India’s laborers get rare time in spotlight due to coronavirus pandemic lockdown

India’s laborers get rare time in spotlight due to coronavirus pandemic lockdown

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Sunday marks two months since a stringent lockdown was instituted by India’s central government as a strategy to defend the country from the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Seen exclusively in terms of its stated goal, the strategy has been a success. Of all the countries in the world to have more than 100,000 cases of infection, India, which reached that figure last week, has taken the longest time to hit the mark. This is impressive given the size of the country. Fatalities from the virus had been kept to little more than 3,000 at the time of writing.

By making such a sharp crackdown on the normal course of life in India, and for such a long time, the government has shown — unlike the leaderships of other large democracies like the US and Brazil — that it has treated the pandemic with the seriousness it merits. As many Indian states slowly opened up in the fourth phase of the lockdown last week, people returned to the streets greatly transformed by two months of near-obsessive focus on the virus. They are ready to adapt to a new normal of travel, work and social interaction in which wearing a face mask, sanitation, social distancing, and vigilance are a priority. India does not normally change this much, this fast.

But there has been a price. When the history of India’s encounter with the coronavirus is written, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government could be judged very harshly for the way in which its war on the virus affected India’s urban migrant population. The announcement of the lockdown sparked the greatest episode of mass migration seen in the subcontinent since the partition of British India into the states of India and Pakistan more than 70 years ago. The government will likely be judged not only for having failed to anticipate this crisis — something for which it might have been forgiven — but also for the way it reacted to the challenges as the problem spiraled out of control. 

Migratory labor — moving from village to city, both in seasonal and long-term cycles — is one of the largest segments of India’s workforce. The country’s huge population, regional inequalities, static agricultural growth rate, and demographic disparities mean that about 100 million people live a double life across village and city. Most of them are interstate, leaving their homes in the poor and densely populated states of the north and east — Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh — for the more prosperous states of the west and south. 

As soon as the lockdown was announced, this giant class of urban Indians, usually so hardy, enterprising and resilient, was imperiled.

Chandrahas Choudhury

As soon as the lockdown was announced, this giant class of urban Indians, usually so hardy, enterprising and resilient, was imperiled. While the middle classes sheltered at home, the migrants, with expenses to meet but no way of earning an income and no way of departing the city, faced a sudden crisis. But no formal arrangements were made for them by the government, beyond an appeal to employers to continue paying the salaries of workers. 

Typically, the only form of social security reliably available to the poor in India is the family and the clan. Within a few days, the nation was confronted with the alarming and often heartrending spectacle of scores of migrant workers setting out on foot or by bicycle, often carrying children and a few possessions on journeys of more than 1,000 kilometers. The migrant issue became a hot potato within the governance system, with the center and the states accusing each other of mismanaging the issue.

Nearly two months later, this exodus continues. It was not until May 2 — more than five weeks into the lockdown — that the government flagged off the first train to take desperate migrant workers back home (and promptly became embroiled in a new controversy about making the migrants pay full fare for their journeys). In the interim, a giant grey economy in the transport sector has opened up, with migrants often spending the last of their money on a journey home hidden away inside goods trucks. 

The economic stimulus package announced with great fanfare by the Modi government last week has little direct relief to offer migrants, although it offered support to the small businesses in which they usually work. In a way, all these facts point to a depressing truth: Statistically, India’s migrant workers are a huge class, but, politically and economically, they are marginal. Even in normal times, they have many pressing issues, but this crisis is the first time in many years they have managed to garner the undivided attention of the Indian media.

Studies of elections in India show that migrant workers often do not vote, usually because they are registered in a different place to where they live and work. And, as the Indian government tries to get the economy started again, many states have actually diluted their labor codes to ease the restrictions placed on employers on worker safety and workers’ rights. 

In the last two months, desperation and destitution has sent millions of migrant workers limping from the cities back to their villages. For many, only a similar desperation will see them return once the virus outbreak has been mitigated.

  • Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and The National
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