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Work and Labor

COVID-19 and India’s Migrant Workers

Migrant workers are marching back to their villages after the announcement of lockdown 1.0 in 2020 at the Delhi-Rajasthan border. Credit: Ibsar Hussain.

November 05, 2021

The Indian government’s non-preparedness to handle a pandemic or any health crisis became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic when it abruptly announced Lockdown 1.0 on the night of March 24, 2020. Citizens were left in utter chaos with only a four-hour window at their disposal before the onset of the nationwide curfew. The state’s apathy towards migrants and the urban poor became evident in the manner the lockdown was imposed, which failed to factor in the immediate catastrophic impact on daily-wagers.

With barely any savings in hand and the impinging danger of starvation in the face of uncertainty, a vast majority of them were forced to return to their native places. According to the World Health Organization, in the first week of Lockdown 1.0, close to 50,000 migrants began travelling back to their native places from metropolitan centers such as Delhi and Mumbai.

The instances of the ways in which migrant workers lost their lives while trying to reach home by covering miles of distance on foot further lay bare their precarious situation. On May 8, 16 migrant laborers who were sleeping on the railways tracks in Aurangabad were mowed down by a goods train. Instead of blaming the police, who were mercilessly thrashing those found walking on the roads, and who were responsible for scaring the migrants to take alternative and relatively hassle-free routes, the government put all the blame on the migrants for being stupid enough to sleep on the tracks. Returning migrants died on transit routes, far from their native places, succumbing not to COVID-19 but to governmental apathy.

Ironically, for the “welfare state,” the migrant poor remain only a “target population,” bereft of any sense of “legitimate citizenship.” The state devises few welfare schemes for them, and these are given to them only after calculating the political gains expected to accrue from them.

The quintessential non-citizens!

Migrants’ lives are marked with hardships and uncertainties. Undergirding this precarity is the sense of alienation that the migrants experience at the hands of hostile urbanites. For the urbanites who claim to be the legitimate citizens of the civil society, the migrants are the “anonymous other,” a demographic and empirical category of people who, though needed to clean houses and cities and to build roads, bridges, and shopping malls, remain unwelcome as a civic menace to the aesthetics of the urban landscape. It is this collective hostile antipathy of the state and its “legitimate citizens” that makes survival of the urban poor difficult even in normal times and even more so during times of natural emergency. Living on the fringes of the urban space as the “anonymous others” migrant workers fail to develop a sense of belonging in the city.

Identity and belonging

The politics of identity and belonging indicate who one is, and is not, i.e., where one does not belong. An understanding of “home” is informed by the interplay of belonging and identity and is not defined by mere spatiality or temporality. Thus even after having spent years working in host cities, migrants long to return to their native villages. “Belonging” thus refers to the inadvertent creation of socio-economic, cultural, regional, and caste boundaries. For instance, in Delhi a migrant from Bihar comes to realize who he is and where he belongs, with the creation of multiple boundaries highlighting his multidimensional identity as a Bihari, a migrant, a laborer, a daily wager, a slum dweller, uncouth, unclean, and an illegitimate entrant to the urban space. His regional identity (i.e., Bihari) is invoked by the “legitimate citizens of Delhi” as an explanation for any kind of violence, mishap, accidents, or criminal activity; these “legitimate citizens” believe that they have been invested with the legitimate ownership rights to Delhi, and concomitantly to its security.

These are the conditions in which migrant workers from rural India inhabit the city spaces in Hyderabad after the lockdown was lifted. They live by the roadside as squatters and work at the construction sites while also carrying on with their traditional trade as stone grinders. Credit: Rafia Kazim.

All for a grievable death?

According to Judith Butler, grievability is a function of who counts as human, whose lives count as lives, and whose lives are worth grieving. Migrant workers and the urban poor, on account of their being the “anonymous other,” are nothing but faceless numbers who are rendered ungrievable. Hence they believe that by dying in one’s own home (where one belongs) would raise the grievability quotient by the sheer fact that there, one is a “socially constituted body” attached to others. And since loss is accompanied by transformation, there is losing, and there is the transformative effect of loss on those related to the departed soul. It becomes abundantly clear that for these migrant workers, choosing where to die takes precedence over how to die, for the simple reason that at their native places their death and the accompanying grief would at least earn them some respect as human beings, and they would not be treated as a nameless, faceless, homeless, dispensable population.

This partially explains the reckless march back home by thousands of migrant workers, stranded across the length and breadth of India: their readiness to encounter multiple threats – of COVID-19, hunger, exhaustion, police brutality – signals the fact that more than financial insecurities, migrant laborers were concerned about their psychological and social securities.

The very thought of dying in pardes – alien land/cities – was psychologically unbearable for migrant laborers. Several of the migrants said that if they were to die, they would rather die at “home” than in the cities. Indeed it is the fear of ungrievable death that weighs heavily upon these, in Arjun Appadurai’s terms, “infirm and insufficient humans.”

In conclusion

The fact that the Indian migrant workers do not have a collective voice leaves them bereft of any robust bargaining power. The wages that they earn are among the lowest by global standards. A majority of them survive on their meager daily earnings.

The need of the hour is that the governments concerned should come up with comprehensive plans for migrant workers. They should also create a data base for them by requiring all migrant workers to register officially. Governments need to be sensitive toward the urban and rural poor of the country and should accordingly prioritize rebooting rural India with the introduction and implementation of village-centric schemes. Migrant workers’ lives matter too!


Rafia Kazim, LNM University, India, and member of ISA Research Committees on Sociology of Education (RC04), Language and Society (RC25), Women, Gender, and Society (RC32), and Visual Sociology (RC57) <rafiakazim@gmail.com>

December 2021

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