Nilotpal Basu

Corona virus, lockdown, migrant workers: Poor Lives Matter

Nilotpal Basu

Since the very outset, thousands of migrant workers with the back breaking huge sacks trudging along, often with wives and children for hundreds of kilometers have been the unputdownable images that have refused to leave us. Since the abrupt announcement of the national lockdown with a notice of four hours, such images have come to haunt us. Thousands of migrant workers at the Anand Vihar bus station immediately after the announcement marked their arrival in the increasingly intense discourse on our response to Covid pandemic. This trend continued with thousands near the Bandra railway station in Mumbai on 14 April when the second phase of the lockdown began.

With the passage of time even more heart rendering scenes have forced their way into our consciousness. The terrible tragedy of the twelve year old tribal girl Jamla Makhdam collapsing just 14 kilometers away from her home in Chhattisgarh after walking over hundred kilometers from Telangana where she was working in the chili fields. Thirty five year old Chhabu Mondal, a migrant labour from Bihar, only earning member, as a painter in Gurgaon had to care for a family of six. He sold his mobile for Rs 2500. He handed over this money to his wife for preparing food for the family on the threshold of starvation and quietly committed suicide.

The mounting deaths due to the fallout of extreme form of lockdown that the migrant workers are forced to face in the wake of their precarious livelihood crisis mark every single day. While the Covid tracker is accounting for the virus infections and death, there is no reliable data on these lockdown deaths which testify for avoidable tragedies and human loss.

Unplanned lockdown

Lockdown cannot control the virus; it can at best slow down its transmission. As collective global experience since the outbreak has shown, the way to deal with a viral pandemic lies in its detection through tests, isolating the infected and tracking the contacts and their movements to put them in quarantine. The way to contain the virus is to maintain physical distancing and repeated washing of hands as it spreads from human to human. Administered and enforced lockdown upscale forcible mass physical distancing.
As the pandemic broke out in Wuhan city of China in the second week of December, there was some time in comprehending the nature and dynamics of the pathogen. On the 30th of December China reported the incidents of cluster of severe pneumonia and the outbreak of an unknown virus. Soumya Swaminathan, former DG ICMR and now Chief Scientist of WHO in an interview to the Mint shared the chronology; on 4th of January, WHO took to social media to communicate to the world about the new threat. On 5th January, WHO came out with a formal statement to forewarn the world, while the Chinese shared genome sequence of the virus on 9th January.

The Chinese were struggling to evolve an appropriate response to contain the march of the virus in Wuhan and the Hobei province after some initial missteps by the local administration. However, they zeroed in and on 23 January, the Chinese authorities completely isolated Wuhan and Hobei through a lockdown which addressed both the public health requirement and the survival/livelihood necessities of citizens who were under the forced confinement. With its strong public health infrastructure, China had to mobilize 40,000 health workers and volunteers from the rest of the country to ensure that all essential requirements for survival are available within homes. On the other hand aggressive testing, tracking of contacts, quarantining under medical supervision and treatment of severe cases continued which witnessed the unprecedented feat of construction of two brand new hospitals for Covid patients. Approximately within a month China could establish control over the deadly pathogen.

Initially, WHO had some reservations over the harsh restriction on individual freedoms and movements under lockdown. But subsequently they were reconciled to the success of the Chinese exercise. However even when it went to formally announce the Covid 19 threat as a global pandemic, it has refused to recommend general national level lockdowns; it has left the responses to sovereign decisions suggesting that this battle cannot pursue a ‘one size fit all’ approach. Of course the world body kept updating on the experiences on the scientific aspects for containment while stressing the need to strengthen all round unity of purpose and action encompassing the government and the citizens.

Evidently, for us in India before eventually announcing a national lockdown on 25 March we had clear two months at our disposal. However, the level of our lack of preparedness is apparent from the tweet by the Ministry of Health on 13 March to the effect that we have not reached a state of ‘public health emergency’!
Such bewilderment was not unsurprising! Driven by imperatives of its priority, during most of February the Government’s focus was riveted on Namaste Trump on 23-24th February, the ugly communal violence in Delhi from 24th onwards and finally the toppling of the Kamal Nath government in mid March. Political power is thicker than human lives!

Importance of Migrant Workers

While it is now evident that the migrant workers constitute the largest group of vulnerable population which is the major fault line in the strategy to fight the pandemic; but, was it difficult to anticipate this? Physical distancing, simple hygiene of repeatedly washing of hands with soap are requirements which need a level of housing space, regular water supply and minimum scientific awareness about the virus.

While correct assertions are being made, that the virus’ attack is blind to caste, creed, religion, gender and class, the capacity to counteract is differentiated by class. The underprivileged and the disempowered can neither protect themselves, nor stay away from being carriers without State support; more so where the public health system has been all but dismantled through sharp reduction in public investment and initiation of the privatisation aggressive by private health insurance and big pharma led developments.
Importance of the migrant workers arises in this context. The total number of internal migrants in India, as per the 2011 census, is 45.36 crore or 37% of the country’s population. As per Census 2011, the size of the workforce was 48.2 crore people. This figure is estimated to have exceeded 50 crore in 2016 — the Economic Survey pegged the size of the interstate migrant workforce at roughly 20 per cent or over 10 crore in 2020. Based on the 2011 Census, NSSO surveys and economic survey show that there are a total of about 65 million inter-state migrants, and 33 per cent of these migrants are workers. By conservative estimates, 30 per cent of them are casual workers and another 30 per cent work on regular basis but in the informal sector. Adding on, street vendors, another vulnerable community which is not captured by the worker data that would mean that there are 12 to 18 million people who are residing in states other than that of their origin and have been placed at a risk of losing their income. Studies show, that according to 2019 estimates, 29% of the population in India’s big cities is of daily wagers. This is the number of people which would logically want to move back to their states.

In another study, Professor Tariq Thachil of Vanderbilt University has pointed to the circular migration in India. His research found that migrant populations neither wholly retain nor completely discard their village-based ethnic ties, which is witnessed in their desperation to walk hundreds of kilometers once their livelihood collapses.
How hard the lockdown has been is clear from studies during lockdown. One such of more than 3,000 migrant construction workers conducted by Jan Sahas, a Delhi-based NGO, found the lockdown had robbed 90% of those surveyed of their only source of income and 42% of them did not have a day’s worth of food rations. Another of 11,000 workers, most of them construction workers, conducted by a group of 73 volunteers called the Stranded Workers Action Network, found that 96% had not received rations from the government and 89% have not been paid by their employers during the lockdown.
State governments have pledged to provide free food rations, and cash transfers of between Rs.1, 000 to Rs. 6,000 for construction workers, but interviews with government officials and an analysis of the CAG reports of 12 states shows that this monetary relief is a fraction of Rs 52,000 crores piled by state governments over years of levying worker welfare cess on construction projects.
In a revealing two part expose, Nitin Sethi with his associate has brought out the frustration of the Indian scientists over the lack of planning and direction in the battle against COVID-19. The reported internal consultations of these scientists some of whom have been members of the Expert Task Force and references to two published papers in February and in the public domain do underline the vulnerability of the overall campaign on account of the migrant workers. “But, for the poor, without high levels of door-to-door screening and the fastest possible quarantining of those found positive, a lockdown will only help the virus spread intra-community,” said the scientist. “The poor in dense urban areas share very small physical spaces; (they) live with common facilities, such as public toilets. The lockdown has forced likely COVID-19 patients to share these spaces for weeks with others. Imagine if one COVID positive person is sharing a community toilet with hundreds, if not thousands, daily, spreading the virus and the coercive lockdown is only restraining him (sic) from going to authorities.”

A Class war doomed to failure

That the attitude towards the migrant workers is discriminatory is obvious. 28 AC buses were arranged from Hardwar to take back pilgrims to Ahmadabad by jumping the lockdown by top leaders of BJP in Gujarat and the Central government. Similarly, students attending coaching in Kota are being taken back to many states by respective state governments. But, when it comes to migrants there is eerie silence. The Central Government has itself admitted that Kerala alone has accounted for 68% of shelters in the country to house 50% of workers who has been provided for a roof in the country during lockdown. On food and ration a similar pattern has emerged. But, still the Central government resolutely opposes the return of migrants to their homes.
A class war is not an invention; it is relentless as testified by the aggressive anti people economic policy pursued by the government which has sharply accentuated inequality, poverty and unemployment. But, in battling a pandemic a non inclusive approach can only be counterproductive. For unfed, unassisted and inadequately sheltered migrant workers, their brutalization through harsh police jackboots , Art 14 on non discrimination and Art 21on right to freedom of life and movement of the Indian Constitution hold no meaning. To provide free food, minimum cash support for job loss and return to their homes will not be an act of empathy for the migrant worker, but a repayment of their contribution to the economy and preempting the challenge of heightened transmission.

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