Name of the Book: Borders of an Epidemic: Covid 19 and Migrant Workers

Name of the Publisher: Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (CRG), Kolkata

Editor: Ranabir Samadar

Year of Publication: 2020

COVID 19 is a major health challenge the country is currently witnessing. As on 29th April 2020, India is said to have 31,332 COVID cases and seen 1,008 COVID deaths. Severe shortages in testing, tracing, treatment and tracking in a country with poor health infrastructure, low public investments in health and embedded inequalities makes India highly vulnerable. The response of State too has been to view it as a health challenge. While this is definitely true, the livelihood losses have been less taken into account while shaping responses. The images of migrants walking miles to their villages, being sprayed with chemicals on bodies, occurrence of hunger deaths, migrants receiving physical abuses by police throw the state of this segment in these times. The responses to COVID 19 brings out the deeply hidden biases, discrimination, attitudes of the implementation machinery in dealing with the migrants. The book titled ‘Borders of an Epidemic: COVID 19 and Migrant Workers’ is a contemporary chronicle of these times.

The book is a collection of 15 articles, written by writers, activists, development professionals, academics and reflects the scenario witnessed during three weeks of lockdown. It draws attention to different issues such as that of role of state, changing nature or world order, the state of informal economy, the growth of body surveillance, hunger deaths, ill treatment faced, communal profiling of victims, the gender dimensions and good practices adopted by government and civil society organizations in specific states.

In the introductory chapter titled ‘Borders of an epidemic’ by Ranabir Sabbar, it is pointed out that pandemics are not a new thing. Human race has witnessed pandemics in the past too such as that of Plague and Swinu flu. Each of these had resulted in millions of casualties. Just like a war triggers the need for creating a new world order, the current pandemic too necessitates the same. Neo-liberal agenda had called for increased role of market and reduced role of state. The paper suggests how this is being threatened and calls for proactive state intervention. The growing debate on increased public health interventions, moving away from neo-liberal agendas of reducing social spending to active state involvement and increased social spending on health, enhancing the welfarist agendas of inclusion of the poor, the increased state preparedness of maintaining stock piles such as personal protective equipment’s – ventilators to deal with sudden emergencies are some of the emerging suggestions pointed at. It points out how political economy of organization of society marginalises the poor and how in the current context migrants were marginalised. Marginalisation of the needs of migrants before announcement of lockdown, its human effects in creating large scale reverse migration even resulting in hunger deaths are some issues brought out.

Ravi Arvind Palat’s paper titled ‘Corona virus and the World Economy: the old is dead, the new can’t be born’ points to the fact that while the pandemic has disrupted the world economy, made the poor & low income in Global North and Global South vulnerable due to existing inequalities, it has not yet given way to a new economy. The adoption of social distancing (physical distancing) meant little in densely populated zones of Global South. In Slums, it meant confining in already congested spaces. For migrants it meant, the need to vacate rental spaces as they could no longer gain wage income. At a time, when collaboration and cooperation needed to be the norm, the United States adopted strong arm tactics of diverting medical equipment’s and medicines meant for other countries to its own country. With a larger focus on profits, the global big pharmacies much before epidemic had struck had tended to focus research on medicines which are profitable rather than on those which have death implications due to viruses and infections. The paper suggests movement towards a more humane system of food production which is also ecologically sustainable in place of industrial farming.

The paper titled ‘Migrant Labour, Informal economy and Logistics sector in a Post Covid world’ by Rityajyoti Bandyopadhyay analyses the situation of Jagatpur a residential hub of migrant working class near Chandigarh. The restrictions following Covid affected the migrant workers more than the locals, as it was difficult for them to procure passes. Transport coolies and vendors of fruits and vegetables were first to lose employment as wholesale and retail markets were shut down. The new rights agenda in the 2004-2009 period had helped the informal economy to cope with the stress placed by 2008-09 global economic crisis. It is pointed that situation with lockdown in March 2020 however is different. Informal economy will shrink further continuing from post demonetization period and will also affect the formal economy. Informal economy was working as a social subsidy by transferring surplus to the formal economy dependent on accumulation. The reduction of cash among the 85% informal sector workers could result in decline in demand and crisis of overproduction. Technological innovations as a post COVID response may also result in replacement of technologies in place of manual labour and make large section of workers redundant.

Badri Narayan Tiwari in the article titled ‘The Body in surveillance: What to do with the Migrants in the Corona Lockdown’ delves into a situation where the 1990’s driven by globalization and opening up of economies and movement of people are being replaced by 2020’s driven by closing down. The history of movement of epidemics shows patterns where this was more a result of movement of economic elite. The economically poorer were however were always seen as ‘other’ and with ‘suspicion’. In the current situation of covid 19 in relation to migrants, humans were reduced to biological bodies rather than socio-economic beings. The instances of spraying chemicals on human bodies with suspicion as carriers of virus are examples of inhuman treatments. It is pointed that Body surveillance has increased in current bodies with a focus on migrants.

The paper titled ‘Hunger, Humiliation, and Death: Perils of Migrant Workers in the Time of COVID-19’ by Utsa Sarmin throws light on the effects of lockdown on the migrant workers. Instances of hunger related deaths while walking back hundreds of miles back to their villages, cases of chemicals being sprayed on their bodies to disinfect them, humiliation being faced from police authorities, migrants being boycotted in villages on being suspected of potential carriers of disease are pointed out. Quoting a driver, the paper sums up the situation “Some people will die of the virus. The rest of us will die of hunger”.

Manish K Jha and Ajeet Kumar Pankaj in their paper titled “Insecurity and fear travel as labour travels in the time of the pandemic’ points to how the situations of insecurity travels back as migrant labour indulge in reverse migration from destination cities to source villages. Drawing from examples, it points that migrants face situations of hunger deaths, being run over by trucks, heart attacks, being made to duck walk and frog march. They get abandoned by the state, employer and even their community back in villages. A check is sought to be placed on their behaviour by police, health service providers, government officials, panchayat representatives, quarantine service providers, and diverse village community. Doom of fear turns productive body of labour migrants wanted by contractors & employers into ‘body of disease’ at the time of the health crisis.

The paper titled ‘The return of Bihari migrants after COVID-19 lockdown’ by Anamika Priyadarshini and Sonamani Chaudhury draws attention to the situation of Bihari migrants. Bihar supplies a large proportion of migrant workforce. The Bihari migrants did face situations of humiliation, neglect and discrimination. The state level actions included converting schools and panachyat bhavans into quarantine zones for migrant workers, rahat shivirs to ensure quarantining of migrants for 14 days. In the absence of good health infrastructure and shortage of testing and treating, restricted movement remains the only choice. The paper also draws attention to gender concerns whereby there is increase in cases of domestic violence and women’s choice of using contraceptives being restricted in a situation of lockdown.

The paper titled ‘The sudden visibility of Sangram Tudu’ by Rajat Roy points to the fact that in the current context, the vulnerabilities of migrant workers have come out in the open. The migrant workers stranded in different states – struggling to feed themselves with no cash incomes available, states and NGOs making efforts but still not yet able to reach out to the last are pointed. The contrasting responses of states such as Kerala which have adopted more humane approach and others is indicated. Role of civil society organizations such as Bangla sanskriti mancha in Bengal which are at the forefront of relief services are mentioned. It is stated that while migrants have become visible, their voice is not being heard.

Madhurilata basu and Sibaji pratim basu in their paper titled ‘Glimpses of life in the times of corona’ points to how racial overtones get embedded in times of Corona. Specific communities, nationalities or races, religions, castes, classes get categorized as the ‘other’ and socially stigmatized. The pandemic is attributed to them. The ‘other’ could be Europeans, Chinese or those from South east Asia in the US. In India, those from North-east get stigmatized. The author also draws attention to Tablighi Jamat incident in Nizamuddin, where Muslims were blamed for the spread of the disease. Communal overtones through terms such as ‘corona jihad’ are pointed at.

The paper titled ‘Migrant workers and ethics of care during a Pandemic’ by Ambar Kumar and Anasua basu point towards the ethical role of welfare state at the times of an epidemic. While the state holds responsibility to take care of migrants at times of epidemic, their concerns are hardly taken into account at the time of decisions. The stranded migrants waiting in stations, trains and buses being jam-packed without spaces, the walking migrants point towards ignorance of the state towards concerns of migrants while making decisions. Migrants deserve a humanitarian treatment by state. Lack of assurance from host state for their survival makes them to flee for their villages. State while it does take action is more driven by need to stop ‘epidemic’ from spread and less at reducing their economic insecurities and vulnerabilities.

Ishita Dey in the paper ‘Social distancing, Touch me not and the Migrant worker’ draws attention to aspect of touch in relation to Migrants. India already has a history of ‘caste’ where those belonging to lower rungs of the system are distanced with. Lack of touch is already practiced with migrants, where the spaces they share for feeding, drinking and sanitation are different from others by mere reason of belonging to different classes. In COVID situation, the ‘migrant’s body’ – the domestic worker, the vegetable vendor, the garbage collector, the caregiver and other service providers inherent to the life of the city become something not to be touched. It is pointed city has always failed migrant and so is the case in Corona situation.

The paper titled ‘Bringing the border home: India partition 2020’ by Samata Biswas draws a comparison of visuals of movement of migrants in 2020 with that of the people during partition times. While COVID is considered to be untouched by divides of caste, class, religion – yet the treatment of society on these consideration has come out in the open. The difference meted out with construction workers, sanitation workers, domestic workers despite their contribution to cities is pointed out. While one benefits from their services, they are kept at distance being considered unclean.

Paula Banerjee in the paper titled ‘Nouvelle Corona virus and Gender transgressions’ brings out the differences in mortality rates across Genders. It is considered more lethal on men. In china, while mortality rate for men was 2.8%, it was 1.7% for female. Gender disaggregated data across Italy, Spain and France showed more men infected with virus than women. In relation to those at forefront of fighting the disease the health workers among women were seen to be higher in proportion to male across the countries in China and Europe. Hence among health workers, women workers become more vulnerable such as ASHA workers in India. Among the return migrants, women tend to be more susceptible to suspicion. Instance of confining to homes is cited as reasons where instances of domestic violence increase. The prevalence of the notion of greater mortality among men may not yield attention on women and increase women’s morbidity.

The paper titled ‘Counting and Accounting for those on the long walk home’ by Sabir Ahmed tries to capture the quantitative figures of migrants affected by lockdown. It is said that about 5 to 6 lakh had walked back to their homes. India is said to have 54.26 million inter-state migrants based on 2011 census. Limitations in drawing authentic figures on migration, migrants and their status from the existing data base is pointed at, which is essential in creating welfare measures.

Swati Bhatacharjee and Abhinjan Sarkar in their paper titled ‘A Report: How one state can learn from another – Migrant workers in Kolkata’ try to draw a contrast between schemes for welfare of migrants in West Bengal and Kerala. While in West Bengal migrant workers lack access to social security scheme titled Samajik suraksha yojana (SSY), Kerala has Migrant welfare scheme, which accords benefits for accident / medical care, children’s education and termination benefits after five years of work. The migrant workers are treated on par with ‘resident workers’. The migrant workers themselves are seen as ‘guest workers’, which itself is a paradigm shift. The state too was prompt in its response and exhibited humane response by opening 4,603 camps. Food items, masks, soaps, sanitisers have been made available in the camps. The Kerala model is suggested for replication to ameliorate the conditions of Migrants.

The book is a contemporary reflection of the current state of migrants in COVID situation and an essential reading to understand their socio economic vulnerabilities.

T Navin works with an NGO as a Researcher


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