, just sometimes, when we see a picture like this, we are momentarily jolted out of our stupor and come face to face with what so many of our fellow human beings face.

But only for a moment. Soon, our self preservation defenses take over and we feel a momentary twinge of compassion and disgust at the way things are, and make a subconscious promise of never wasting food again, just like our mothers had told us. We somehow feel that this discipline in us is somehow going to prevent such images from occurring. Our conscience cleared, we move on and of course,we forget our promise…..

But then, i am not ranting against us being promise-breakers. I am not even ranting, i am just in thrall of the naivety of all of us. That in spite of all us instinctively knowing that such incidents occur, we simply hold on to the belief that these things somehow ‘happen’ and that we have no way of knowing why they do. And in cases like these,we simply feel that the problem can be solved simply by carting truckloads of food to the affected and all will be well and everyone happy in this kingdom of man.

The fact that almost all famines are man-made never seems to affect people much, removed as we are from such ‘happenings’. We all applaud Amartya Sen because he won the Nobel Prize and yet we don’t really know why or for what he won it. The fact that he showed that the Bengal Famine of 1943 (perhaps one of the greatest famines in history) was entirely man made and avoidable hasn’t changed our reaction to these kind of photos one bit.

It is a bare fact that the world produces enough food to give everyone their share many times over. The problem is not that there is not enough food, the problem is that it is not distributed equitably. The reason for this is the systemic rot and the way politics is played out around the world. The reason for this is mainly the lack of access to opportunity among the vulnerable sections. Lack of access of opportunity to economic growth and social growth. These are the two factors that ensure the survival of a section of a society. Take these two away, and a vicious cycle sets in resulting in poverty from where there is seemingly no escape. So even if u give people political opportunity, which most have, and if people lack the above two opportunities, in times of adversity, these are the people worst hit.

In the recent Darfur famine, caused mainly due to the civil war, food was available in plenty 1 Km away from where people were starving, only they didn’t have the means to buy it. The ones who did, survived pretty well. Take another popular example – Hurricane Katrina. Look at the profile of the people who were mostly badly affected – African-Americans, latin americans, elderly sick people abandoned by their families, single mothers, all vulnerable sections of the American society. And look at who got away-the ones who had cars, the ones who had choppers. And when they die in Kalahandi, aren’t there people eating cake in rest of Orissa? And when a farmer commits suicide in Vidharba, isn’t there another person who can take another loan from a bank even though he had defaulted on a loan from another bank? see the lack of access to opportunity?

So what is the prevention so that such images don’t exist? It calls for a systemic overhaul, whether that is by revolution or otherwise, violent or otherwise is immaterial. What matters is the fact that we should realize that giving food to hungry people might salve our souls and maybe give us glimpses of heaven and help them survive for some time but if you don’t remove the conditions that force people to starve, well, they are going to starve again and next time, they might very well die. What we usually propose are cures, not preventions. Changes may be slow or it may be brought about in a few years (as it has in some cases) but the foremost prerequisite is that the very knowledge that change is necessary should first infiltrate deep.

What makes us so naive? It is, i believe, because, one, these people don’t have the voice of the popular media (though they are increasingly finding voices in the cyberworld, but its still nascent and disorganized). When they do get their attention, it is mainly in images of suffering or sound bytes of calamity. As long as the images and sounds and events make for good visuals, they stay on screen and then they suddenly fade away. And with our attention span dangerously low on topics that don’t immediately concern us, we simply forget. Secondly, we read and think what we are made to read and think, almost involuntarily and this kind of self-brainwashing is increasing day by day with the assault of the consumer market’s marketing Juggernaut hitting us almost every second of our lives now. We realize implicitly that time is a premium and thus we tend to preserve our attention and energies to the things that require our immediate attention, which coupled with competition for jobs and necessity for financial security ensures that our attention radius becomes very small indeed. This, i believe, is one of the main reason for the so called growing ‘selfishness’ of people. If you don’t have time to think for anything beyond your own, well, you cant be expected to do anything for others…..

So let us not be under the illusion that we don’t have blood on our hands….let us know this…. that if we enjoy the fruits of the system and revel in its status quo, we support it. And by logic we support this system when it condemns a large part of humanity to death, whether by war, starvation or loss of dignity.

Well, next time, you find yourself making such vacuous promises to yourselves or telling your children that they should eat up because there are people starving in Africa, which needless to say is a dangerous thing because it gives the child an opportunity to take away his future complicity by eating up his own food, just let yourself know that its because you live in denial as to how that food got onto your plate when the person next door is dying.

As to that, we are all Marie Antoinette crying “eat cake” to masses demanding bread.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishesme, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never
send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne

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