Invisible millions made visible by Coronavirus… Reform, or else

coronavirus migrants covid19

Invisible millions

In urban life, the hard physical, often demeaning and life-threatening work (cleaning out sewage manholes/drains or handling stinking garbage) is done by the lowest paid workers. These occupations are vital for urban life. For example, if urban garbage (thousands of tonnes per day in a big city) is not cleared regularly, life becomes unbearable and lays urbanites open to disease or epidemic.

These workers are people who came from rural areas of distant states or the same state to seek work and earn a livelihood. They comprise 80% of India’s work force, are in the “unorganized sector” and hence unprotected by laws. They are the cogs of urban life and industry, insignificant in themselves, but vital for survival of urban life and industry.

These cogs live in notoriously squalid conditions. Their habitations are so “offensive to the eye” that walls were constructed to block them from the delicate view of a visiting dignitary in Gujarat early this year. They subsist on sub-standard food and impure water, at the mercy of exploitative labour contractors and others including the MSME sector at work, and of mafia and police in their homes.

They usually send money home to their families. They have self-respect as persons who work for a living, although circumstances reduce some to beggary. Many are literate, some have learned trades like mason, electrician, plumber, etc., but the majority are unskilled labour who stand at unofficially designated places every morning from where labour contractors pick them up on as-required basis for the day. If they are not lucky to get work for that day, they get no money … and no food. Others work tea-shops and roadside eateries which cater to these very workers. Children serve and distribute tea and eats and wash utensils – and are subject to abuse of every sort. Those who work at construction sites where they are virtually “captive”, are often not paid because if they complain, they are out of work instantly, and not even paid earned back wages.

City slums are populated by in-state as well as out-of-state migrants, some having come to the city generations ago, for work or opportunity. The slum population makes a significant proportion of urban population anywhere in India, and according to one assessment, around 60% in Mumbai.

These workers come to attention when the domestic worker or the security man at the gate does not turn up for work because the municipal corporation or some authority cleared out his slum or a fire burned it down. Attention was limited to one slum at a time. It gave no idea of the totality of the sheer numbers of workers in the city. These millions were essentially “invisible”.

Coronavirus improves visibility

The 24 March 2020, fateful Coronavirus-sparked, 4-hours-notice, national lockdown sparked off fears and doubts among the urban poor, especially the out-of-state workers. These people, inappropriately branded “migrant workers”, were already living in squalid conditions and working with little or no social or job security. Following mandated “social distancing”, and because of fear of Corona/Covid, landlords evicted them, and employers vanished without paying them for work which they had done for 24 days of March and even for earlier months. The daily-wagers were anyway living from hand-to-mouth, so they too were affected. In all, at a conservative estimate, 122 million workers lost their jobs.

If the welfare of the working classes, especially those in the unorganized sector, had any space in the scheme of governance, the consequences of a sudden lockdown would have crossed the mind of government decision makers. Surely more notice for lockdown would have been given along with making provision for the unavoidable financial-economic body blow to those who are the very foundation of urban civic and industrial life. The reason that they were not even a factor in decision-making is that this category of people were “invisible”, taken for granted, both socially and politically.

The out-of-state workers had no financial cushion, no reason to linger in the cities where they did not belong and were now clearly unwanted. They were between a rock and a hard place – the choice between stay and starve, or walk to family and home. They chose the latter option involving serious risks, because the former bore a deadly certainty. Most importantly, Coronavirus/Covid did not figure in their logic.

What began as a trickle on 25 March, avalanched into an exodus in 48-hours. The scale and the suddenness of the exodus caught governments unawares. Paralysed by incomprehension and disbelief, hitherto voluble politicians were tongue-tied. Governments still did nothing until the national media showed clips and interviews of people, individuals, families with tiny children, pregnant wives, walking on the highways, to destinations many hundreds of kilometres distant. Walking with no money in pocket, no water, no food, some surviving on biscuits, but with a steely determination. Enroute, many were harassed, humiliated, beaten by police. Many didn’t make it, collapsing out of exhaustion, thirst and hunger, on the road, at makeshift camps, at railway stations, inside railway trains, and some even killed by an unexpected railway train. Unwept, unsung.

In the first crucial days of exodus, it was individual citizens and activists from voluntary bodies and NGOs (the latter motivatedly excoriated by government) who turned out spontaneously all along the ways, rallying to help feed these people using their own resources and raising resources by networking, all at risk to themselves. The less said about governments of states from which the people were escaping and of governments of their destination states, and the central government, the better.

The plight of these millions of unwanted citizens migrating homewards was on TV screens in people’s homes. The combination of utter unpreparedness, inertia, apathy, confusion, goof-ups and callousness of state and central governments was apparent to the world. But more importantly, the images of the unmitigated misery of these people flashed on TV screens and blasted their way into the consciousness of the nation and the world. The nation’s conscience stirred. The millions staggering homewards were an acute embarrassment, but sadly only because the hitherto “invisible” had become “visible”, not because they wanted to but because of the unplanned lockdown.

Government attitude

At this stage, the seriously deleterious economic effects of the lockdown began to manifest on the economy, which was already on the down-swing, with NPA-wounded banks. Lifting of the lockdown in stages to re-start the economy included re-starting certain industries. The captains of commerce and industry realized that the labour needed to re-start production were on the march homewards.

Many workers were helped by Indian Railways starting special “shramik” trains. However, many of these Shramik specials inflicted further hardship on the workers [V.Sridhar; “Nightmare on Shramik Specials”; Frontline; June 19, 2020; <>]. This is mentioned here because of the poor planning by railways and lack of coordination between states and centre. It resulted in trains getting diverted by circuitous routes, trains halting for hours together without fans working and without food/water provision, terminating at stations hundreds of kilometres from the occupants’ destinations, etc., besides demanding that workers pay train fare. It reflected the callous attitude of the State towards the workers.

Surveys indicated that around 90% of the workers who were asked whether they would return to cities to their former occupations/jobs when the lockdown was lifted, said that they were determined not to return. It probably came as a shock equally to governments and to the commerce & industry, that factories would have to function with fewer workers.

The central government proposed that the 1948 Factories Act would be amended to permit a 72-hours work-week, a 50% increase on existing conditions, to help factories return to former production levels with fewer workers. [Saubhadra Chatterji; “Govt plans changes in law to allow 12-hour shifts in factories”; The Hindustan Times; April 11, 2020; <>]. While the central government hasn’t yet amended the Factories Act, some state governments issued notifications to permit this increase to compensate for mandatory social distancing at the work place and employment of fewer workers.

It is established in industrial psychology and management that prolonging working hours actually reduces productivity, increases accident risk due to physical and mental strain on workers, and affects their long-term health. It is contrary to the safety, health and welfare of workers. That this fundamental tenet was “missed” by law makers and professional industrial management is evidence of some combination of ignorance and callousness, driven by their need to re-start factories “at any cost”, including the lives and welfare of the very people who were unwanted and uncared for just a few weeks ago. It is like indentured labour of colonial times, unacceptable in a democracy.

More attitude

Although PILs concerning the humanitarian crisis had been rejected by the Apex Court, in a suo moto case a 3-judge bench directed governments on May 28th to provide free transportation and make food available to the workers. [Ashish Tripathi; “SC says states must transport stranded migrants in 15 days, favours providing job opportunities for returnees”; <>; Deccan Herald; June 5, 2020].

It gave further directions on June 10th, to “finish transportation of stranded migrants within 15 days”, and “establish counselling centres to help migrant workers, who returned to their hometowns after being rendered jobless due to the lockdown, find suitable employment”. This is proof, if proof is needed, that governments had failed the hitherto “invisible” workers, whose lives or welfare had never been a factor in planning. [Ashish Tripathi; “Help migrant workers find jobs: SC to states”; Deccan Herald; June 10, 2020; p.1]. Thus, 75-days after the lockdown and exodus, it had become necessary for the Supreme Court of India to be instructing governments to do what they were duty bound to do.

The Court also directed governments “to consider withdrawal of cases lodged against them for violating lockdown norms”. Clearly, the Court recognized that governments had stopped migrant workers from peacefully struggling homewards, and they had crowded around because they had been forcibly stopped. The fact that cases were lodged against them displays an uncaring, even vicious attitude.

Further, the Supreme Court was constrained to say that migrant workers, who were forced to return to their native places after “cessation of their employment” during the lockdown, are already suffering and they have to be dealt with in a “humane manner” by the police and other authorities. [PTI, New Delhi; “ SC takes note of excess against migrant workers, says they needs to be dealt humanely“; <>; Deccan Herald; June 9, 2020]. Clearly, the Court recognized that government administrations had not been treating the workers in a humane manner, and were inflicting violence upon already suffering people.

Crisis into opportunity

It is convenient, even facile, to blame governments for their attitude and consequent actions concerning these “invisible” Indians. Although governments are certainly to blame, deserve censure, and need to correct course, it is necessary for us to understand that these millions had formerly been “invisible” even to us. It is the brutal lockdown which has made them visible. Here, “us” refers to people who have some access to elected representatives and governments, and can influence governance. When one person points his finger at another, he must realize that three fingers point back at himself!

Elections are decided on the basis of votes, which candidates solicit from the vast majority poor Indians, on the basis of unimplementable or false promises. These very voters have little if any say in the policies, programs and projects of governments, or the tabling of bills and enactment of laws by legislatures.

Over the decades, the political class has failed the nation, but there is no getting away from the uncomfortable fact that we, who could and can influence governance using our socio-economic-educational position, have also failed our fellow Indians.

The lockdown has had adverse effects upon us too. But they are far less in the financial-economic sense than that suffered irrevocably through loss of job/livelihood – even life – by the urban and rural people, who were struggling to make ends meet even pre-lockdown.

Apart from hopefully controlling the spread of Covid, the lockdown crisis has afforded two “advantages”: (1) The “invisible” millions are now clearly visible, albeit because of their continuing, unmitigated suffering, and (2) It provides opportunity for our political class and their leaders to steer a new course for governance, so that the now-visible millions do not lapse into former invisibility.


The cumulative effect of thoughtless or motivated acts of commission and omission of successive governments of all political hues in the states and centre, putting personal power and pelf before People and service, have brought India to the present disastrous social-environmental-economic situation. Public servants have elevated themselves into becoming our “rulers”, often motivatedly and arrogantly rising above the laws which they themselves have made, and violating the Constitution with impunity but for an occasionally people-oriented judiciary.

Political leaders in governments and legislatures need to understand that they are Servants of the People. Hitherto, they have not been adequately performing their sworn constitutional duty towards the vast majority, and should actualize the oath which they took on assuming public office.

Governance must necessarily reform towards following the letter and spirit of the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution of India, especially because these Principles “… shall not be enforceable by any court, [emphasis added] but the principles therein laid down are nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the State to apply these principes in making laws” .

Decision-making in governance in the states and centre should be based on Gandhiji’s touchstone: “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him”. Only then will the now-visible poor remain visible and be both the subject and the object of planning and governance.

Or else

The deep resentfulness and disaffection in the streets is precisely because of failure of governance over the decades, and policies and projects which inflict economic violence on the poor. The post-lockdown quantum jump in the unmitigated suffering of over 60% of Indians, may well be the tipping point for countrywide climactic chaos. This can be pre-empted either by severe emergency-type government clampdown using police/military and jailing dissenters, or by reforming the intent and direction of governance towards benefitting People, not business corporations. The latter method would be taken by any leader who has the necessary understanding and the good of the nation and its people at heart.

Jai Hind!

Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere, VSM, focuses on development and strategic issues, using cross-discipline study and systems thinking. Contact: [email protected]



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