By Nafis Haider
The lockdown in India due to Covid-19 virus is peopled with the images of migration, starvation, and fear. Just walking in once busy, now silent, Aligarh, the sight of ransacked tents and tarpaulin houses on either side of the road tells the story of human plight. They were once the homes of India’s poor. One wonders where they are now. People along with their entire families have moved on in search of sustenance. Men, women, children, infants – all have been assembled on the same plane of suppression partly by the coronavirus and partly by the irresponsibility of the government.
Covid-19, termed an invisible enemy, has brought to light hitherto ignored and marginalized subjects of the society. In the fight against the virus, poverty has become one of the most important problems to handle. The poor, if not contained, will prove to be the most effective vehicle in community transmission. And hence the government wants them to be contained.
News channels across the globe and India in particular are filled with reports of how much money the government has released as relief funds for the poor migrants, about volunteers donating food and water to the homeless, about casual workers who have lost their livelihood. Everyone appears to be so concerned about the subalterns. In India, the central government is being praised for allowing the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF) of 29,000 crores of Indian rupees to be used for the provision of food and shelter for the migrant workers.
But why are questions not being raised about the delay of government to release such funds or for not foreseeing this crisis of migrant workers? Why are the subalterns always treated as marginal in policymaking? Most people seem to be silent over these issues.
The Indian government has always known the condition of daily wage and migrant workers across the nation. Daily wage workers and migrant workers who form 80% of India’s workforce live in horrid conditions and don’t have enough money to sustain their basic needs if they do not work for a day. As per the report of Ram Singh Bora, migrant workers in Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are forced by economic constraints to live in areas which are deprived of adequate water supply and sewage system. In the little wage they earn, they have a family to feed back home. The lack of public health care system and social security make the condition worse. When a casualty occurs as a consequence of their degrading working condition, nothing is paid to their families. They are treated only as a mere means to an end. The state has alienated them from their families, their work and even from themselves. This complete disregard shows that the government has deliberately missed out on the poor and the marginalized. The whole pompous grandeur in the fight against Covid-19 is to protect the middle and upper class, not the poor and the lower strata of the society.
The care and concern the middle class and the rich are endowing upon the migrants are a mere eyewash. The deep motive is to protect themselves and their business from the corona pandemic. Their concerns and the talk about safety is just another way to transfer the burden of responsibility of this disease transmission on the poor. The real carrier of the coronavirus is the cosmopolitan class of India. The spread of this virus is the result of globalization and cosmopolitanism, the same phenomenon which has destroyed the small and cottage industries and compelled the workers to live in subhuman conditions in Delhi. Those who have an interest in the globalized market never want it shut; if helping the poor make them benefit later on, they will help the poor. Otherwise no one is concerned about the poor. This historically suppressed and exploited section of the people is still being subjected to a category of sub-humans who are to be handled as an instrument of utility. Migrant workers have become, in this “New India”, mere objects for utilization for the process of development and infrastructure. They build the houses in which they do not live. They erect hospitals that do not allow them medical help. They construct roads on which they are forced to walk barefoot.
The lockdown has become a method for erasing poverty by eliminating poor people. Migrant workers have travelled thousands of kilometers on foot to reach home; some have even died; some are on the brink of starvation. They are the lower caste of India on the move, especially the SCs (38.7) and OBC (33.2) who find urban spaces offering them a new life and employment. The lower caste and Muslims are the dominant population in the informal sector. The state negligence reflects its latent apathetic behavior towards the upliftment of the lower strata of the society. While for the rich flights are organized, for migrant workers even an adequate number of buses are not arranged. Nor was there any empathetic response and responsible effort to the human tragedy that unfolded in Delhi.
The Indian rich and middle class are now donating money for the poor. A lot of volunteering has enabled many poor to survive starvation. News reports show people from Bengal, Maharashtra and other parts of the country organizing local help for the workers and poor. In Aligarh in particular, a group called Dar-ul-Mukhliseen is working tirelessly with the students of Aligarh Muslim University for providing free food and other basic needs to the poor and underprivileged. The work is commendable, more so because of the imminent threat of Covid-19 and also because of the restrains the administration has put on them. But in spite of all the goodness and solidarity, such community help will go only a small distance until the government comes up with a proper policy for the migrant workers. The state has always neglected such poor people. They are never part of the policymaking. No plan of action and regulations are introduced for them. If the government was so concerned for them, why did they not design a strategy for them in the first place? Since the poor have always been discriminated in the policymaking, how can we expect them to be taken into account when policies are executed?
This sudden marching of the thousands of migrant workers in India has brought to the fore a hitherto suppressed India. The downtrodden and marginalized whom no one has ever cared for, are now in the limelight. But, sadly, no one is asking for an extensive healthcare system for them. We must realize that even after the lockdown they will go back to the same mess and subhuman living conditions. To be selectively asking the government to help them by just organizing buses and giving them food is to turn a blind eye to the real issues plaguing them. We must ask for wholesome support through an extensive health care system and the regulation of the unorganized and informal sectors in India. Only then these workers will be given the rights and dignity of human beings that they deserve.
Nafis Haider studies Political Science and Sociology at Aligarh Muslim University. His areas of interest include International relations, and the critical analysis of contemporary political realities.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.