By Kirthi Jayakumar
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the social inequalities that have been constantly exacerbated through the use of patriarchal, privilege-centric, and power-driven policymaking at all levels. The absence of intersectional thinking and the heavy focus on the top-down approach in policymaking both in response to crisis and in peacetime creates parallel worlds that face the same larger challenges – except one is encumbered by historical oppression and marginalization, while the other has historically gained and consolidated privilege and power at the cost of the former.
Offering an entire nation – the second most populated one, no less – four hours to lockdown, India’s response to the pandemic safeguards those in privilege. Following the nationwide lockdown, even as most of India remained where they were – home – two sets of Indians were left stranded. One, immigrants scattered in different parts of the world. Two, migrant workers in different parts of India. Even as flights ferried several Indians home from different parts of the world, migrant workers walked several miles toward home carrying all their belongings, carrying just-born children and toddlers, without food or water. Several died on the way. Many continue walking, remaining exposed to both the risk of infection and the risk of being weathered by the journey home. Women and children are doubly vulnerable. Menstruating bodies, pregnant and newly delivered mothers, infants and toddlers, people with disabilities, and injured people are encumbered by greater challenges as they attempt to make a journey home.
It must, however, be doubly emphasized that this reality is not unique to the pandemic: India’s economy has a dark underbelly that has been hidden and overwritten with (sometimes purported and manufactured) stories of glory and success and miscalculated GDPs, to say the least.
The idea of “home” is in itself a matter of privilege. Migrant workers fundamentally leave home and travel far away – sometimes to parts of the country that are entirely different from their own in terms of language, food, culture, and even climate – only to be able to earn. Unlike the appropriating group on social media that bandied the term “MeTooMigrant” – a group that “migrated” to other states with full access to social capital, a place to live in, work to do with salaries that more than meet their expenses and help them save – migrant workers have often arrived in new cities and towns with no bearings whatsoever, in the hope that they would find work with decent wages to put food on their plate and a roof above their heads. In this pursuit of work, they are forced to engage in labour that pays bare minimum or less, in labour that does not pause to even so much as acknowledge their right to dignity, and in labour that involves casteist, classist, and gendered violence targeting their bodies.
Elites for Elites
In the time since the lockdown, even as most have lamented about the economic downturn that the pandemic has ushered in its wake, very little has been done to understand the human cost of the pandemic and policies in response to it from the lens of the last mile. The “human cost” unfortunately looks like Instagram stories filled with privilege missing out on the joys of life without a lockdown – and few are willing to look past it.
The government is a large player in this apathy – but large-scale business owners who employ migrant workers, factory owners, and middle-class employers like you and me – are equally complicit in this. On the one hand calling for employers to retain employees on pay roll, the government (in several states) has also suspended the application of labour laws for the next three years – in the name of reform. This is a dangerous turn – one that returns to a state of bonded labour, no less – and anything but reform, given that this has suspended the provision of minimum wage, the payment of overtime without a limit on the number of working hours, establishing safe working conditions, and enabling trade unions to represent worker interests, among others. Even as hotels were readied and made available for those that were brought back from other countries, no effort was made at the central or state level to open up spaces to accommodate migrant labourers be that the enormous wedding halls and school/university premises. Instead, trains were arranged for the migrants to return home: with the caveat that they had to pay for the tickets – which have to be booked online, no less. Serpentine queues of migrants in the hope of finding tickets were met with complete disrespect and apathy: with several being turned away after hours in the heat, for “lack of paperwork.” To expect a migrant worker to access the internet, to expect a migrant worker to have to pay for a ticket at all, and to have a bank account to make that online payment is a glaring reflection of structural apathy and violence.
As P Sainath articulated, “We have always had one standard for the poor, and one for others. Even though, when you list essential services, you are finding out that it is only the poor people who are essential, apart from doctors. Many of the nurses are not well-off. Besides them, there are sanitation workers, ASHA workers, aanganwadi workers, electricity workers, power sector workers, and factory workers. Suddenly you are finding how inessential the elite are to this country… How many English publications even bothered to give names of the workers crushed under the train? They just had to go faceless, and nameless. That is our attitude towards the poor. If it had been a plane crash, you would have helplines giving information. Even if there had been 300 killed in the crash, their names would appear in the newspapers. But 16 poor guys from Madhya Pradesh, eight of them Gond Adivasis, who gives a shit? They were walking along those railway lines as a guide to home — to a station from where they hoped to get a train home. They slept on the tracks because they were exhausted and probably believed there were no trains plying on those lines.”
This structural violence and elitist apathy – factors that have endured longer than COVID-19 – are the lone factors to blame for this situation. This strikes at the fundamental root of human security – with gendered impacts as well. An intersectional, inclusive, impact-oriented system that is committed to truly delivering and enabling welfare would never have allowed such a reality to see the light of day. Instead, we have a small fraction of civil society that is working tirelessly to put food on the few plates they can reach, or to send some migrant workers back home through buses and other means, and leadership that tells us to take care of ourselves while bailing out on doing its duty.