Peoplewatcher: “IPL in the midst of a death wave?!”

An emerging thought among some (a microscopic sliver of uppercrust) Indians is that it’s “inappropriate” to conduct the IPL right now.

More than one person I know, have actively chosen to stop watching it because it simply “feels morally wrong to engage in frivolity” while the nation suffers.

Here’s Adam Gilchrist asking this question — with some concern and not pre-judgment, open to the idea that there are two possibilities — inappropriate vs. important distraction:

And US-residing Siddhartha Vaidyanathan who’s far more confident in his stance that this is completely tone-deaf and not okay:

“How can this be okay?”

A resounding number of Indians responded to Gilchrist saying it was an important distraction. Twitter may not always be a reliable index of where people are at, but in this case — it does align with what makes sense for India for a couple of reasons. This is a relevant question to people who follow the IPL because for those who don’t, it’s easier to not care or wish it away.

Yes, the Covid numbers are bad, the stories are horrid and reality is worse. It’s not getting better any time soon.

FLASHBACK to March 2020 India

During the first lockdown — as unprecedented as it was, there was large scale compliance. It’s common knowledge now that the poor in general and migrant laborers in particular struggled. It’s easy to say, “Stay at home” when one has a home that can fit and feed all its members, there’s less fear of being thrown out by a landlord and there is this assurance of a recurring, white-collar salary.

This wasn’t the reality for much of mass India.

A lot of the labor in India (not just below poverty line) is unorganized and if they can’t go out — they can’t eat, live or educate their kids. Their employers will invariably sideline them without a second thought because they’re squeezed as well. While government relief efforts did exist in sporadic magnanimity, much of this was hard to come by. There were also reports that it was handed to people based on political allegiance or caste and not pure human need.

For many (average) Indians, the economic consequences of what went down were unreasonably hard — even by punishing Harischandra-metrics of life being hard in India. A dent like this causes them to be sucked into an abyss that makes it hard to recover from and they drop a whole level. Lower middle class becomes lower class, that sort of thing, and it will take a whole generation for them to scramble back up even one rung on that treacherous economic ladder.

Across the board there are stories of how they have had to pawn what little jewelry they had so they could eat, borrow from more affluent relatives and not educate children for a year. This last factor for many is a massive sacrifice since most Indian parents tend to see their kids’ education as insurance for their own future. Not just a ticket to a better life for their kids.

“Life More Important than Money”

A comfortably middle-class shoe retailer in Luz, Chennai, spoke about how the lockdown meant the store was closed for weeks together. When a shop stocked with low-cost shoes from floor to ceiling doesn’t get aired, the glue used to hold the sole to the rest of the piece snaps out and it’s not easy to just re-glue and sell. The piece needs to be discarded. This results in a loss of lakhs to this one retailer — where no bank backs him and no partner will bail him out. He’s in the hole for that much even without having contracted the virus. When people don’t visit his store, he will likely not have enough to feed his family in the next quarter. He needs life to move on.

Across the country, there are stories like these of people who really needed their life to get back on track so they could earn the little they earn on a daily or weekly basis. India isn’t engineered to be a Scandinavian nation or an isolated New Zealand fantasy planet where it can “shut the country down” and heal itself like white blood cells do with the body. Imposing lockdowns without a plan for ensuring people who are not techies can live, earn, eat and learn is a fool’s errand.

While the lockdown may have been imposed with good intent and the idea that economic gains were less important than life itself, that is undeniably easier to say if you already have economic gains in the first place. The government released the Economic Survey for 2020–21 where it praises itself ad nauseum for the lockdown and lives saved (math model projected) which may well be true in some way, but it also neglects to mention the economic and therefore life cost to many Indians where a vast, whopping majority do not operate under first world conditions. It’s important to note that even in the US, they needed $1200 stimulus checks to keep the economy going and we have no institutional safety net whatsoever.

At the end of it (by June 2020), many average Indians lost faith in the government and decided that if they fall sick, that’s that but the lack of livelihood could not be tolerated. They had to move on — they had to live life, go to temples, see each other etc.

These people told stories of young drivers they knew who had died of stress and others of suicide, because of staggering financial debt with no hope ahead. None of this takes away from the tragedy and burden of frontline workers and doctors who fight an insurmountable battle against a disease that asks for social distancing from a people who are hugely social and averse to distancing.

It’s tough.

Covid-19 in 2021 is not Covid-19 in 2020

  • Then, people didn’t know what to expect, now they think they do. Whether they do or don’t, they are less afraid. Their guard IS down.
  • Then, there was a willingness to work together and suffer a little if it meant greater good. Now, that faith has eroded.
  • Then, they had some savings they could use to tide them over. Now, that luxury doesn’t exist. They need to earn to survive.
  • They need to move forward.

The list goes on but less fear of the disease and more a crisis of survival has resulted in fewer people trusting authority, vaccines or the virulent ferocity of the virus.

Yes, we’re screwed. What’s this got to do with IPL?

Kumbh mela, political incompetence and right vs left bickering don’t flatten the curve. They don’t ensure beds in ICUs or a sufficient supply of oxygen. They don’t guarantee a decent burial. But it’s also what India has in fecund abundance.

The People: Indians typically deal with the life-sucking pressures of everyday India and squalor with the belief that they have only God, family and themselves to lean on and the presumed dharmic truth that life (even if there’s death) must go on.

One System among Many: The IPL ecosystem deals with the financial pressures of handling sponsors, players and massive extended support crews and teams in a narrow window when these players are available. Given by how it’s gone so far, it’s evident that their bio-bubbles, quarantines and systems are doing all they can to keep teams safe in hotels, on air and at the nets. Here too, there are economic pressures for life to go on.

IPL came back to India with the strictest of guarantees that safety would be ensured. The messaging about safety is constant — virtual guest boxes, #Unite2FightCorona, lack of spectators, pop ups and repeated urging from commentators to stay safe, stay home. It works like a first world metric of how systems could be.

In the run up to the event, the organizers did consider input from regular people. Evidently not people who see the IPL as a moral wrong but a large enough sample of people to “read the room.” The general consensus from a reliable sample of Indians was — yeah it sucks but this distraction is vital, it gives us something to look forward to and makes it easier to stay at home.

Another clear piece of feedback was to not overdo the “Go Corona Go” message. While NYT, BBC and WaPo may balk at the “utter breakdown of Indian health and social systems” — for most Indians in India, they get that it’s bad, that they must wear masks, sanitize, distance etc. They’ve heard it from Baritone Bachchan and they’ve heard it on their phones. They’ve seen sanitizer-standies in their apartments and in the stores. They’re the living embodiment of Covid fatigue. They don’t need more vacuous reminders to tune out.

Getting People to Pay Attention Without Risk of Tuning Out

This (well intentioned) ad below, is a sure shot way of ensuring people shut it out, don’t donate even if they can and move on — mostly because that’s what people do.

Will you watch an onslaught of such ads and donate or Skip Ads the second you can?

In India, the ability to shut out tragic pleas is even more well-honed in an environment that delivers a perpetual sensory overload of negative messages. It’s where anything good — festivals, faith, food, coming together is appreciated all the more. Even death has some aspect of all of those things. As does IPL. Cricket and films have always been a manifestation of that cohesive force of pan-Indian bonding and celebration. For most people in India, that still hasn’t changed.

The IPL production has responded with just that sort of calibration where even the number of people seen on the stands with mask hits the Goldilocks equilibrium of “just right” rather than go the Indian melodrama way of hit-over-the-head with overkill.

To the average Indian, even the idea that IPL could be seen as morally wrong or something to be avoided would seem incredulous.

The average Indian doesn’t always do things to serve their own interest either.

But virtue signaling for optics makes little sense to a people who have the freedom to police the fashion, film, food and sexual choices of nearly everybody around them.

The more pertinent question is, what is served by stopping IPL? Let’s assume that the rich sponsors are forced to swallow the cost and they suffer those consequences. A canceled IPL means that the entire ecosystem including ground staff and others who rely on this income won’t get any of it. N.Srinivasan, Ambani and SRK; Dhoni, Kohli and ABD will do fine. Many uncapped cricketers won’t. Hotels won’t. People won’t.

There is a tendency to think of the IPL as “people earning crores, so screw them.” Not everyone earns crores. Not the analysts who crunch those numbers and not the cleaning staff in the media companies who are now gainfully employed. For everyone responding to Gilchrist that they need that distraction, it ensures they literally stay at home, a basic Covid ask. Even for the most morally righteous opposer of IPL right now, the gains of Indians staying home should be a win?

Let’s say we suspend IPL, how does this make India’s Covid situation better? One could argue that that money and energy should be channeled to health and prevention. Which is similar to “instead of sending objects to the moon and Mars, feed the poor.” Money flows in not so mysterious ways and usually doesn’t where someone angsting on Twitter wants it to flow.

Obviously, the choice to not watch IPL can be a personal one but out of academic curiosity, what else can we do to make IPL our own personal, moral Lent. Give up chocolate? Fine silks? Sex?

Not that I believe giving any of that will help the Covid situation in India — but making it the fall guy in a messed up situation doesn’t solve much either.

On the contrary, based on actual interviews with people, Emergency Response Team leads and IPL insiders (sure, vested interest), there’s more to be lost by not having IPL continue than to be gained by stopping it at the moment.

I detest the label “real India” while talking about those who are poor and suffering because it makes the assumption that not suffering is somehow not Indian — but a lot of English conversation by educated Indians does tend to be delinked from where non-white collar, majority India lives, breathes and dreams.

If you’re rich, one has the luxury of “reading the room” and worrying about optics. For most regular people, which is not just the poor but most of India — the desire to keep moving on is literally what keeps them alive.

Finally, to underscore that pure Indian fatalism — a quote from Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (attributed to John Lennon before that):

Everything will be all right in the end and if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.

Which may sound flippant but is also a cultural reality of how many Indians think and behave. It’s also more on point than comparing the complex Indian cricketing ecosystem to Bhutan, where cricketers transform themselves to local Peace Corp type volunteers. A country with 0.00056% of India’s population, a laughable fraction of its GDP and one that relies heavily on India for its economy and vaccines can’t fairly be compared to India and how it runs its business.

Should India aim to do better? Always.

It will also never be the niche, happy paradise that Bhutan is but we will get our jollies in other ways. Regardless of what any of us may think or want, it so happens that IPL is one of those happy pills.

::Nima:: is the founder of Berylitics and a culture, consumer, brand insights specialist. While she doesn’t save lives, she waded into the epicenters of Covid to bring some of these stories from the ground. She does love the IPL brand and would have just as objectively reported IPL hate if that was the writing on the wall.

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