On 25 March 2020, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the world’s largest lockdown in a bid to stem the threat of COVID-19. The stringent lockdown triggered a mass exodus from cities across India, with panic-stricken migrant workers desperately trying to leave for their homes in villages. The most conservative estimates suggest 30 million internal migrants in India. More realistic estimates peg the numbers at 100 million. If even half the most conservative figures are trekking back home, we are likely to be witness to the forced migration of at least 15 million people criss-crossing the country to get back to their homes. These numbers most likely dwarf the migrations wrought by the subcontinent’s blood-soaked 1947 partition, estimated between 10 and 12 million people.
As in many countries, COVID-19 exposed the fault lines searing through state and society in India. For the first time ever, the media, thinktanks and members of other privileged classes found themselves unable to ignore the existence of millions of migrant workers that fired the engines of India’s cities. India’s lockdown exposed the disjunctions between mobility and citizenship in India, exposing the immobile foundations of the former, the fragmented trajectory of the latter and the social distance of migrant workers from the state.
A vast majority of the migrant workers desperately trying to return home are in informal employment. According to the report of the Indian government’s Working Group on Migration, many migrant workers find employment in the country’s burgeoning construction industry and ancillary industries such as brick kilns, both notorious for their precarious labour conditions. While workers in general face wage repressions, with migrant workers being especially precarious, the vulnerabilities of circular labour migrants are particularly acute. Analysing official survey data, the demographers Kunal Keshri and Ram Bilas Bhagat demonstrate that circular labour migrants tend to concentrate in the lowest paid jobs. Furthermore, circular labour migrants tend to be disproportionately drawn from such historically oppressed communities as Dalits and Adivasis.
Modi’s announcement gave Indians exactly four hours to prepare for the lockdown.
For many, migration offers a way to escape the indignity of caste-based hierarchies. However, even though circular labour migrants frequently travel great distances from their rural homes to cities to find work, it would be inaccurate to interpret their movements as either ‘moving’ to an urban area or as any sort of upward social mobility. Nearly all migrate in order to provide a new source of income for an impoverished family back home, a family whose support is vital for them to migrate at all. The incomes they find are not sufficient to bring this entire family with them, and as such they are inextricably bound to where they have come from. They may travel back and forth yet their families will never be able to leave the village or join them in the cities.
Social distancing by/ from the state
Modi’s announcement gave Indians exactly four hours to prepare for the lockdown. With little reliable information available, migrant workers – like everyone else – wanted to be with their families back in their rural homes during such a time of crisis. For many, there was little choice as employment opportunities in the towns shrivelled up, landlords threatened to evict them from their homes due to impending non-payment of rents, and markets shut down without them getting a chance to purchase essential food items necessary for their survival. As transport services shut down, they were compelled to undertake their journeys on foot, traversing many hundreds if not thousands of kilometres to get home.
Over the next few days national and international newspapers reported horrifying stories of migrant workers being harassed, humiliated and brutalised by the Indian state. One video emerged of the police accosting migrant workers walking from Jammu to Bilaspur through Badayun in Uttar Pradesh, beating them up and forcing them to continue their journey leaping like frogs. Another emerged of police spraying migrant workers returning to their homes in Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly district ordered to strip and then being sprayed with chemical disinfectants purportedly to sanitise them.
Over 200 people have died trying to reach their homes. Some – like 39-year-old Ranveer Singh – collapsed due to exhaustion, having walked 200 kilometres on foot under 35 degrees Celsius. Others – such as eighteen-year-old Lauram Bhagora – were run over by speeding vehicles on Indian highways. A one-year-old baby was among four people killed in a fire as they walked through a forest since no motorised transport was available. In May, sixteen migrants were mowed down by a speeding train when they fell asleep on train tracks due to exhaustion. More recently, migrant workers aboard the special Shramik Trains initiated by the government died of hunger and dehydration since neither food nor water was available. A woman on one of those trains died soon after alighting at her destination station also due to hunger and dehydration: a gut-wrenching video has been circulating of her little toddler trying desperately to wake her.
Contrasted with the alacrity with which India airlifted, on public expense, hundreds of its citizens stranded abroad, the Indian state’s bias against internal labour migrants are glaring indeed.
Such bias enmeshes with the social discrimination that migrant workers confront every single day of their lives. Indeed, maintaining social distance is integral to the class and caste segregation that permeates social life. Migrant workers, who face such segregation on account of their caste and religious origins, are told their place in the social hierarchy often enough. Even if they may not internalise such hierarchies, the class/caste restoration that India has witnessed in recent years compels them to lie low. The Indian state, nominally secular and socialist, repeatedly privileges the interests and aspirations of those ‘higher’ up the caste/class hierarchy at the expense of those ‘lower’ down. Although NGOs stepped in to provide food and shelter to many migrants, thereby offering them some succour, the ease with which the Indian state practiced social distancing against its internal migrants when they needed government support the most reveals its deeply-rooted structural bias.
The callousness of elites exacerbated the spread of COVID-19, which now threatens to ravage slums, villages and hamlets across India.
The journeys forced upon migrant workers across India were often very long. Reports of migrant workers walking for over 1000 kilometres (distances longer than between London and Munich or Paris and Berlin) abound, involving several days. They were forced, since the lockdown came with no warning whatsoever. Furthermore, the mass forced return of migrants that was made necessary by these repatriations was not paid for by the public purse. Nor were any provisions to make this travel safer, such as facemasks and gloves for passengers or the regular decontamination of buses and trains.
We must never allow the fact to be forgotten that India’s labour migrants, already ground down by conjugated caste-class oppression, were compelled to undertake such harrowing journeys because of a virus that was brought into the country by their wealthier co-nationals flown back by the Indian state from international destinations on – it merits reiteration – public expense. Once back in the country, many of these well-educated, well-connected and well-off individuals concealed their travel histories, fled quarantine, and flouted official guidance on social distancing. One student returning from the UK to Kolkata strutted about in his mother’s government office without any hindrance whatsoever even after being confirmed positive. Another singer concealed her travel history against official regulations and partied with the political elite in Lucknow, capital of India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh. Arguably, their callousness exacerbated the spread of COVID-19, which now threatens to ravage slums, villages and hamlets across India. The social proximity of the Indian state to one group of mobile people and its social distance from another cannot be starker.
Mobility, citizenship and social distancing from the state
Although the Indian economy is critically dependent on the country’s millions of migrant labourers, the state in India remains suspicious of its internal migrant workforce. In ‘normal times’, it seeks to politically and socially exclude them despite their Indian citizenship. The crisis has only strengthened this tendency. By exposing the social basis of the Indian state, COVID-19 reveals the fragmented trajectory of citizenship among migrant workers in India.
Mobility promises members of historically oppressed communities an escape from caste, but their precarious livelihoods disclose the immobile foundations of mobility. The sudden lockdown imposed on the country effectively expelled migrant workers from Indian cities, compelling them to undertake long journeys often on foot, contrasted with their wealthier co-nationals who were flown back to India by the Indian state on public expense. Their social distance from the state fragmenting their membership of the political community in India.
Some of us hope that the pandemic is a portal to another world. After all, previous pandemics upended extant worlds by destroying working populations. Faced with labour shortages, privileged classes had no option but to accept the growing claims of surviving workers. Perhaps this pandemic too will herald a new social order. Ranveer Singh, Lauram Bhagora and the unnamed, one-year-old baby who perished in the forest fire will never make it there. For it is on their corpses that that new order will be built.