At the recently concluded monsoon session of the Parliament, the Central government admitted twice to a failure in recording data. It said it did not have any information about the number of migrant workers deaths during the lockdown. A few days later, the government said it did not know how many medical stuff had died from Covid-19.

This raises several discomfiting questions. Given the widespread use of the Aadhaar biometric-based identity number, the Aarogya Setu app which is meant to alert users if they have come in contact with a Covid-19 positive patient and state government portals for tracking interstate travel during the lockdown, it is implausible that the government lacks the capability to gather data.

Rather than technical limitations, the government’s response to Parliament points to a political choice, whose implications both in the short term and the long term are equally troubling. Can the government afford to absolve itself of its moral responsibility towards its citizens and can the absence of data justify it?

Rectifying the lapse

There is still time for the government to rectify this serious lapse if it chooses to do so. The migrant crisis during the lockdown spurred civil society organisations and ordinary citizens across the country into action. The Stranded Workers Action Network has combined relief work with documentation of workers’ experiences. Aajeevika Bureau, which works on migrant issues in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, put out a report in April titled Unlocking the Urban: Reimagining Migrant Lives in Cities Post-Covid-19 that outlines several ways in which Indian cities can be made more migrant friendly.

These include de-linking the provision of basic services from domicile status, guaranteeing tenure security and developing platforms that enable migrants to exercise political citizenship in the cities they inhabit (seasonally or semi-permanently) and enrich with their labour. The report was based on data gathered from interviews and focus group discussions with migrant workers in Ahmedabad and Surat.

A family of migrant workers at Chennai station. Credit: Arun Sankar/ AFP

A public database of non-Covid-19 related deaths in the lockdown based on news reports has been put together by independent researchers Thejesh GN, Kanika Sharma, Krushna, and Jindal Global Law School assistant professor Aman with help of student volunteers.

Combine these formal exercises in documentation and data gathering with the more dispersed archives of migrant lives embedded in the minds and smartphones of various civil society actors who voluntarily ventured into the frontlines of this crisis and one has at one’s disposal a massive body of information that spans the full spectrum from numbers and tables to images and stories.

At Hyderabad Urban Lab we have been part of a wide network of civil society groups involved in providing assistance and relief to migrants in distress during the lockdown. Some people set up helplines, others distributed food, or organised transport. This work has been documented carefully in the form of photographs, detailed lists and inventories of people and provisions, and in interviews and recorded conversations.

Slipping through the cracks

What is all this if it is not data? It is imperative for the government to collaborate with civil society to organise, validate, and act upon non-governmental sources of knowledge on migrant lives to bridge this supposed data gap. There are numerous precedents for such an exercise, including micro-planning initiatives in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh that utilised participant data gathering methods, and various models for citizen-generated data. Failure to do so can only mean that the government chooses not to.

Migrant workers have historically slipped through the cracks of government welfare schemes and planning processes. The lockdown saw the irruption of the migrant into public consciousness in an unprecedented way. The state and civil society must use this opportunity to fuel the creation of inclusive urban policy and ensure the migrant does not recede into the shadows of the urban fabric again.

The first step in this process would be to remedy the immediate blow dealt to well being and livelihood by the lockdown, lest crores of India’s citizens be pushed deeper into inescapable cycles of poverty and debt. The need of the hour is the political will to take on this task.

Bharat S is an archivist and researcher at Hyderabad Urban Lab.