Md Meharban

The defining images of India’s three-week lockdown may be of migrant workers, with bags perched on their heads and children in their arms, walking down highways in a desperate attempt to return to their villages hundreds of miles away.

India, a country of more than 1.3 billion people, is not among the worst affected by the pandemic. Not yet, anyway. The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has crossed 7,000, with more than 200 deaths.

But the virus is exposing once again India’s deep economic divide, and the government’s apathy toward the workers who power the country’s growth.

In the middle-class South Delhi neighborhood where I live, we’re preoccupied with inconvenience. No one likes to be cooped up at home for days on end. No eating out, no visiting one another; masks must be worn when you go to the grocer or the bakery. With few cars on the road, some of my neighbors have noted one silver lining: The sky is clear and blue, something we rarely see in one of the most polluted cities in the world.

A few miles away, in parts of the Indian capital where many migrant workers live, the lockdown is more than an inconvenience.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the lockdown with less than four hours’ notice. “Forget what it is like stepping out of the house for 21 days. Stay at home and only stay at home,” he said. He mentioned nothing specific about the daily-wage earners—mostly migrant workers—whose income, in an instant, disappeared.

Migrant laborers are among the most vulnerable parts of the “informal sector,” which make up 80 percent of India’s workforce. The country’s infrastructure is built on the backs of these workers. They construct malls, multiplexes, hospitals, apartment blocks, hotels. They work as factory hands, delivery boys, loaders, cooks, painters, rickshaw pullers. They stand the whole day by the side of the road selling fruits and vegetables and tea and flowers.

They often come to cities to look for work, because they cannot make a living in their village. They are rarely part of a trade union and typically work without any contract or benefits. Most earn cash, and do not leave a paper trail. They are also disproportionately from historically marginalized groups, referred to, in the country’s official lexicon, as “scheduled castes” (those at the bottom of Hinduism’s hierarchy of castes) and tribal groups. Nationally, these two groups make up about 25 percent of the population. India’s constitution, adopted in 1950, guarantees them equality of opportunity, reserved positions in educational institutions, government jobs, seats in Parliament and in the state assemblies. In practice, however, they often face discrimination and prejudice.

The night Modi instituted the lockdown, migrant workers started leaving Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, and just about every other city to which the economic opportunities had drawn them in the first place. They knew they could not afford to stay in the city if they had no income. In their village, they had family, wouldn’t have to pay rent, and were more likely to get something to eat. All buses, trains, and taxis had been stopped, so they had no transportation. News reports said workers were stranded in railway stations. Some tried to surreptitiously flee in container trucks carrying essential commodities, but they were intercepted.

So the people started walking, first in a trickle and then in a flood. By the next evening, a shocked nation saw images of thousands walking down highways. More than half a million people have left India’s cities. At least 20 have died while trying to make it home.

This mass movement surprised authorities. Clearly, no policy maker had planned for such a reaction, and no detailed contingency plans seemed to be in place. Officials issued frantic orders to seal interstate borders and for people to maintain their distance from others so that the virus could not spread. They said that those on the move should quarantine for 14 days. Yet how could they?

Migrant workers and their families, trying to get home, line up outside the bus terminal in Delhi.
Bhuvan Bagga / AFP /Getty images

The government asked voluntary organizations to help, and when soup kitchens and shelters were set up, they were soon packed with people. A few state governments provided buses for the migrant workers, but so many needed a ride that the lines were half a mile long.   

Migrant workers never seem to be much of a consideration for politicians. This episode is only one of many examples of that fact. These workers, despite their numbers, have no political clout. Many are registered to vote in their village. But when election day comes, they are usually in the city where they work and unable to cast a ballot.

Statistically, they are almost invisible. Because they consistently move between villages and cities, and among work sites, capturing their number is difficult. The federal government’s 2017 economic survey said, “If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20 percent, the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be over 100 million.”

India has welfare measures for people below the poverty line, but migrant workers rarely have access to them. Chinmay Tumbe, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and the author of India Moving: A History of Migration, points out that welfare services are often only available in one’s place of birth.

Partha Mukhopadhyay and Mukta Naik, who work for the Centre for Policy Research, one of India’s leading think tanks, wrote in a commentary piece in The Indian Express:

Field studies have consistently claimed short-term labour mobility in India was significant. The past week has seen emphatic validation of these claims as highways across the country have been pedestrianised. In its callous haste, the Union government, when it announced the lockdown, did not think through how migrants, caught unawares, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, would respond. Now they know.

A lockdown, however necessary, was always going to be unbearably difficult for those without a social and economic cushion. And now some states are opting to extend the quarantine. On Friday, some migrant workers in western India protested in the streets as they demanded a salary and approval to return to their villages. This crisis will only worsen as they alternate between the fear of catching the virus and the fear of zero income. Sanjoy Mondol, a 22 year-old Bengali migrant construction worker, now in a shelter in the outskirts of Gaya, in Bihar, eastern India, told me over a crackling telephone line that his elderly parents call him several times a day to find out how he is doing. His young wife is expecting a baby. "We are being fed. But I have no work and have run out of money,” he said. “I can't even send any money home. Somehow, if I could get back  to my village in Bengal, I would be happy. I could do some small thing, maybe sell vegetables. Be with my wife, my parents. I can't bear to hear them weep, each time they call me. Please get me home."

Meanwhile, India’s winter crop is ready for harvest, but farmers cannot find laborers to take it to market. Essential supplies are finally reaching city warehouses, but there is no one to unload the trucks. The migrant workers cannot get back to work, because there is no public transport.

No one really knows whether COVID-19 has entered the rural parts of the country where nearly 70 percent of Indians live. There are reports of neighbors shunning migrants once they arrive home, because they fear they carry the virus. And a shocking photo surfaced of migrant workers and their children in a small town being sprayed with bleach meant to sanitize buses.

For the workers who stayed in the cities, the same uncertainty exists. Shashi Rani, who came to Delhi to find employment, has not gone back to her village. She still sells garlands in front of my neighborhood temple. The temple is under lockdown; a few devout people bought flowers from her for the recent Hindu religious festival Navratri. Otherwise, she has hardly any customers. She worries about how she will sustain herself. The Delhi government’s mobile food vans offer some help. But she does not think the owner of the shanty where she lives will agree to defer her rent, despite a government directive to that effect.

The local governments in Delhi and in some other states have set up shelters for migrant workers who can’t work and could not get back home. Nonprofits are also trying to help. But India is a patchwork quilt; not every state is equally equipped.

Jan Sahas, an Indian nonprofit, recently conducted a survey, “Voices of the Invisible Citizens,” about the impact of the lockdown on migrant workers. They interviewed 3,196 migrant construction workers from northern and central India. The results paint a dismal picture: “62 percent of workers did not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government and 37 percent did not know how to access the existing schemes.”

The new coronavirus has given migrants a sudden visibility in the national discourse. But the acuteness of their plight today is a result of the fact that India ignored them during normal times.

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