India’s chaotic attempt to go into a lockdown to combat the coronavirus has had an unusual side-effect: it has the attention of the elites, ensconced in their homes during the three-week period, to the plight of the country’s massive migrant labour population.
The Central government’s failure to adequately plan forced hundreds of thousands of people to try to walk back home, sometimes hundreds of kilometres, since work and wages in the city had dried up. The Centre has however clearly asked for anyone on the roads to be treated as a violator of the lockdown, leaving them vulnerable to more mistreatment and violence from the state.
While some of this is due to the government’s failure to frame an intelligent, empathetic plan before announcing the lockdown, the lack of attention for this particular group would not have been surprising from any government.
As many as 120 million Indians are estimated to travel seasonally every year from rural areas to work in cities, farms or industrial areas. Without them, India’s factories, farms and construction sites would simply not be able to operate. They often have to work in the low-paying, hazardous conditions and because they are informal, seasonal workers, there is little in the way of social security or employee safety on offer.
Even though they number in the tens of millions, the fact that they are dispersed through India and the fact that the migration is seasonal means that they are often left without a political voice. The timing of India’s general election in the current cycle, for example, specifically precludes the inclusion of seasonal migrants who have to choose work and a livelihood over their political franchise.
Being mobile and without political franchise often leaves them extremely vulnerable and, indeed, invisible to the Indian state. They have poor access to health services or a social safety. Often, the cities in which they live are extremely inhospitable, and they constantly risk police violence.
“Despite the scale of migration, seasonal migrant families lead invisible, isolated lives as they remain dispersed across the wide canvas of the city,” wrote Divya Ravindranath and Divya Varma in 2019. “Devoid of voting rights in the urban destinations that they help build with their labour, their lives are stripped of any form of political voice or agency. Their needs are rarely a part of the imagination of urban public services, including health systems.”
Big shocks to the economy, like the coronavirus crisis or demonetisation, are the only times when these populations suddenly make themselves felt, ironically by their absences, as many return to the relative security of home.
But suddenly, because of the way Covid-19 operates and can be transported from the rich in the cities to the poor in the villages, policymakers are having to actually think about the patterns and needs of these migrants. Suddenly, Indians are realising that “stay at home” means very different things, depending on where you are in the pecking order.
Rather than penalising these people for attempting to make their way home, it is important for the Indian state – at every level – to use this opportunity as a wake-up call.
This must result in better coordination of policies between the source city and destination states (since the patterns are quite clearly etched), the Central government making an effort to provide a social safety net and an initiative to make it easier for internal migrants to have a political voice. This crisis serves as an important reminder that policies with a 120 million-person hole at the heart of them are flawed.