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When I first came here from India nearly 30 years ago, Americans often asked me about floods, droughts, and epidemics in my native country. The patronizing tone of these queries betrayed most Americans’ simple belief that “it could never happen here.” We immigrants too seemed to implicitly believe this dictum.
Recent images from New Orleans prove that it can happen here.
Trying to explain to Americans why so many thousands perished in natural calamities so often in India, I would feel ashamed of the poverty, the deprivation, the enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots in my native country. I would talk about the lack of modern technology and infrastructure, of social organization, of resources necessary to launch rescue and recovery operations. But my audience would become skeptical, asking me questions as to whether the caste system prescribed in the Hindu religion was the real reason behind our social and political apathy toward the victims.
Ironically, America’s response to the predicament and suffering of Katrina’s victims has been eerily reminiscent of that of a Third World country.
You only have to look at the faces of the victims to understand why they haven’t been instantly helicoptered to dry ground; why they have been allowed to languish like animals in a crowded Superdome with no sanitation, water, or food; why there has been no outpouring of offers from concerned citizens to host them in their homes.
I remember sitting in the dining hall at the International House in Berkeley, Calif., in the winter of 1977, listening to my fellow Indian students marveling at the way in which America was coping with the extreme freeze in the Midwest that year. “The remarkable thing is that the system works here. It doesn’t fail, like it does in India,” one friend said. We all wondered then how or why the systems didn’t fail here.
“Because people care for one another,” one student ventured.
That was 28 years ago. Since then, a lot has changed around the world. Now, in the wake of the Katrina disaster, Americans have seen that the system can fail here. What is worse, they have seen what can happen to human beings when they are deprived of the very basic necessities of life, when they are driven to desperation, when they are left without help, to starve, ail, succumb, and die.
In the meantime, countries of the so-called Third World have learned to take better care of their citizens, as was demonstrated in India’s response to the recent tsunami. Today, the underclass in India has a loud enough voice that the kind of neglect of the victims that has been seen on the images broadcast from New Orleans would create political and social furor in my home country. Many poor people in India today have higher expectations of life, of society, of the political system, which they now know is supposed to serve them. Ironically, it is American television that may have fashioned these expectations.
Much has changed in America too in the last 30 years. Lack of health care, increasing poverty, and institutionalized disparity between the rich and the poor have made Americans indifferent to social suffering and inequity. The nation’s infrastructure has deteriorated, a result of misplaced priorities.
Over time, the First World has merged with the Third World.
Of course, immigrants like me have always been aware of the “caste system” in America. Although I was a Brahmin in India, upon arrival in this country I felt part of the margins of society. But Hurricane Katrina really brought home to me the heartbreaking fact that the poor of the world happen to be “untouchables” regardless of whether they live in America or India.
During the last few days, I have been haunted by the images of those suffering and drowning in a deluged city. If there is one useful purpose that this monumental tragedy can serve, it would be to raise American consciousness about the Third World nation that lies within its boundaries. If America is to claim moral superiority in imposing its high ideals of freedom and democracy around the world, it needs to first serve its own have-nots, not only in this disaster, but for the long term.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.