Migrant Workers, COVID- 19 and our Collective Indifference: Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha and Mursed Alam


Critical opinions described India as the ‘Republic of Hunger’or as the ‘Republic of Caste’ and now the post-Corona plight of countless migrant workers makes us want to describe it as the Republic of Indifference. Lakhs of migrant workers along with their family members are stuck at different corners of the country, unfed, mistreated and uncared. Recent images of migrant workers flocking to Bandra station in Maharashtra, with hopes of resumption of train services taking them home and the subsequent police action to disperse them was watched and commented by all of us. Most reactions were emotive and anguish ridden but that have little impact on the ground situation in which these migrants are forced to live during this lockdown. It is true that some NGOs and various philanthropic organizations and governmental aids have to a certain extent catered to their needs but their misery demands more than mere empathy or selective mercy. They need concrete action on the ground. It is astounding to see the Government of India announcing the lockdown on 25 March without having any concrete action plan for these countless migrant workers. This completely betrays the government`s indifference to their sufferings. As if we take them and their sufferings for granted. Earlier some migrants were packed off in over-crowded buses with no money and in Delhi migrant workers were stranded in a bus station in large numbers, rendering them more vulnerable to the infection threat. By all means the COVID 19 crisis has once again proved that they are the Rejects of India. They are mere numbers, and we club them under one official category of “Migrants”, they are not human beings, a mere category of the Reject, who are left out to fend for themselves. We, armchair intellectuals and the moneyed class securely ensconced in our comfort zone, guaranteed of our salaries and jobs, passed off social media comments. The self-appointed radical fringe among us called for the closure of all other activities like educational studies as migrants are suffering but all these predictable reactions boiled down to nothing when it comes to forcing the government to come down to the street and adopt concrete steps to mitigate the traumas of these suffering faces who are away from homes and family.

Nothing has exposed more the class bias of the Indian state and Indian polity than the treatment meted out to the migrant workers after the arrival of the Corona pandemic which forced the country to a nation-wide lockdown. On March 25, the Prime Minister in a televised address to the nation announced a nationwide lockdown as a measure to tackle the pandemic. However, it soon became clear that the announcement was made without much preparation and thought. While the middle class went into a panic buying mode, lakhs of migrant workers stuck in their places of migration found themselves rejected and clueless.

Their unbearable sorrow forces one to think how the Indian state and Indian society at large could take these large number poor masses for granted. Perhaps we are sure that they will never rise against the state and the current social order. Cacophonies in our drawing room television debates over political skirmishes, paucity of COVID 19 tests, panic reactions, casting aspersions on each other will continue as we can afford it, secured as we are in our fund and food flows, but the mute sufferings of these invisibly visible faces fail to haunt and disrupt our cocooned domains fortified with proper care. Social scientists have ascribed this collective and callous indifference to the misery of the poor in India to ‘passive revolution’ that was adopted as a policy in this country post 1947, a system in which power in India was entrusted only with the upper echelons of the social order, perpetuating a mechanism of reform and not socio-economic rupture that can unmake existing economic hierarchies. This class character of India determines its state behavior too, the state does not care, can order a lockdown without bothering for a moment what will happen to these poor workers. Hence the upper class and the moneyed middle class in India can only philanthrophize and articulate sympathy for the poor but shies away from any real action on the ground. Former Finance minister of India Mr. P Chidambaram in a recent television interview suggested for the transfer of money to the accounts of these poor migrant workers so that at least they can modestly survive this period of crisis even though they cannot move. He observed that the Indian exchequer does have enough money to do this but one scarcely witnesses greater demands for such concrete steps that immediately address the needs of these workers. We have seen how corporate tycoons have been aided through bank loans to wriggle out of their business bankruptcy and yet when it comes to the poor, the flow of money dries up.

The Migrant Workers and Indian Economy

The migrant workers form a significant part of the Indian labour force. They are mostly unskilled workers who learn the knowhow of their job from their peers in work. Workers migrate seasonally following the cycle of agricultural work; and sometimes annually. They are the force behind the state-backed infrastructural projects as well as the cheap labourers in medium enterprises and in need based informal economies. Away from their homes, and often in their teens or early twenties, they basically live in groups in rented dingy homes. There are few villages in the country which do not see its poor migrate to the big cities in the hope of finding work. West Bengal is one of the states which is witness to thousands of workers leaving home for Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Delhi and other parts of the country. Many households in villages depend on the remittances of the workers outside the state. Most of them are, however, undocumented workers and are therefore without the safety net that such formalities go with.

Abusing the Migrants as they Walk Home

After the lockdown was announced, pictures emerged of the migrants workers walking hundreds of miles with their family to their homes. Left with no work, they found it better to return to home walking than being stuck without money and food. However, they met with police brutality on the street or even reportedly bleached as if they were the virus itself. No special package for them or economic security was announced.  However, some forms of mobilizations and media reports forced the Government to take into account the forgotten migrant workers and State Governments were asked to arrange for their food. Food came but even that proved inadequate. And in Surat, Gujarat migrant workers came out in protest against lack of food and with demand for their payment and possible return to home.

If the migrant workers received scant attention from the state, the Supreme Court came to no help either. A PIL filed by Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj demanding immediate payment to the migrant workers who have lost work was ‘rejected’ on the ground that the migrant workers do not need to be paid because they are getting food from the government at the shelter homes. Should we call it a class bias of the judiciary? One wonders if the Court would come up with same answers if the migrant workers file a PIL demanding the non-payment of salary of government workers.

Lockdown 2.0

The migrants were thus relegated to the dark zone of the unknown and the unknowable. The country, too, wants them to remain unknown. Their sub-human and sub-citizenship status hardly excites anger from the middle class who are rather more critical of the wisdom of these people for leaving their shelter and endangering the body-socius of the nation. The lockdown is extended against their expectation and continued despair.  The sorry sight of the migrant workers sleeping under a bridge only buttresses our indifferences to them. As reported, 30 year old Mukesh Mandal took his life on 17 April in Haryana because he could not feed his family. The meagre resources the migrant workers were left with ran out soon and most of them do not have the money to pay rent or buy tickets for home after the lockdown is over.

Economic support and Absence of Documentation

As reported in newspapers, different states are coming up with plans of economic support for the stranded migrant workers. However, such doles that are announced for the migrant workers would be given to those who are documented. It is a telling irony the states do not have proper documentation of the migrant workers from their states. The fact that the migrant workers have to apply with Adhar and other documents online might prove to be a burden to many of them. Even if online filling is mandatory then they should be helped by Government agencies in carrying that out. It is however praiseworthy that volunteer organisations have come forward to help. In West Bengal, for example, a group of thirty five people are working round the clock to collect data from migrant workers outside the state over phone and preparing a data base which is then provided to the government. They are also helping to provide aid to the migrant workers by contacting the local aid groups of different states.

Politics after Corona

Much has already been said about the economic, social and cultural implications of the Corona pandemic. Many have come up with dreams of post-capitalism, environmental justice and of a more equitable world. The International Labour Organisation has, however, talked about massive layoffs in various sectors. It is feared that around 25 million would lose their jobs world-wide because of the pandemic. The informal sector in India which was hit hard because of demonetisation is expected to bear even greater difficulties. This means a huge chunk of people would be pushed to the grey zones of precarious existence. As a consequence of the recession, there is the fear of more exclusionary state measures in social sector.  Politically there might be a greater deepening of the hegemony of right-wing populism manipulating peoples’ economic insecurities and misdirecting them towards minorities and other manufactured internal and external enemies. The Islamophobic hate-mongering in the national media over the Tabligh Jamaat gathering and the recent circular by the Home Ministry (dated 17 April) about the untraceable Rohingyas who attended the Tabligh Jamaat gathering as possible carrier of the virus are perhaps indications of that possible downslide.The pandemic has thus put before us two possibilities- one darker and the other hopeful.  The invisibilised dark underbelly of the work force has come to haunt us. Whether that hauntology of the excluded and the precariats leads to a different political imaginary, only the future can answer.

Anindya Sekhar Purakayahstha is professor at Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal

Mursed Alam teaches at Gour College, University of Gour Banga,

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