Migrant Futures

In India, the pandemic is creating new borders

For those living on the margins or survive on daily wages the pandemic is a question of survival.

Gurpreet Mahajan
27 April 2020, 12.00am
A Police Officer seen instructing people to maintain social distance during the lunch time at Baruipur Junction Railway Station, India
Picture by Avishek Das / SOPA Images/PA Images. All rights reserved
Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

In February 2020, when an Indian student returning from Wuhan tested positive for coronavirus, borders were drawn along familiar lines of nation-states and territories. Covid-19, as it is been identified today, was seen as a ‘foreign’ contagion; it came to India from China. By early March, as more cases came to be reported in Europe and other parts of the world, boundaries were drawn between those who traveled abroad and the rest of the citizens. Foreigners as well as Indians coming from ‘outside’ were tested, placed under quarantine or asked to self-isolate. As a result, the middle class got differentiated internally; the foreign returnees were no longer welcome. Their houses and bodies were stamped and marked, so that the rest can distance themselves from this suspicious category.

Towards the end of the month when the Prime Minister announced that all of India would be placed under lockdown from 25 March for a period of three weeks, and only essential services would continue to function, a new border was inadvertently created. This time between residents of a city and migrant workers.

India has almost 139 million migrant workers, many of whom travel outside their state (region) for work. Lockdown meant closure of all work and economic activity and this placed hardship on everybody. However, for those living on the margins, who survived on daily wages, working in shops, and small markets, as casual labor in construction sites and small factories, or selling goods as street vendors, it was a question of survival.

A new border was inadvertently created, this time between residents of a city and migrant workers

Complete lockdown in the country was an unprecedented move, one that even China had not undertaken. Yet, in a country with such a large population, it was seen as an essential and unavoidable step. Forcible closure and suspension of all movement appears incompatible with the very idea of democracy but this was seen as an extraordinary situation – of war against the pandemic. But as in any other situation of war, it led to panic buying of essential goods and food supplies. While fighting the virus required social distance, for whoever could afford it, securing one’s needs for the next few days was more urgent.

From the start, response to the pandemic was pitted against human needs. The government repeatedly assured the people that essential items of food and daily existence will be available throughout, but this met the needs of the middle class, the residents of the city, preferably employed and those who had a place to live. The directive to stay at home, indoors not outdoors, addressed them. The boundaries were drawn to secure them. The extremely poor and migrant workers, stood on the other side of the wall. No movement outside meant no income and means of survival.

Hence, over the next two days as residents stayed off the road, the migrants tried desperately to return to their villages. They collected in huge numbers at bus stations, seeking some mode of transportation. Lockdown was seen as a necessary condition for delaying the spread of the deadly virus; but as borders often do, it created a new form of vulnerability. Those who tried to go around doing their job, for instance, selling vegetables, found themselves at the receiving end of the police force. Lockdown required greater surveillance and it was impervious initially at least, to individual concerns and compulsions.

The extremely poor and migrant workers, stood on the other side of the wall. No movement outside meant no income and means of survival

State policies that impose curbs and restrictions make administrative structures more bureaucratic, with less space for compassion and empathy. Yet, as more and more migrants gathered their family and decided to walk back to their village, some 100-250 kilometers away, the full scale of human suffering became all too evident. Some collapsed on the way, others suffered acute exhaustion and hunger. Neighbouring states, from which these migrants came, took responsibility and sent buses to ferry them back. But the thousands who assembled at pick-up points, cheek-by-jowl, stood on the wrong side of the border – one where social distancing had little relevance.

The hardships did not end here for the migrant returnees. In some places they were welcomed back, but in others they were now seen as carriers of the pandemic, whom the community did not want to accommodate immediately. Eventually, states created makeshift quarantine places in school buildings and other such available spaces for the returning migrants. In one district the local administration decided to ‘disinfect’ the returnees by hosing them down with bleach and chlorine water. In another place they were simply isolated and locked in, while they pleaded to be released and given food.

As stories and pictures of such treatment flooded the social media, the central and state governments attempted to address the situation. In India containing the pandemic, tracking carriers of the virus was, and continues to be the first priority. As numbers affected by Covid-19 are slowly rising, the effort is to increase quarantine spaces. In Delhi, existing stadiums and school buildings, and now, railway coaches are being converted into spaces that can be used to isolate the affected persons. In major government hospitals, more room is being created to treat the patients. This has yielded additional difficulties for those who had come long distance for treatment for other illnesses. The public health system was already under strain and it remains to be seen if India can construct temporary hospital-like spaces to treat patients affected by coronavirus.

In some places, returned migrants were simply isolated and locked in, while they pleaded to be released and given food

To mitigate the economic difficulties the government has created an economic package through which money could be transferred directly to the account of registered workers. This will certainly help some, but in a context where so many are engaged in informal work and do not have the necessary documentation, the benefits may not reach all sections of the vulnerable people.

In some states, like Delhi, the government has created new shelters for migrant workers, and with the help of NGOs and local communities, are running free kitchens. But these are still spaces where social distancing, that is regarded essential for dealing with the present health crisis, is simply not possible. Present policies, which are in line with some suggestions given by WHO, may be barely enough to contain the spread of the virus among the settled populations. But the marginalized, particularly informal migrant workers, remain on the other side of the border, and they may now be rendered even more vulnerable.

When boundaries are created communities get divided; worse still, they create a culture of fear and suspicion

The spread of Coronavirus created bounded communities: some relatively safe or practicing recommended measures for personal safety, others placed in contexts where they remain continuously vulnerable. When boundaries are created communities get divided; worse still, they create a culture of fear and suspicion, in which humanity and empathy get drowned. In such a situation the challenge is to hold on to our humanitarian impulse and refrain from stigmatizing the other. This is not easy but when ordinary people defy all odds and act with enormous kindness and generosity, they kindle hope in each of us, and beckon us to be a better self.

In the midst of the current crisis there are several stories of individuals helping others, distributing free vegetables and coming to the aid of someone who collapsed while walking back to their village. A striking instance of the triumph of humanity and goodwill came from the city of Meerut, which has seen many instances of communal tension and violence between Hindus and Muslims. Here, during the lockdown, when family members could not reach for the last rites of a Hindu who died due to cancer, Muslim neighbors, wearing skull caps, carried the body for cremation amidst chants of ‘Ram Naam Satya Hai’.

Situations of crisis test the inner strength and resilience of individuals and communities. It is such gestures of humane behavior that often come from ordinary persons that give meaning to the idea of political community – something that ideologies of nationalism often forget and undervalue.

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