Since the first phase of the lock down, news apps and social media feeds have been filled with images of lines of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres in the summer heat to get back to their villages and with stories of their being deprived of basic needs like food and shelter. When I look at these reports from the physical comfort of my home, it is easy to believe that India consists of two parallel realities. And that the people living in the privileged reality- where ‘social distancing’ is possible- are completely separate from the other bleak reality- a reality where starvation and exhaustion are as likely to cause death as COVID-19.
But are there really two realities? Or are we all bound together in one reality, with the current situation exposing all its aspects? Are people with privilege, like me, really connected to the countless migrant workers who are worrying about the next meal, walking on highways or sitting in relief camps right now?
Before we try to answer this question, it’s important to get some background on exactly what is going on here:
- A migrant worker is basically anyone who moves from one place to another for work. Though it’s difficult to estimate the exact number, Census 2011 states that the total number of internal migrants in India is around 139 million.
- At least 120 million people migrate from rural areas to urban areas. The major reason for this is that agriculture does not give them an adequate income to survive. In India, such migration is both permanent and seasonal. This may involve individuals migrating alone or movement of the whole family unit.
- The majority of internal migrants (estimated at 40 million) work in construction. Migrant workers also find jobs as domestic workers, sanitation workers, delivery agents, street vendors, plumbers, car cleaners and factory workers, to name a few.
- Most of these jobs are involve working as an informal or casual labourer. This means that workers are not guaranteed a stable income- they often depend on very low daily or weekly wages to eat, for which they are forced to work in very poor conditions. Their contractors or employers have no obligation towards their social security.
- With the lock down, a lot of the work that migrant workers do has come to a standstill. This means that they are not getting paid, making access to food a major challenge. Many of them are being turned out of their lodgings due to inability to pay rent. In the face of hunger and homelessness, many of them have taken the decision to walk back home, where they will at least be able to leverage social networks for food, and where they will be able to see their families.
Joining the Dots: Noticing Connection
With living conditions being so different, it can be difficult to identify feel sense of connection with the migrant workers. It’s far easier to label and stereotype them as ‘illiterate’ or defiant disruptors who are willfully defying social distancing norms by going out on highways and demanding to be sent home. Such stereotyping reinforces the idea that they are ‘the Other’- ‘outsiders’ who are completely distant from the lives we lead.
This cannot be further from the truth. Actually, the work done by these so called ‘outsiders’ is that backbone of our cities. The connection of the people walking the highways with the people sitting in comfortable urban dwellings is crystal clear: the work they do is instrumental in shaping the lives we lead.
Consider the following examples:
- Do you live in a pakka house? Chances are, the foundation was dug, bricks were laid, cement was applied and walls were painted by migrant workers.
- Did you buy your clothes in a store? Its highly likely they were made by migrant workers in a garment factory
- Pre-lockdown, when you finished eating, did someone else wash up the dishes? It’s possible that the domestic worker in your house is a migrant as well.
From cooking and cleaning to waiting on us in restaurants, delivering our food, driving Ubers and building flyovers and metro lines- the basic, unnoticed, invisible work that makes our lives run- is done by them. Even the way our health system can respond to today’s crisis is supported by their work. An article highlights the stark reality through a hard-hitting paragraph:
“The hospital beds – that the rich lie on right now – were made by them. The wards are cleaned by them. The gurneys that carry your sick and dead bear down on their shoulders. The hand sanitisers you use were packed into cartons, and loaded, and unloaded, by this large, roiling sea of aching, dispossessed humanity”– Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, DailyO
How, then, can we feel separate from migrant workers?
Over and above all of this, we are connected because we inhabit the same time and space on earth. Beyond labels of ‘migrant workers’ and ‘privileged people’ we are all fellow human beings with stories, emotions, thoughts and complexities.
When we think about migrant workers as fellow human beings, can we really blame them for wanting to go back home? Certainly not. It may help if we recall one time where we desperately wished to run to a safe space, not to mention any time we have felt the physical urge to satisfy hunger or quench thirst.
Recognising this human interconnectedness is essential. This is the only way we can move beyond labelling and towards empathising. Any response to the plight of migrant workers needs to go past black and white thinking and grasp the complexity of circumstances and the realities of being human.
Though most emergency responses urgently required involve large-scale action from the government and NGOs, we can contribute as individuals in small ways.
One of the steps we can start with (and act on in the long-run) is recognising that we are all connected.
Links you might find useful:
Reports on the situation and recommendations for action: Jan Sahas rapid survey, Maraa Survey on Banlgore metro construction workers, India Development Review
An overview of initatives taken by the government: https://azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/SitePages/resources.aspx
Initiatives you can donate to: https://yourstory.com/2020/03/coronavirus-contribute-covid-19-relief-fund-india
I am a feminist, bookworm, occasional writer and perpetual learner. I work at Kolkata Sanved, an NGO that uses Dance Movement Therapy for healing and empowering marginalised communities, and I’m currently training to be a Dance Movement Therapy Practitioner.