Chinmay Tumbe is the author of two books: India Moving: A History of Migration (2018) and The Age Of Pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped India and the World (2021). In India Moving, he looks at how movements-from, to, and within India have contributed to the country’s pluralism. The Age of Pandemics examines the destructions caused by pandemics in the 19th century despite the rapid growth of globalisation and industrialisation. He illustrates the lessons we can learn from past pandemics to tackle contemporary health scares, including Covid-19. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2022, Tumbe spoke to about the Covid-19 pandemic and the migration crisis born out of it. Excerpts from the interview:

In both your books, you focus on illnesses and migrations to understand how India has changed through the years. What inspired you to pick these two strands?
The common theme in both books is how epidemics have forced people to migrate. When I was in London researching migration, I found historical records of the 1867 cholera outbreak in India in The British Library – I found them interesting and I was sitting on a pile of information for a very long time. The ten years that I spent researching migration led me to writing my first book, India Moving. In a way, I studied epidemics through migration.

I collected a lot of material on the cholera, influenza, smallpox outbreaks over the years. Eventually when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020, I had enough material to piece together how illnesses might influence migration. The ideas weren’t influenced by epidemiology or medical science but from the most natural response to any danger – to flee.

Do you think history serves both as a tool to cope with challenges of the present and as a warning of how not to repeat similar incidents?
At a global level, people have learned big time. I’ll give you an example, the British in India were paranoid of the plague because it had ripped apart Europe several times – the Black Death of the Middle Ages, the Great Plague of London in the 1660s. If you look into the 19th Century records of India by the British, you’ll see how they were determined to not let history repeat itself in the subcontinent. Unfortunately, diseases cannot be stopped. But they did succeed in preventing the deaths and destruction that had ravaged Europe. Those were the lessons they learned from their history. Plague hasn’t hit Europe since 1720. They conquered the illness by acknowledging it, documenting it, and making sure to not repeat past mistakes.

There is value in recognising past disasters, gearing up for them, and making scientific and rational decisions. We have learned a couple of things about forced migration too but the fact remains that pandemics are deadly – there’s also an increase in speculation, in hubris. Despite everything, we have made tremendous progress in the medical sciences and the average life expectancy is at about 70 years. I think humans have always looked at history and said, “We can do better” and in that sense history has served as a warning, an inspiration that we may never have to face something as severe as the Black Death.

Unfortunately in India not many people are aware that we have lost as many as 40 million people to pandemics before the one of today. That is also why I have written Age of Pandemics – to acknowledge this bit of history and the lessons we may learn from it. Today also there is discrepancy in government data. The medical community claims as many as 3 million deaths have been Covid-19 related. Accurate and transparent data is crucial to preparing for next such outbreak and ensuring fewer lives are affected by it.

Do you think there were instances in history that could’ve predicted the Covid-19 outbreak? How is this pandemic different from the ones that have occurred before?
People have been talking about pandemics for quite some time. For example, AIDS can be considered a pandemic but of the slow-moving kind. Since the 1980s, Covid-19 has been the most severe pandemic in terms of mortality. In a sense, this is also the story of a child crying wolf. There was the SARS scare, the swine flu scare, Ebola and since they were mostly localised, we did not take these outbreaks as seriously as we should have.

When the first wave of Covid-19 came, the government was dismissive as it had been in the past. It was only after the terrifying second wave that everyone sat up and took notice. The third and Omicron waves have been milder because of increased awareness and rigorous campaigns for vaccinations. Now we have assumed that the pandemic is over.

This messes with our psychology – the way we understand time, or time warp rather, we think we are out of danger when the numbers come down. But that is not true. When you look at history, you realise that no pandemic vanishes in a matter of months. It takes time – unless it’s over everywhere, a pandemic is never really over. In March 2020, Indians said our country has never witnessed a pandemic and with careful planning it could go away in a matter of weeks. Of course that did not happen. This is further proof of why we need to study the history of such outbreaks.

Never in the history of pandemics have vaccines been made available so quickly. People across the world have fairly unrestricted access to getting vaccines. In the initial stages, the Indian government also never challenged the science behind the vaccines and people were eager to get themselves vaccinated.

However, in the early months of 2021, the government declared we had defeated the pandemic and soon after we were hit by a force that so many of us did not anticipate. We kept getting things wrong – the migration crisis got worse, the economy suffered, and we failed to ramp up oxygen supply and improve healthcare infrastructure. There was no acknowledgement of the number of people who had died, deaths that were preventable.

We started a narrative war where it was falsely claimed that India had successfully tackled the second wave of Covid-19 infections. That was strange and shameful. Even today we do not know what really happened or is happening. Mismanagement of resources and lack of data really worsened the Covid-19 crisis in our country.

In 2020, we saw unfortunate and unprecedented migrations brought about by the Covid-19 lockdown. Had you ever expected such a thing could happen?
The first nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 24, 2020 and on March 26 I wrote an op-ed piece saying send the migrants home now. The government only did that forty days later and in those forty days, migrants had already started on foot in their journey back home. I could urge for urgent action on the movement of migration because I had studied its history – it was such an obvious thing to do. There’s no way you can lock up migrants without any income, any support for months on end. You could foresee how the pandemic would worsen the situation of the migrants.

The greatest migration that India ever witnessed was due to the Partition. After that there have been migrations brought about by wars and unrest. There’s the standard migration from rural areas to urban cities. But yes, the migration due to the Covid-19 crisis could have been better managed had the government listened to experts and understood how these situations play out.

In India, people have enjoyed unrestricted movement and mostly got along with one another. However, there have also been calls to stop migrants from coming into other states. Do you think these restrictions can ever be enforced?
There’s a lot of anti-migrant sentiment across India but I don’t think people will ever stop moving. The economic divide in India is so large that people will move – the Constitution guarantees these safe and free movement.

Even though state governments sometimes say they don’t want migrants, it remains more of a rhetoric than reality. For example, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has made an issue out of migration for decades yet the migrants continue to come. Anti-migrant rhetoric turns up during elections but even politicians know that migrants are indispensable to the state’s economy. It’s convenient to blame outsiders for problems of the state but they are very unlikely to actually act on preventing migrants from coming.

The funniest example of this is actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing the role of the Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray in the movie Thackeray – think about it, a Muslim man from Uttar Pradesh playing the role of a politician who was apparently dead against migrants from Uttar Pradesh! At the end of the day, everyone wants the best of talents and the rhetoric simply gets lost in demands of reality.

The Covid-19 lockdowns were harshest on the poorest of Indians. While a lockdown turned out to be unavoidable, what do you think the governments should have done to make the lives of the migrants easier?
The government must acknowledge that if there’s going to be a lockdown, migrants will want to go back home. In such circumstances two policies can be enforced – lockdown with all basic amenities taken care of or, make arrangements to send migrants home. Neither was done. Even though there were lockdowns, expenses kept mounting – food had to be bought, rent had to be paid.

The initial government schemes had nothing for the migrants, even something as basic as providing rations came later. If the government was serious about stopping the spread of the virus, that was not communicated to the people. The government should have assured migrants that if they stay put, they would be looked after completely.

Even then that wouldn’t have worked. It is natural to want to be in familiar environments with your loved ones when things outside are so precarious. Well-meaning intentions hardly amount to much in situations as dire as this. It was crucial for the government to provide trains to send migrants home – they did it only when it was too late and could no longer look away anymore.

Why do issues of migration not feature in voter consciousness?
It’s not a hot topic in the elections because most migrants in India don’t vote. The political manifestos are geared towards locals and natives. If it doesn’t concern the vote bank, it doesn’t concern the political parties. Politicians want migrants to vote at their native address, so there’s an inherent disconnection between migrant issues and voter consciousness.

This can only change when the migrants have the right to vote. In theory it’s already there but you have to keep altering some essential information on the voter card – it can be a time-consuming process and not many are willing to go through with it. It’s not just a labour class issue, it’s everyone. Since we may not face the same problems as the labour class, we think migrant issues do not concern us.

If voting is made accessible to migrant workers, you’ll suddenly see how their concerns will turn into talking points too. In states that have created a lot of migrants like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, migration is a political issue. Elections are fought on issues such as railway services – migration has been a cause of concern in source areas and anti-migrant sentiments have emerged in destinations of arrival.

What kind of books do you enjoy as a reader? What are you currently reading?
I tend to read more non-fiction. I read a bit of fiction too and I really enjoyed Less by Andrew Sean Greer. I’m reading Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow at the moment and it’s a lovely book. Yashaswini Chandra’s The Tale of the Horse was my best pick of last year. I have also read Vir Sanghvi’s memoir A Rude Life – I’m a big fan!