Borders of an epidemic: The Covid-19 War and Migrant Workers in India
By Ranabir Samaddar
This blog has been extracted from the chapter ‘Introduction: Borders of an Epidemic’ of the recently published book ‘Borders of an Epidemic: Covid-19 and Migrant Workers’, the former written and the latter edited by Professor Ranabir Samaddar and published by the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (2020).
The Covid-19 war and public power
War revises international order. Colonial wars changed political orders in many parts of the world, set up new borders and boundaries, and created a division of the world and in some cases of continents. Many of these divisions persist today. The First World War brought in revolutions and created a different political and economic system. The Second World War again effected massive revisions on a global scale. But we rarely notice how much pestilence and massive outbreak of a disease can change the global order. In short, if wars have changed borders, or more correctly, if by changing borders wars have changed the world, the same is potentially true of a pandemic.
The present liberal order, still claiming to be a world order, now faces a pandemic in the form of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The international order, already plagued by rising nationalism and economic power of non-Western countries, now faces an epidemic. The situation looks suspiciously like a world war and post-war scenario. The metaphors of war frequently deployed remind us of one of the most physical aspects of the coronavirus crisis. Like all wars, this too has recreated “race” as a physical reality of life.
There is no doubt that the public power that will win this war, if it is to be won, will promote more collective strategies of care and sharing of responsibilities. In this sense, this war calls for a new type of public power.
Illustration: Migrant workers in India
For the State, the migrant worker is a nightmare for the task of logistically organising society. For the migrant worker, the programme of logistical reorganisation of society is a nightmare. This is true of the capitalist economy in general. It is true of India also.
We saw this in the wake of the sudden clamp down – without notice – of a 21 day closure of the country, which had no plan for hundreds and thousands of migrant workers all over the country, no provision for their needs, no contingency measure for their food, shelter, health, their families, and life. Thousands upon thousands, evicted from their temporary shelters, without money and food, desperately tried to reach home – villages and small towns – from wherever they were working. Tens of thousands of migrant workers – mothers with children, young boys and girls, single women, husbands and wives, young single workers – trekked hundreds of kilometres; some reports tell of workers walking five hundred kilometres to reach home, with some perishing on the roads. We do not know how many lost their way, how many reached home in what condition, or how many perished. We do know of savage incidents such as the one when a group of workers was sprayed with disinfectant like dead animals to purify them of Covid-19. Migrant workers carrying their belongings and small children were beaten up, baton-charged and frog-marched on interstate highways because they had disturbed the lockdown measures and the disease containment plan, jumping on to whatever transportation had been made available by the Delhi or the state government or other agencies, the political class woke up to the fact that the migrant worker as a person existed.
The central government woke up late to the fact that the migrant workers had kept the most thriving sectors of the economy running – construction, infrastructure, and other logistical services. Newspapers, television channels, administrators, government officials, and minsters tried to put the “blame” on individuals, some governments, agencies… whoever they thought should be rightly blamed. Central and state governments vied with each other in the blame game. And then the knowledgeable people realised that no one knew how many migrant workers were working in the country. Census, other data pools, information portals – with everything in this information-led governance system, the migrant worker was the invisible figure. Suddenly with tens of thousands of migrants defying the lock-down, walking, those in the government or other agencies, the political class woke up to the fact that the migrant worker as a person existed.
Discerning commentators have pointed out that the migrant workers’ rush to go back home was not only a massive response to the absolute thoughtlessness of a government as the latter suddenly imposed a clamp down on their mobility, it was also a demonstration of the way in which the informal economy works in the country, in which circular migration between villages and cities has a prominent role to play. According to one study, circular migrants are to be found in large numbers in the construction industry. Presently 35 million workers are registered under various construction welfare boards, a number which by itself is nearly 3% of the population. While some construction workers may not be migrants, many migrants are not registered with these boards, and we are speaking here of only one of several such employment sectors. Given the informal conditions in which workers live and work, they shuttle between their villages and cities. It is surprising that policymakers were not prepared for the speed and desperation with which the migrants would attempt to return home following the lockdown order.
The same study of 3,018 circular migrant construction workers in Delhi and Lucknow showed that migrants had little reasons to stay in their destination cities, and many reasons to leave. The majority of those surveyed (63%) had no family members living with them. In the city, they lived in cramped and usually illegally rented rooms (52%); or slept on footpaths (25%). Less than 3% held ration cards registered in the city. Finally, they earned low wages, and remitted most of their savings, leaving little to cushion them if work stopped. In the atmosphere of neoliberalism where the state had retreated from public education and public health, the priority for migrant workers was found to be absent.
Therefore as to the question, why does any major logistical step by the state become a nightmare for the workers, the answer is in the nature of a logistical exercise, which will not have the workers as its main object of attention. Workers are the cogs and wheels, but never the main subject.
Covid-19: fuel for rethinking the future?
Covid-19 has exposed the malaise of global economy and as its part the system of public health, and the overall state of social vulnerability under capitalism as nothing else before in recent times. It has brought to the fore the forgotten knowledge of bordering exercises of containment, isolation, mass scale nursing and treatment, rapid evacuation, zoning, erecting corridors, guarding, respecting the implications of age differences, guarding vulnerabilities, and getting on top of the enemy. Bordering will also mean border managing – borders of jobs, spaces, economy, and life. To wage a war of this kind, perhaps like all other major wars, people have to have trust in their state, and the conduct of the state has to be such as to induce the trust of the people. The legitimacy of the new power rests on this capacity. The capacity is to guard the commons, which the society is. This means that the people not only need to be reassured of essential supplies, but must be given back their self-confidence.
After this war will be over, and we still do not know the results of the ongoing war despite the relative success of some states to protect life, the issue of life and death and the kind of society we want globally will become the paramount question.