How should ordinary citizens understand the nature of responsibility in the case of the recurring deaths of migrant workers that they are witnessing? So many have died on the road, absolutely needlessly, in the process of trying to escape death by hunger which the Indian Covid-19 lockdown was making a reality. India has a very large number of (internal) migrant workers, especially from its more rural areas, who travel to more urban centers, looking for work. How does one even begin to view such instances, say, as a matter of ethics?

By ILO’s estimate, close to 80% of India’s economy is in the informal sector. The country has about 45 crore (450 million)  internal migrants as per the 2011 census. For such a large percentage of the economy to have been thrown into disarray and acute distress, the official recognition of their hardship has been grudging and sparse.

There have been no admissions of any moral discomfort and feelings of remorse in any meaningful manner.  There are occasional social media messages from position-holders expressing sorrow, but by and large there has been little admission of guilt, misdoing or miscalculation.

What is especially disturbing, from an ethical viewpoint, is the impersonalization of the deaths – as though they were no one’s fault, as though they were happening because of ill-advised choices on the migrants’ parts to head home. There is no attempt at a genuine and heartfelt acknowledgement of the unfolding tragedy to recognize the enormity of the situation.

Is it possible to assign moral, and even legal, responsibility in such cases? How does one assess the role and responsibility of executive-level decisions? Or is one to simply let such instances pass, thinking of them as “collateral damage,” as in military operations? Does one view the situation merely as an unfortunate epi-phenomenon (a secondary-effect), as a sideshow to a “noble war,” in which some sacrifices are inevitable?

Legal theorists and others in the legal professions can probably slice-and-dice such situations to evaluate accountability and culpability. For the sympathetic, ordinary observers, who have the privilege to view the unfolding drama from a distance, the imperative issue is to make sense of the injustice playing out before their eyes – and maybe press for some justice.

Can such injustices be relativized in the larger picture of the struggle against the virus, as seems to be happening? Can they be normalised as unfortunate road accidents, invisibilizing the turbulent and raw story enveloping the migrants’ distress?

What we see is a moral distancing from the tragedy. There appears to be a feigned uninvolvement and disengagement with the incidents as though they have nothing to do with us, as though they ought to be viewed only impersonally. There are no causes one should look for beyond individual folly.  One should also not seek to determine responsibility since the lockdown placed the onus of compliance on each individual, seems to be the attitude.

In fact, in the Indian prime minister’s first lockdown speech there was a sense of the impending hard times for the poor, when he stated that, “This crisis has certainly brought on a very difficult time for the poor.”

These “difficult times” turned out to be deadly for the migrant workers. It will be a hard case to advance that such deaths are not on account of a hasty and unilateral lockdown. The timeline of the lockdown has been discussed and it has been pointed out that the decisions leading up to it were taken without adequate preparation, and without consulting the people who were likely to be most affected. So, putting the burden of sticking to a lockdown on migrant workers, imposed without their assent and understanding, seems to be grossly unfair.

For its proponents, the sudden announcement of the lockdown is viewed as a tactical choice, to freeze people in their tracks to stop the spread of the virus; a sort of morally higher-order decision bound up with the reality of “difficult times” for many, but one which was still the most optimum recourse for the greatest good.

That it resulted in such undeniable hardship to a significant section of the population will be viewed, by the decision-makers and proponents, as an unfortunate and unintended consequence. In fact, as is becoming increasingly clear, besides being “unintended,” the distress to migrant workers also seems to be a case of an “unanticipated consequence.”

The executive’s role during covid-19 in India is increasingly being admired according to different polls and surveys. It seems that the people of India are managing to see some bigger picture of the fight against Covid-19 against whose backdrop they are able to subsume the “smaller” tragedies of worker deaths.

These deaths become rationalized and incorporated in the grand narrative arc of the fight against the virus – and a moral compromise is skillfully effected. It is almost as if all such people are saying: “How do you stop people who want to keep walking?”

It is precisely here that the moral question becomes very important. For it is the differential attitude towards lives that makes the insensitivity towards some even more acute and stand out. It is a moral question that concerns one’s true caring towards the most vulnerable, the workers in the informal economy, even if some special safeguards are coded into legal obligations.

It also casts a profound doubt of the nation’s valuation of the labor that the migrant workers provide; while there might be inconvenience at not having them around to serve our endless needs, their well-being, their humanity and their flourishing is none of our concern. How they live, how they conduct their daily lives in order to make urban life possible has been none of our concern. And now that their often precarious lives have been turned upside down, we have no mechanisms to reach out to them and stand with them in their hour of distress.

A journalist reports how the Indian prime minister reacted in the early days of the travel ban when he heard complaints from some incoming air-travellers: “During the present pandemic, when the Prime Minister received two complaints from returning passengers about the scanning at the Delhi airport being inadequate, he woke up all departments concerned in the middle of the night to examine the video footage from the surveillance cameras to see if there were any slip-ups.”

We do not know how many  government departments have been similarly roused from their sleep on account of the tumult in the migrant workers’ lives. But how we treat those who are most vulnerable, especially when their lives have been upended by decisions beyond their control but set in motion by an identifiable set of “political actors,” is of paramount importance in assessing our political and societal priorities, and moral compass.

How we respond to any special hardship caused to them – which in India has meant death also – is a question of undeniable moral ownership and our capacity for empathy. How one “ought” to respond is a moral question, different from whatever technicalities and legalities might advise.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar did not trust in a moral responsibility towards the Scheduled Castes on the part of  India’s rulers after Independence – mostly composed of the so-called higher castes. He had decided “to have the rights of the Scheduled Castes embodied in the Constitution,” as he stated in States and Minorities.

It seems that in the outward concern for all lives, some lives actually matter less than some others, especially because they can be considered expendable, commodifiable, and an indiscriminate mass. Surely our claim to lofty ideals of caring for everyone and thus operating on a moral pedestal are irreparably undermined.

One could of course chalk-up such moral indifference as inherent in the socio-economic systems we are under, which are anti-people in spirit and where inequality and impoverishment of the most marginalized is a direct result of official policies. In India’s case, it’s steady increase in inequality has been documented by economists as not being accidental and temporary, but long-term and a feature of the economic system.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx observes that, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The evident apathy and indifference from India’s ruling classes towards the plight of its working class is a glaring case in point.

The Indian socialist leader, Ram Manohar Lohia, in his attempt at fixing accountability for the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 in which hundreds of thousands had perished, observed the following just over a decade after the tragic event, as he echoed Dr. Ambedkar’s mistrust of any morality-driven emancipation for India’s marginalized masses.:

“At the bottom of all of India’s ills is the almost complete loss of identification between the rulers and the ruled, the middle class and the mass. This absence of identification has been over the centuries documented as total divorce in the shape of castes. The right word to use is not divorce but a state of total unrelatedness. India’s masses have been totally unrelated to her ruling classes, the vast sea of the mass to the tiny ruling minority among the high caste.”

On a similar note, an article on the demonstrable differences in the effect of the virus on African-Americans in the United States, titled The Politics of Disposability notes, “systemic social inequalities have made some groups more vulnerable than others…when the dust settles…there will be a tale to tell of who mattered and who was sacrificed.” In India, we already can read the tale of who matters and who can be sacrificed.

 Umang Kumar is a writer based in the National Capital Region of New Delhi, India.


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