Part II – The Virus, the Muslim and the Migrant: Forced labour and data capitalism


Forced labour and data capitalism are the low end and high end of Coronacapitalism. Let us examine each of these.

Forced labour

The gut-wrenching picture of migrant workers who managed to reach Bareilly, being sprayed with disinfectant by people protected by hazmat suits themselves, provoked such widespread outrage in India and negative publicity in the foreign media, that the Health Ministry issued a hasty statement that this should not be done.

Spraying of chlorine on individuals can lead to irritation of eyes and skin and potentially gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and vomiting. Inhalation of sodium hypochlorite can lead to irritation of mucous membranes to the nose, throat, respiratory tract and may also cause bronchospasm, the advisory said.

Workers at Bareilly bus terminus being sprayed with chemicals

But this brutality and callousness towards workers and the poor emanates from the very top of this regime – the signal is sent from there, as to who matters and who doesn’t. The difference in treatment is stark and unapologetic.  For example, during the lock-down, on April 18th,  even as thousands of workers walked long distances home because no transport was arranged for them, precisely in order to prevent them from leaving the states in which they were stranded, the Uttar Pradesh government organized 250 buses to bring back students from the state studying in Kota, Rajasthan.  As of April 24th, special flights and hospital beds are being prepared by the government to bring back Indians stranded abroad.

Meanwhile lakhs of migrant labour continue to be trapped in horrific conditions, prey to rumours and fake news of buses being arranged, special trains being run, to their home states; and when they arrive at bus terminuses and stations in thousands, with their meagre belongings,  their little children, they end up lathi-charged in Mumbai, teargassed in Surat.  Apart from some state governments (West Bengal, Kerala, Delhi), that have taken on the responsibility of feeding these hundreds of thousands, it is largely ordinary citizens who have stepped up across the country , financially and physically, to set up networks, including those of NGOs, to prevent mass deaths by starvation – see here and here, for example.  The Central government’s contribution to this has been negligible, according to its own reply to the Supreme Court (in which it falsified data on Kerala, but that is another matter.)

And we are not even going into the collateral damage of this tragic government produced crisis – that, is the deaths due to exhaustion from the march itself, due to police brutality, due to starvation. Visit this site to get a sense of India’s villages during the Covid 19 Pandemic.

The Bengal famine, Partition – these are the historical memories of the subcontinent that have been evoked by the unbearably painful, heart-breaking and enraging images that emerged from the catastrophic, 21st century ‘long march’ of migrant labour in their desperate attempts to reach home  after lock-down was abruptly declared, with barely a few hours’ notice, by the Prime Minister on March 24th.

But another parallel is more relevant here, because this situation reflects, not just the callousness of the ruling elites or the bureaucratic indifference of the nation-state form, as do the two memories evoked above. What we see here is 21st century evidence of the indispensability of forced labour to capitalism.

Let us return to the image of workers squatting on the ground, being sprayed with disinfectant, as if they were the virus themselves. The image it immediately conjured up for me was that of Nazi concentration camps. As Jews and other prisoners entered these camps, they were first “disinfected”:

the prisoners first had to undress completely, and then they were shaved, showered, and disinfected. Disinfection entailed either a Lysol dip, in which the arrivals were immersed one after the other, or the use of brushes to slosh the disinfectant on their naked bodies

Dispossessed, disenfranchised, stripped of German citizenship, these prisoners of the Nazi state – Jews mostly, but also homosexuals, Roma people (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses (because they refused to serve in the German army or take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler) communists and other political dissidents –  were on their way, after being “disinfected”,  to forced labour, disease, starvation, and eventual death by gassing.

But the important fact here is that Nazi concentration camps provided free labour to dozens of private companies.

A recent news report says

WirtschaftsWoche has published a league table illustrating the Nazi past of top German firms like Bosch, Mercedes, Deutsche Bank, VW and many others, which involved the use of almost 300,000 slaves.  The league table follows revelations earlier that Audi, which was known as Auto Union during the Nazi period, was a big exploiter of concentration camp supplied slave labor, using 20,000 concentration camp inmates in its factories.

Not just the German state, but the company IG Farben built its own private concentration camp for Jews who performed forced labour in the plant grounds.

Prisoners in barracks at the Buchenwald concentration camp

Germany of course, was only perfecting techniques used for decades in Africa by all the European colonial powers and settler colonialists – forced labour and labour camps were the engine that ran European capitalism.  As Aime Cesaire put it in 1955:

And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific
boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.
People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How
strange! But never mind – it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it  is… Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples… (P. 36)

Hostel for workers during apartheid in South Africa

But India’s migrant labour (or let us say, for clarity, the non-Muslim migrant labour) are not Jews in Nazi Germany or blacks in Apartheid South Africa – they are citizens of this country; not formally or informally – yet – stripped of citizenship, (as Muslims are by Hindu chaudhrahat, as Part I of this post attests). By what powers are they being treated as criminals, facing the coercive power of the state as they seek to exercise the basic fundamental right to return home, a right that is being differentially accorded by the Indian government to different sections of its citizenry?

The answer is comical in its simplicity. By the power of capital, no less. Consider the following facts:

a) Throughout April, during the lock-down, news items emerged that indicated rising anxiety about the economic crisis brewing for capital because of labour shortages. To cite just a few of these – in the agrarian sector (Punjab);  in Maharashtra to unload cargo at ports, fill ATMs with cash and staff neighbourhood stores; in real estate and construction across the country; for the steel industry.

b) In an order dated April 19th, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a Standard Operating System for the movement of stranded labour (its acronym being given in brackets as SOP, though its actual acronym, SOS, is more appropriate from the point of view of migrant labour today). What this SOP establishes is

(i) an outright prohibition on migrant labour, even those tested and found “asymptomatic”, from moving out of the state in which they are currently trapped, and on going back to their home states; and

(ii) the recruitment of “asymptomatic” workers in “industrial, manufacturing, construction, farming and MNREGA works” only in the state in which they are currently located (stranded), for which they must be “registered with the local authority concerned and their skill mapping be carried out to find out their sustainability for various kinds of works.”

This is nothing short of forced labour.  Please note that after testing for Covid-19, the asymptomatic workers will  not be let free to do as they wish – go home or seek work. It is precisely the asymptomatic workers who must remain within the states they are located and be transported to where labour is needed. The “shelters” in which they will be housed are nothing less than concentration camps. Workers will in short, be forced to remain in states with no support systems, and thus forced to work wherever they are needed by industry. Also note that apart from MNREGA, there is no mention of wages in the SOP, whether they will receive even minimum wages. Indeed, if their labour is so essential for the economy, should they not be able to negotiate much higher wages? Why is the state ensuring cheap, plentiful, literally captive labour for private  industry and farming?

According to a report published on April 15 by the Stranded Workers Action Network, a collective of individuals working on migrant labourers’ issues, 89%of stranded migrants had not been paid any wages at all by their employers during the lockdown period. The report was based upon interviews with over 11,000 stranded workers. The report highlighted that 96% of the stranded workers had not received rations from the government while 70% had not received any cooked food. As much as 78% of the workers had less than Rs 300 left with them at the time that they had been interviewed. 

Not a word in the SOP issued by the MHA on any of these issues.

The parallels with colonial and  Nazi policies are inescapable and clear.

But why does migrant labour in India want to “go home”?

A remarkable publication from Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, edited by Ranabir Samaddar, asks:

What lay behind these long marches? How do caste, race, gender, and other fault lines operate in governmental strategies to cope with a virus epidemic? If the fight against an epidemic has been compared with a war, what are the forces of power at play in this war against the pandemic? What indeed explains the sudden visibility of the migrant workers in the time of a public health crisis?

This collection of essays by long-time researchers on migrant labour in India can be accessed here:

Borders of an Epidemic. Covid 19 and Migrant Workers.

Scholars such as Tariq Thachil who have studied migrant labour point out that

most of these migrants do not permanently relocate to the city. Expensive and inhospitable urban environments compel them to move without their families. Instead, they circulate between city and village several times a year, and remain deeply rooted within sending villages. Each of these factors is important in understanding why migrant workers have been so eager to return home since the lockdown was announced.

Similarly, Chinmay Tumbe said in an interview:

There are millions of circular migrant workers. After factories and job-outlets were shut and incomes dried up, it was only rational and natural for them to go home. The government assurance on income and rent-waiver came only on March 29. They fled before that out of fear of losing their livelihoods and to escape hunger.

Migrants get economic security in the city, and social security – of the family and of public assistance – in their villages. Instant flight occurs when economic security vanishes and migrants seek social security. It is also human nature to be with one’s family during distressing times….

Lockdowns need proper planning, including giving some time to migrant workers to go back, should they choose to. If the objective is to keep migrant workers within the city, then the lockdown speech should contain clear assurances. The measures should not be coming four days after the lockdown is announced. 

What is clear however, is that far from implementing any welfare measures to encourage workers to remain in the cities where they have been stranded, the policy the government has followed is that of absolute coercion. Police brutality on the poor during lock-down, has been very much in evidence. A teenager was beaten for stepping out to buy biscuits, so brutal a beating that he died (he also happened to be a Muslim).

Said a commentator about police brutality during lock-down:

The current spate of abusive behaviour by the police is only an aggravated form of their ‘routine’ behaviour in normal times. It gets aggravated during such times because; first, there is little accountability during crises. The supervisory system is occupied handling more serious issues, and has little time to spare for such complaints. Second, the cops know that, having have had a very long history of subjection, subordination and consequent servility, a large number of Indians have developed submissive personalities. As a result, they do regard imperious, overbearing behaviour of state officials as a sign of ‘good or strict administration’.

The commentator knows what he is talking about. He is N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, former DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG, CRPF and BSF. 

This is the coercive power that will now be formally unleashed on workers, with the MHA SOP in place. Workers will be imprisoned in the state they are in, and forced to work where they are sent by the government, with no mention of responsibility for fair or even minimum wages.

A policy that could not have passed the hastiest scrutiny in a democracy, even under this callous regime, is now formally announced as SOP thanks to the virus and the health-crisis-as-war. This is Coronacapitalism at one end of the spectrum.

Data capitalism and the Aarogya Setu app

At the other end, there is the huge pressure from the government to  download the Aarogya Setu app, a contact tracing mobile application launched by the Union Health ministry on April 2, which is supposed to help users identify whether they are at risk of Covid-19 infection. It has been developed by the National Informatics Centre, a part of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

The Ministry has asked social media platforms to promote installation of the app among their users, giving these platforms a ‘target’ of ‘minimum downloads’, ranging in millions. Additionally, the companies have been asked to share progress on this front with the government on a daily basis. In the communication to these companies, the government has said its overall target is “all mobile users in India.”

Some departments of government, such as Prasar Bharati, for example, have made it mandatory for employees,  and some state governments (Tamil Nadu) have asked all university and college teachers to download the app. Ordinary citizens (including myself), receive a mail or text every day asking us to download it.  Food delivery company Zomato and Urban Company (formerly Urban Clap) have made it compulsory for their delivery partners to install the app.  In short, Aarogya Sethu is being aggressively promoted by government and private interests alike.

To top it all, no less than Bill Gates wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, congratulating him on the Aarogya Setu:

I’m glad your government is fully utilising its exceptional digital capabilities in its COVID-19 response and has launched the Aarogya Setu digital app for coronavirus tracking, contact tracing, and to connect people to health services,

Bill Gates’ delight in an app that will collect data from potentially the entire mobile phone-owning population of India is not so intriguing. Here’s a possibly unrelated fact – in 2013, schools in the USA started on-line tests for proficiency in reading and mathematics. The scores of students, said a news report:

along with students’ personal information – race, economic background, report cards, discipline records and personal addresses – will be stored in a database designed by Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation…The database will be managed by inBloom inc, a non-profit outfit that, like Wireless Generation, is under the domain of billionaire Bill Gates – who, together with the Carnegie Corporation and other philanthropic organizations, set up the company via his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Data analyzing firms, educational software designers and other third-party venders, both for and not-for-profit, were to be granted access to all this information.  The not-for-profit startup inBloom was to perform these functions for schools all over the USA, but so great were the objections from parents and school administrations over privacy and security issues that in 2014, inBloom shut down.

The Gates Foundation is interested in data-generating apps, is the takeaway from this account.

Now, the Aarogya Setu has been shown to be deeply problematic on a number of dimensions. As a careful report prepared by Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) put it, the app is

a privacy minefield and it does not adhere to principles of minimisation, strict purpose limitation, transparency and accountability.

Globally, there are concerns expressed about contact tracing apps, a phenomenon The Economist termed ‘creating the coronopticon.’  In Singapore and in Europe, the IFF report points out, only the health ministries can use these systems or have access to any limited data/interaction which is shared with them. They assure citizens that law enforcement personnel will not have access to these systems or the data they hold. But in India, neither formal notifications nor press reports refer to any major involvement of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Instead health authorities are  merely “tertiary institutional players”.

Not only this, unlike in Singapore, where there is a legal limitation on the state that the data collected can be used only for disease control, the Aarogya Setu app says exactly the opposite, that the government can share your data with unspecified “other agencies” for unspecified “other purposes”. The app could potentially allow the government to peer into aspects of the user’s private life that have nothing to do with Covid-19.

Also, the data collected by Aarogya Setu is

stored both on the device and on central servers. And while the terms of service say that time-stamped records of user contact will be deleted in 30 days, this is not so for the anonymised and aggregated data sets. This means that encrypted user data on its own servers could last beyond the purposes of tracing coronavirus.

As a result there is a risk the personal information of users may be held not just for the duration of this public health crisis, but beyond, says the IFF report.

See some user reviews of the app and privacy concerns they express, here.

Now, state surveillance is not necessarily exclusively a capitalist project, as history has taught us, alas.

But what is relevant here is the emergence of “data capitalism”  from  the mid 1990s onwards, which is now a well entrenched phenomenon.  Sarah Myers West defines data capitalism as

a system which enables an asymmetric redistribution of power that is weighted toward the actors who have access and the capability to make sense of information.

Whenever we enter the internet (social media, on-line purchases, search engines) we leave behind traces, which are collected by companies for commercial purposes. So quite apart from the usually recognized dangers of data leaks and state surveillance, which can be seen as aberrations, we need to recognize that in its normal functioning, data capitalism makes us all “prosumers”. The term prosumption was invented by Alvin Toffler and refers to the fact  that as on-line users, we consume social media and simultaneously produce data for the use of data capitalism.

There are, as Sarthak Bhatia puts it  in his unpublished M.Phil dissertation:

(economically) productive aspects of collecting and acting on data. The data that is collected from the users is used to generate revenue in various ways but the primary producers of this data do not get recompensed for, or even informed about, such collection. The ‘consent’ is taken from the users in the form of highly opaque terms of conditions which authorise these companies to use the data for a myriad number of purposes including as a resource to be used to manufacture other services and applications or directly as a commodity to be traded.  In fact the data is looked at here in the same way that Nature was perceived under the enlightenment project – as something which is available ‘out there’ to be acted upon, as something which needs to be transformed from its rawness to be made useful.

The relentless push by this government for all mobile users to download an app, the data generated by which can be used, shared and stored in ways about which we have no information, and over which we have no control, is Coronacapitalism at the high end, as it were.

Meanwhile, regular stuff – crony and predatory capitalism…

The corporate loot behind the saffron banner has of course been going on since 2014, and has escalated since May 2019 – that is, the neoliberal restructuring of the economy and sale of the country’s public assets to corporates. In Kashmir, within 75 days of the abrogation of Article 370, 125 projects were cleared in just 3 meetings, diverting forest land for “development” projects, the details of which were not divulged to journalists.

Also within a week of lock-down being declared, the government issued a Gazette Notification changing the domicile rules for Jammu and Kashmir. Until Section 370 was abrogated by this government in August 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly was constitutionally empowered to define a resident of the state, and only these defined residents were eligible to apply for jobs or own immovable property. The changed rules define as resident anybody who has lived for 15 years in the former state, or studied there for 7 years and so on – essentially opening up Kashmir for settlement by non-Kashmiris, an old RSS dream. This decision in fact, fulfills the demands of both aspects of the current regime – Hindu chaudhrahat and predatory capitalism, because land can now be bought by outsiders for any purpose, including commercial.

The neoliberal agenda is by no means necessarily linked to Hindu Rashtra, but when it is, the impact is even more devastating.

Since 2014, a one-time expansion of 25% given to coal mines in 2012, has been extended twice without taking into account impact on environment, and now a new draft policy plans to make such expansions the norm. In the state of Odisha, mining companies are supreme, with fraudulent permissions from village committees being used to legitimize open loot of adivasi resources and the destruction of their forests for mining. These are just a few examples. Public universities are being gradually made self financing, the public sector being dismantled in infrastructure, in insurance.

During the lockdown, while non-essential projects are on hold, and the Prime Minister demands contributions from the public for the newly formed, opaque, unaccountable and evidently problematic PM CARES fund; one of the first acts of the Ministry of Housing was to issue a notification to continue with the 20 thousand crore rupees project to develop the area around India Gate, called the Central Vista Project. The details of the transformation of this iconic and heritage area are shrouded in secrecy, and the contract has been given to a private firm based in Gujarat. This project is nothing less than a massive capture of public land by “super elites”.

Another firm based in Gujarat, a start-up joint venture with a US firm, has controversially been given the preliminary license to manufacture Covid-19 testing kits in  yet another opaque decision.

And perhaps the most bizarre of all the callous decisions made so far by this government, a decision that can make sense only within the surreal echo chamber of capitalism – in these conditions of mass starvation, staved off to some small extent only by voluntary initiatives of private citizens, the Government of India, at a meeting of the National Biofuel Coordination Committee, approved that surplus rice available with Food Corporation of India (FCI) can be converted into ethanol in order to manufacture alcohol-based hand sanitisers and also for blending with petrol.

The report says that some of the surplus grain, “5 kg per person” will be distributed free of cost during the lock-down period, but presumably after all the hungry across the land have been fed, there will still be enough grain left to manufacture hand sanitizers.

The mind boggles. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting!

The undeclared war on the people of India

The will towards Hindu chaudhrahat and the drive of predatory capitalism, from the beginning, have marked this regime. In addition, the virus has enabled an unprecedented expansion of its coercive powers. Even as prisons find overcrowding a serious issue in the pandemic, large scale arrests of activists and dissenters to the regime are being carried out – for instance, those falsely accused of responsibility for violence during the Bhima Koregaon gathering, in which those associated with (or claimed to be associated with) the Elgar Parishad, have been termed “urban Maoists” by the regime, and incarcerated. The last two to be arrested were Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde.

Anti CAA protesters, Muslims,  are being picked up in large numbers and imprisoned, supposedly for causing the violence in North East Delhi  in February 2020, which was in fact an anti-Muslim pogrom, as we discussed in Part I of this post. One of those to be arrested recently is a young, pregnant, Jamia student, Safoora Zargar.

Under these circumstances, how do we pick ourselves back up? What kind of creative thought is possible, what kind of transformative action – globally, locally, as individuals, as communities, as collectives? How do we, the People of India – who declared ourselves during the electrifying, militantly non-violent, visionary protests against CAA-NPR-NRC – how will we manifest ourselves in our bid to reclaim the values of the Preamble?

All over the globe, this pandemic has sparked some extraordinary reflections – on the future of capitalism and anti-capitalism, on ecology, democracy, on representative government, on collective action.

Part III can be read here – Rewilding, Pirate care and Solidarity


10 thoughts on “Part II – The Virus, the Muslim and the Migrant: Forced labour and data capitalism”

  1. This issue has enlightened us very much. Now we can assess the seriousness of the post corona situation. In fact we are nearing to fascism in quick succession.


  2. Eagerly waiting for the final part. However, I have three specific comments or observations. Firstly, I think few vocabularies must be revisited. The terms ‘beneficiary’ or ‘Migrant workers’ are incapable to promote a right-based approach. If the workers remain ‘migrant workers’ instead of being considered as ‘wealth creators’or anything more apt, they are delinked from the broader labour movement that prioritizes ‘just’ and right based approach over anything.

    Secondly, the meaning of solidarity smacks of it’s own casteist idea. Along with the rejections of the words like sympathy, we may think of doing away with solidarity to replace it with more substantive word where love can be encapsulated with compassion. That may change the relation between ‘civil society’ and designated ‘Others’.

    Thirdly, as Agamben has already mentioned how the state is trying to create a state of exception, can we think through more nuanced approach to understand Hidnutva surveillance? I was just wondering what it actually is that determines the idea of ‘private’ for the people. What does make people believe that data are not private at all or more precisely there is hardly any problem in sharing it? Is it just hegemony with or without consent? What does draw the line between public and private for the socially, politically economically Othered sections of the society? Though I have loads of other thoughts to put forth, this space has its limit. It will be really nice if Prof. Menon addresses few of my concerns in the next part.


    1. Abhik, thank you for your thoughtful comment. While I do agree that vocabularies render identities and phenomena visible or invisible, in this context “migrant worker” is a simple descriptive term. I did not use the term beneficiary, which is problematic, i agree. “Wealth creator” is a very broad term that would encapsulate all who labour, while migrant worker refers to a specific sub set of that.
      About solidarity, I dont agree that it smacks of casteism. It is closest to Ambedkar’s “maitri”, or fellowship. Compassion on the other hand, is a term that embodies inequality, in my opinion. It means sympathy for the sufferings of the Other, while solidarity implies seeking common interests, building and recognizing mutuality, on a basis of equality.
      As for data capitalism and surveillance, and the question of public/private, you are right, it deserves another long discussion to itself…For now let me say that as as a feminist I am sceptical of the value of privacy as the basis for any democratic claim.


  3. I do not follow Kafila regularly, but my impression is that Nivedita did not find the idea that India was becoming fascist agreeable earlier. Here she seems to have changed that stance..Which I find good. Not sure how useful a concept like ‘chaudhrahat ‘ is, but hope in part 3 she indicates some ways to counteract, resist. Because just now the scenario is not looking so good, if one looks at the situation of different social sectors


    1. Ammuabe, I don’t write only on Kafila, but in any case, I don’t think I have ever “not found agreeable the idea that India is becoming fascist.”
      If I knew the context you are referring to it would help. But in any case, i do agree with you that we need to figure out ways to resist…
      I dont claim to have answers, but in part 3 some conversations could be set up among ideas that are already emerging.


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