Throwing people under the bus

Migrant labor and the Indian lockdown


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What is slowly becoming clear about the nationwide lockdown in India is not just it’s utterly shoddy planning and execution but also the political leadership’s disconnect with the working people of India. It reflects a dismal understanding of the functioning of the economy in general, and political economy in particular.  


Additionally, it also seems to betray a poor grasp of how urban India functions and the crucial role of migrant labor in the economic life of cities. The operation of India’s urban centers is intimately tied to its rural areas. The current crisis with the migrant labor trying to escape from urban migrant-hubs brings into stark view the reality of the composition of the urban economy. 


On the whole, then, one could conclude that by not taking India’s informal economy into consideration, the policy makers either do not comprehend the key features of the Indian economy or just chose to ignore it. 


What this piece wishes to address is the following: one, it wishes to look at the decision-making related to the countrywide lockdown, as it seemed to unfold; second, it wishes to examine more closely that which is being projected as a foregone conclusion, the Hobson’s choice between lives and livelihoods. 


Many decisions may be very complex and it may be especially difficult to anticipate all consequences beforehand. In the South Asian context, we have the instance of the Partition of the subcontinent that even today is not a closed case, in terms of its continuing trauma and divisive influences. 


Several of India’s much admired leaders associated with the anti-colonial freedom struggle were around when the decision was effected and it was obvious from later reports that none of them had foreseen the scale of the mayhem that unfolded. A socialist leader like Ram Manohar Lohia penned a tract called “The Guilty Men of India’s Partition” some years after the event, incriminating several of those leaders on whose watch the bloody event of Partition took place. 


Despite the complexity, there are some simple questions that can be asked of any decision, especially the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ questions: When was a decision taken (too late, too early, right time etc) and what was the manner in which it was taken (hastily, with or without consultation, with adequate preparation and notice etc). 


In this case, the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ questions seek to uncover the sequence and manner of the imposition of the lockdown. They seek to penetrate the fog of inevitability and unassailability which surround such decisions which are made in certain extenuating circumstances. This is especially so when the decisions have resulted in deep and wide suffering to a section of India’s most vulnerable population. 


Much of the justification for the decisions taken recently regarding the lockdown is based on the grounds of saving lives as against and over saving livelihoods. An Indian economist chose to defend the government’s decision in an article titled “India chose to protect lives, not livelihoods. And that’s a good thing.” 


However, an Italian study the economist quotes in support of the assertions in the article clearly states that, “While something a little short of the hypothetical radical lockdown is still likely to work, after a certain threshold of social interaction – which, unfortunately, we do not know – any choices would likely yield the second scenario in terms of human losses, without avoiding the economic costs of the lockdown itself.”


So, the chances that a complete lockdown will be effective depends on when it is put in place; after a certain, yet undermined “threshold of social interaction,” there is no telling if the fatal effects of covid-19 can be avoided.


Something similar was expressed by a former head in the ICMR, Dr. T. Jacob John, as reported in the Economic TImes on Mar 23: 


“The decision to bring life at a standstill is a good decision, but I’m not sure we have bought time for our people…We are still two steps behind the virus — ideally, this step should have been taken a week ago, that way we could’ve stopped the outbreak’s inward journey into heartland India.”


More recently, economist Deepankar Basu, also expressed concern regarding the timing of the complete lockdown in a piece titled “COVID-19 in India: Has Window of Opportunity Opened by Dip in Daily Growth Rates Closed?” 


Social distancing and lockdowns can only slow down the spread of the epidemic, they cannot stop it. Sophisticated epidemiological models show that once the lockdown is lifted, as it must be, and once social distancing measures are loosened, as would probably need to be done in a few weeks, the number of cases can rapidly rise again.


The manner in which the total lockdown was implemented bears some interrogation and questioning as to its timing, chronology and preparation.


From the sequence of events, we know that on Thu Mar 19, the prime minister Narendra Modi appeared before the Indian public on national TV and broached the idea of a Janta Curfew. He presented it as a sort of a wartime exercise: “This Janata Curfew will in a way be a litmus test for us. This is also the time to see how prepared India is to fight off a global pandemic like the coronavirus.” 


Thus, the Janta curfew, announced on a Thursday, was to take place four days later on a Sunday, for a fixed time-period of 7am-9pm, and was ostensibly a means to gauge the country’s preparedness. There was no sense of an official curfew with penalties attached (at least none were spelled out). It was more of a good-faith exercise in following some stay-at-home orders. The PM did not lay out any concrete plans beyond the Janta curfew. 


All he said, without elaboration, was, “I need some of your upcoming weeks.” What did that mean, exactly? Did he have to be cryptic and skimp on specifics? This becomes important when he later announced the complete lockdown, because on that occasion he stated that he had informed people about a lockdown in the previous Thursday’s address, as encapsulated in his request then for “some of your upcoming weeks.”


However, two points are noteworthy about the Janta Curfew – and its conclusion. First: despite no advance notice about the steps following the conclusion of the Janta Curfew, many cities and states imposed their own lockdowns right after the end of the Janta Curfew. How this was publicly communicated is still not clear; most people, including the author of this piece, received intimation from friends through social media. 


Second: on Monday morning, Mar 22, the PM Modi tweeted, “Many people are still not taking the lockdown seriously.” Which lockdown was he referring to? He announced the country-wide lockdown only the next day, on Tuesday evening 8PM – and by all accounts, that announcement was a surprise for people. Was there another national lockdown that was announced that Modi was referring to but most people did not know about?


If people already knew on Monday that they were under a continuing lockdown after the Janta Curfew, why was the Janta curfew announced as a bounded stay-in, between 7am-9pm on Sunday? Did the PM tell people that at the conclusion of the Janta curfew there would be other lockdowns following, which would be rigorously enforced? 


It does not seem so. In fact, the PM made the Janta Curfew into a Sunday-Holiday kind of family activity day, by encouraging people to come out on their balconies and join in a national musical brass-band of sorts, thus attempting to inject a lets-practise-this-playfully mood. 


Taking up the ‘how’ question next, we see that in addition to questions of preparedness, it also includes within its scope the centralized decision-making which operates on the basis of “executive powers,” bypassing the legislature.


 Narendra Modi’s lockdown announcement, affecting the entire country, is an example of such executive decision-making without consulting the parliament. It seems almost a futile exercise at this stage to go into the legality of the use of executive powers, given the way they were used to abrogate Article 370 in Kashmir. 


That seems to be the drift of one of the more comprehensive pieces on the constitutionality of the lockdown announcement, titled Is the National Lockdown in India Constitutionally Valid? The piece informs us that the center would probably cite the Epidemic Diseases Act and the Disaster Management Act to respond to any  issues of legality and constitutionality of the decision. 


In reference to the suppression of rights such decisions entail, the article cites an American legal scholar discussing legal rights with reference to the lockdown in the US, especially in times of exigencies, and how the common people abdicate their rights:  “[W]hile the constitutional validity of the lockdown in the United States is doubtful, it has bipartisan support and people, scared out of their wits, are also willing to voluntarily sacrifice their rights.”


However, the greater point is that the bypassing of the parliament can hardly be explained, even theoretically, when no political party had threatened any sort of veto on the government’s earlier dummy shutdown, the decoy Janta curfew. Still, the government decided on unilateral decision-making, in a way asking the people to trust in its abilities of foresight, planning and provisioning. 


Given its past record of unilateral decision making, especially in the case of demonetization and also the recent lockdown of Kashmir, both of which caused untold and largely unrecorded hardship to the common people, their self-righteous requests for trust in their wisdom does not evoke too much confidence.


Both the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ questions about the lockdown also bring up questions urgently on the economic preparedness going into the lockdown. It is not as though the PM was not aware of the shock to the economy and livelihoods. 


In his speech in which he announced the Janta Curfew, the prime minister made people aware of the economic difficulties that were looming and announced an economic taskforce to deal with them. “This global pandemic is also going to have a wide-ranging impact on the economy. Keeping in mind the economic challenges arising from the coronavirus, the government has decided to set up a Covid-19 Economic Response Taskforce under the leadership of the finance minister,” as reported in the Economic Times.


His statement following the above, describing the responsibilities of the taskforce, reveals how poorly the functioning of the taskforce was conceived – and, as evidence has it, executed: “This taskforce will take decisions in the near future, based on regular interactions and feedback from all stakeholders, and analysis of all situations and dimensions. This taskforce will also ensure that all steps taken to reduce the economic difficulties are effectively implemented.”


The taskforce quite obviously was quite clueless on the impact on the informal economy that sustains India’s cities and towns, as the enormous suffering to the migrant workers ever since has amply and irrefutably demonstrated. 


All it needed was knowledge of and expertise in dealing with the effects of the lockdown on the informal sectors of the economy, in which the migrant labor contributed and on which they depended for their survival. But, sadly, an intimate knowledge of the world of migrant workers and a well-thought out handling of the disruption to their lives was nowhere in evidence. 


According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report as presented in a The Wire piece, “Close to 81% of all employed persons in India make a living by working in the informal sector, with only 6.5% in the formal sector and 0.8% in the household sector.”


As shown by economists like Amit Basole, and Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, income inequality “exploded” in India after the 1980s. As the latter put it,  “From the perspective or our newly income inequality dataset, ‘Shining India’ corresponds to the top 10 percent of the population (approximately 80 million adult individuals in 2014) rather than the middle 40 percent.” 


In terms of income of the workers in the informal sector, another report stated that:


[T]he Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18 reveals, the informal and self-employed workers are far behind the salaried class on income…The report also showed that in urban areas, the share of self-employment is 32.4 per cent. Self-employment was also the major source of income for 52.2 per cent of rural households. But, a majority of self-employed workers earned roughly ₹8,000 a month, lowest in the income bracket.


As is also well known in India and globally, the “informalization” of jobs has been a rapid feature of economies. As one paper puts it, 


[S]ince the initiation of economic reforms in 1991, there has been a tendency to employ contract workers at the expense of regular workers and outsource the production. On the basis of the Annual survey of Industry (ASI) data also, it is shown that the share of contract workers in total employment of the manufactured sector has increased during 2000-01 to 2008-09…The share of contract workers in organized manufacturing has increased to 34 percent in 2010-11 from about 10 percent in early 1990s, 14 percent in 1995-96 and 20 percent in 2000-01.


As another recent piece on the future of India’s political economy observes, 


It needs to be remembered, even with all the migration and informal work, the vast majority of Indians can barely make ends meet. Almost half the total consumption expenditure of average Indians was spent on food items in 2011-12. This share is significantly higher for the bottom half of the population…Such a high share of consumption expenditure on food also means that a large number of workers lead a hand-to-mouth existence in the country, and will find it very difficult to even get two square meals a day if their daily work is disrupted.


The “lives versus livelihoods” distinction might be a false distinction in the case of those for whom livelihoods mean (the barest continuance of) life – or for the most basic process of the production and reproduction of life, to borrow Marx’s language. When Parle-G is worried about reduced demand for its cheap biscuits, a staple for labor looking for a quick dose of glucose , maybe the country has to sit up and notice.


As researcher Shankar Ramaswami records a worker commenting on a co-worker’s death in an academic paper on lives of contract labor in Delhi, in a chapter titled ‘Death of a mazdur (wage worker)’: “Mazdur admi ka koi thikana nahim hota [There’s no telling when something can happen to a worker]’, a polisher observed, intimating an awareness that proletarian lives are precarious, uncertain, and vulnerable.”


A distinction between lives and livelihoods probably holds true for the more affluent classes with some sort of “disposable incomes,” and the luxury of assets and savings. For them livelihoods represent not merely the provision of life’s barest necessities but something else beyond; maybe some forms of comfort and luxuries. 


Many among them are the ones who can afford to indulge in “conspicuous consumption.” They are able to give up their jobs voluntarily and then do what their heart desires, like travel, for example. They are the ones who can sit out a lockdown or a forced shutdown even without everyday income. It is for them that issues such as “cabin fever,” “Netflix watching lists,” “Book reading lists,” and “rebroadcasts of television serials” makes sense. 


As migrants on the road have stated over and over again recently, not working and earning a wage means death to them, especially if they have to live in expensive migrant-hubs. So, they try to get home where they might have some sort of a support system in order to survive. 


In an unreflective and an uncritical reading of the rush of the migrants to get back home, we the more fortunate ones are not able to gauge the desperation and the drive behind the path they undertake. Sure, we are outraged and deeply affected by the arduous journey they attempt to undertake. 


But what few of us can discern and feel is the grim reality in their minds of those being left with no choice but to seek out a path to ensure survival. 


Each death out of exhaustion while on the road points to the reality that the migrants were anyway staring at – they were leaving behind death, they were walking home to where they thought they might have a chance of survival, but not unaware of the fact that they could probably perish on the journey itself. 


We have seen images of such straggly, tired lines of people walking not too long ago, with bundles on their heads, holding their near-ones’ hands, as though fused into a diorama of suffering and helplessness. Images from around the time of the nation’s independence, to be more accurate. Their lives too were rent asunder by forces seemingly larger than them, by decisions they did not comprehend, by an illness that infected millions. They too were left with no choice but to join a flight for survival. 


The rush at bus stations like Anand Vihar in Delhi or the line of people already on the roads is not some festival-season holiday rush, as for Holi or Chath puja. The forced trek is also not some religiously-inspired pilgrimage either like that of the kanwariyas, though it often traverses similar routes. 


Earlier this year, some state officials in UP showered rose petals on the kanwariyas from the air, at public expense. The migrants – they were showered with lathis – and chemical spray

The author is a socially-concerned citizen, based in Delhi. He believes in solidarities with global struggles, such as the working class, indigenous and other marginalized peoples’ struggles around the world.



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