Anyone who has ever stumbled upon a history textbook is aware of the name ‘Nero’. He was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 54 CE to 68 CE. Although he was lauded for contributing to the cultural life of Ancient Rome, Nero was also notorious for corruption and deceit, and often accused of being compulsive and, quite possibly, mentally ill.
One night, the emperor hosted a festival, attended by the city’s elite. While the revelers marveled at Nero’s beautiful garden and eye-dazzling decorations, little did they know that the scintillating illumination spellbinding them was fueled by Christians being set ablaze!
Nero’s Guest is the title of Deepa Bhatia’s 2009 documentary, which painstakingly exposed the heart-rending lives endured by the farmers of Vidharbha, a region in Central India. Being burdened with financial stress, to the point where they’re unable to feed their families, thousands of farmers commit suicide, living behind their helpless loved ones and a life of regret and sorrow.
P. Sainath, a groundbreaking journalist who contributes to The Hindu as the editor of Rural Affairs, narrates the hardships plaguing these agricultural laborers, and seeks to unravel the causes of the economic destitution which has lead to mass suicides since the 1990’s. To summarize, the trend towards industrialization along with the effects of economic globalization have damaged the agrarian sector to the extent where the ill-fated farmer is unable to repay his debts.
Twenty million tons of food grains are exported from India in one year alone. Meanwhile, two hundred thousand farmers have taken their own lives since 1997. Not surprisingly, these agricultural workers feel betrayed and manipulated. There is a dark joke among the farmer on their dream of being reincarnated as a European cow, and they are the ones who receive a bulk of the food grain.
Suicides occur almost daily, and the Indian government has yet to do anything to compensate their families. I mean, come on! I can tolerate potholes in Kerala, but can you
honestly tell me that compensation for farmer’s suicides is not even on the list of policy priorities?!
Culpability should not just be placed on the politicians who have implemented neoliberal policies which have dismantled the agrarian sector, or the corporation which utilize those policies in exploiting laborers, sacrificing human dignity for profit. Nero is not to be blamed, but Nero’s guest.
The urban middle class. The ones whose lives resolve around engineering college entry exams, foreign visa applications, designer saris, high-rise flats, Bollywood item numbers, and cricket, never coming into contact with a hapless farmer from the rural area. The ones fulminating on caste reservations, ignorant of those who cannot provide a scrap of roti for their children.
The ones who pride themselves in political apathy. The ones who read about scandal after scandal reported by Hindustan Times and NDTV and react with nothing more than Trumpesque shrug.
But India’s privileged urban dwellers shouldn’t be the only ones on trial. We are all culpable of the strenuous lives endured by exploited laborers. We love our iPhone, which were built by child laborers in Chinese factories. Deforestation, initiated for extracting resources, result in the displacement of indigenous tribes who are not adapted to the outside world. We, Americans, live peacefully while our military is dropping bombs in Pakistan on a daily basis. Sure, we are not the ones who instigated such horrific policies. But we benefit, and therefore, we are culpable.
So what can we do? First-world luxury is nourished by the blood of the so-called Global South. Are we prepared to give up our bed of roses and join our less-fortunate brethren on dusty mats? I know I’m not! And I’m sure neither are you! Of course we condemn exploitation and abuse. Nevertheless, giving up our own privileges is out of the question!