coronavirus migrants 1

How should one deal with COVID-19 pandemic? Certainly not with social distancing, which in South Asian context, has inbuilt casteist connotations of discrimination and exclusion.

Introduction

India has more than 3 million cases of coronavirus now. The situation is far from normal. It is time not only to talk about ways and means for ending the pandemic which so far has remained quite sturdy, but at the same time it is necessary that we talk about how social inequality is practiced in these unfortunate times as well. In the name of maintaining ‘social distancing’ and the need for remaining pure, neat & clean and fighting against the polluting elements, the worst forms of caste based discrimination and exclusion including violence is perpetrated on Dalits and Adivasis.

Pandemics like Covid-19 or natural disasters are certainly not caste/race neutral. It is perhaps inherent in the socio-political and economic system that inequality gets further entrenched and we get to see differential impact on different social groups. This has been the experience of Tsunami aftermath relief and rehabilitation, Latur (Maharashtra) and Gujarat earthquake, Odisha cyclone in the past and it happens every year in the post flood relief distributions across the country that most marginalized people face discrimination and exclusion by the society at large and also by the government officials.

The lesser humans living on the margins is a stark reminder to growing cleavages in society on the basis of caste, creed, religion and even region wherein people are being pushed away from the so called national mainstream. Insensitivity of the ruling caste elites in particular and the elites in general who have their social, economic and political capital at their disposal, hardly cares about these lesser humans who are forced to live a life on bare minimum subsistence.

These invisible people are made visible only when calamity strikes and human lives are lost.  A nation’s conscience is not pricked when these lesser humans are butchered or gets killed due to accidents, hunger or due to any other reason.

The millennia old caste system continues with its nefarious designs of discriminating, excluding and even resorting to violence without any compunction against the low caste Dalits, Adivasis (indigenous people). Though the form and degree/magnitude may vary from place to place, but the bitter truth of casteism reigns everywhere in this sub-continent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unplanned countrywide lockdown which is still continuing. Millions of lesser human have been left high and dry and were forced to walk barefoot/ or with minimal accessories and in the process dying an unnatural death either through road accidents or due to callous policy of the state governments and the central government.

Coronavirus pandemic has become another pretext for the continuing caste based atrocities on Dalits. Day-in and day-out Dalits are being denied equal status and violence inflicted on them. As the caste divide has a long history so does the incidents of caste based atrocities thus becoming a perfectly normal happening which does not even pricks the conscience of this great country. Holding the State accountable for people’s misery is an important task that needs to be carried out now and in near future.

The Case of Sanitation Workers

How the government and society at large deals with sanitation workers should keep haunting us again and again about the need for humanizing ourselves, our society and government as well. Instead of doing this, what we witness every day is complete dehumanization of sanitation workers as if their lives do not matter at all. This happens despite the fact that they are the frontline warriors who fight every day with dirt and dangerous elements to keep us alive, safe and ticking.

The stigma attached with work and the caste that they belong to keeps them at the receiving end and on the margins in every sense of the term. Even before the coronavirus pandemic their living conditions were in a sorry state of affairs. And with the continuing pandemic, they are further exposed to dangers of working without enough safety kits/equipments as most of them work with bare hands and minimum protection.

Sanitation workers in India who overwhelmingly belong to a Dalit sub-caste group have been facing innumerable problems despite they being one of the frontline warriors against COVID-19. As being the lowest in the caste hierarchy, they have been denied equality, dignity and justice since millennia and COVID-19 pandemic has further aggravated their problems. They work without safety gears and in many cases have not been paid their salary on regular basis and above all they are not treated as frontline anti-COVID-19 workers at par with Doctors and other health personnel.

They are the lesser humans and it is their job to clean society’s filth/dirt. They cannot claim any rights as free & equal citizens. This is what has been prescribed for them under the Brahmanical caste system. As recent as August 22, 2020, there have been reports of Sanitation workers facing caste based discrimination at work place. Indian Express reported from Mumbai that around 350 Dalit workers from JB Nagar motor loading chowki in Andheri (East) faced discrimination over drinking water and access to toilets. It is also alleged that these contract workers have not been paid their full minimum wage as prescribed by the government.

Shreehari Paliath (India Spend.com, July 30, 2020) observed that as the contagion surges across the country, sanitation workers continue to be inadequately protected, noted a report based on a telephonic survey of 214 sanitation workers in five states and two metros by two independent researchers. There are very few sanitation workers who are getting or are being made available training and other information on health checkups. Another news report published in Indian Express on 18 May 2020, mentions that India’s 40 lakh (4 Million) waste pickers in the informal sector and garbage collectors employed by states are at a direct risk of getting infected with coronavirus from handling unmarked medical and contaminated waste. On the same day The Wire reported that Sanitation workers still do not have PPE. While the Delhi government claimed in the Court that all workers are safe from Covid-19, workers tell that they have poor or no equipment.

In the absence of proper safety equipments the sanitation workers have been facing vigorous problem of working in an unsafe environment everywhere in the country. The News Minute reported that in recent days, many sanitation workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Tamil Nadu. With contract jobs and no pay during recovery, the workers battle societal stigma and ostracisation.

Horrendous stories of caste based violence have also been reported during this time period. Piyush Srivastava of The Telegraph reported that a young sanitation worker who had sodium hypochlorite sprayed into his mouth when he had gone to a village to sanitise it died in a hospital on Saturday, succumbing to the effects of the corrosive chemical four days after the atrocious assault. Police have registered a case of murder against five persons who have been absconding since April 14, when the incident happened in Pempur village under Bhot police station in Rampur district, Uttar Pradesh. Two sanitation workers were attacked with axe in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. Cases of sanitation workers dying have also been reported from various states.

The Migrant Labour: The Nowhere People

The migrant labour crisis that exploded after the announcement of the complete lockdown with barely four hour notice resulted into a human induced catastrophe unheard of in contemporary times. It needs to be explained in broadest possible way so as to understand where does the problem could lie?

The migrant lives do not seem to matter to the government establishment and society at large. The callousness and indifferent attitude against these lesser human led to complete mishandling of the lockdown period which is still continuing though in a little relaxed way. It has led to a massive human catastrophe unparalleled in many years in the history of contemporary India. How time would heal the wounds remains to be seen.

Ever since the ascendance of neo-liberal regimes and capture of state power by the right wing majoritarian political parties became a reality in recent years, the fate of informal economy, migrant workers in particular and labour rights in general has been on the downslide. And now with the COVID-19 pandemic the wretched of the earth are forced to walk down the roads of misery, destitution and death. The Dalits, Adivasis and the people belonging to Other Backward Castes (OBCs) who form the overwhelming majority of casual/non-casual daily wage earners in India’s informal/unorganized economy are paying a heavy price now with their lives being destroyed slowly and gradually. Even other workers in the organized and unorganized sector are not in a happy situation either.

Would it lead to redemption for humanity???  Or would it lead to Atma Nirbhar Bharat (Self Reliant India)???

As the reported cases of coronavirus surge in India the inhuman and pathetic conditions under which the migrant workers have been forced to walk/cover long distances and bearing the brunt in the form of deaths and injury due to road accident has emerged as another sad story from different states. The callous attitude of the government and its agencies is further aggravating the already vicious situation.

According to Ashwini Deshpande and Rajesh Ramachandran (Is Covid-19 “the Great Leveler”, 2020), all caste groups experienced a fall in employment between December 2019 and April 2020. But the drop in employment for lower-ranked caste groups was far greater in magnitude than that for upper castes – the share of the upper castes losing jobs is 7 percentage points, compared to 21 percentage points for the lowest-ranked Scheduled Castes. On examining the differences in education levels across caste groups, as well as the nature of employment contracts that individuals hold, the analysis shows that lower levels of human capital and higher likelihood of holding daily wage jobs explain the differential effects of the lockdown on caste groups.

The CNN reported on May 31, 2020, that over 10 agonizing days, a migrant worker walked and hitchhiked 1, 250 miles home as India’s lockdown left him no choice. The same news story also mentioned that Rajesh Chouhan, another migrant worker had covered 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in five days. His legs were swollen and his blisters had burst. A piece of Styrofoam trash he’d found on the roadside was soaking up the pus seeping from his feet. But he didn’t stop walking. He couldn’t. The 26-year-old migrant worker was in the heart of India and only halfway home. When India announced its nationwide lockdown on March 24 to stop the spread of the novel  coronavirus, despite having less than 450 cases at that point, its cities ground to a halt. About 100 million rural Indians have moved to cities for work. Overnight, many like Chouhan were stranded without jobs, food or savings. With no way to survive in the cities, and India’s vast railway network mostly shut down, many made the extraordinary decision to walk thousands of miles back to their families.

The manner in which the State as the custodian and protector of the poor and low caste migrant worker was abdicating from its responsibility has put a big question mark on the intention of the Government and its agencies. A phase of uncertainty started with the outbreak of the corona virus and millions of migrant workers were forced to tread that path facing all kinds of adverse and hostile situations. Blamed for leaving their homes in defiance of the lockdown, hungry, and cash-strapped, migrants struggle in packed shelters, while those who managed to reach their native places face hostility, as reported The Hindu on April 04, 2020.

The hardships faced by the migrant workers and their family should make any conscious person cry over their plight. An 11 year old Muslim boy named Tabarak was seen riding a tricycle cart from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh to Araria in Bihar, a distance of 600 kilometer, carrying his parents, presented a grim picture of heartless mainland India.  Jyoti Kumari, a 15 year old Dalit girl, carried her ailing father, on a bicycle covering a distance of about 1200 kilometer from Gurugram in Haryana, to Darbhanga district in Bihar was another such story of bravery in the face of adverse situation.  After criticism from different sources, the government finally allowed migrant workers to return to their villages by trains and buses. The shabby treatment faced by the migrant workers by the government and officials once again proved that poor and low caste migrant workers lives do not matter at all. As trains resumed the migrant workers lined up with tickets and nothing more. Many said they borrowed money from neighbours or friends to buy the ticket, reported the NDTV.

It is quite amazing to see how the government treats its own citizen in such a callous manner should force us to look for reasons as to why the State is abdicating from its responsibility of taking welfare measures for its poor citizens. Barbara Harriss-White’s opinion piece in the Wire on May 20, 2020 argues that from demonetization to GST and now to the lockdown, the government’s policies towards the unorganized sector has spelt nothing but rack and ruin.

Why no relief for the nowhere people in the most suitable manner? is a question that is still asking for an answer from the government. Whatever has come from the government in terms of relief and other measures is still not sufficient and there is a need to do more. Ravi Srivastava writing an opinion piece in The Hindu on May 04, 2020, argued that data from the National Sample Survey and the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) show that these migrant labourers are mainly from rural areas in poor regions and states, and belong to the poorest socio-economic classes. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes are over-represented among them. They form the largest section of child, bonded and trafficked labour. They predominate in activities that are characterised by three Ds — dirty, dangerous, and difficult — and consistently face a fourth D — discrimination. Nearly 70% of migrants work in urban and peri-urban areas in and around growth centres in States in the north, west, and south of the country. Industry and employers are bemoaning, for the first time, the fact that activities in a number of crucial sectors and industries will not see revival without these workers.

Socially Disadvantaged Groups Hit Hardest by Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown

In a country with stark social divides, it is very much possible that the most disadvantaged sections of the society belonging to Dalits, Adivasis (indigenous people) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) community would be treated unfairly. The data is out and have reinforced the fact that socially disadvantaged groups have been hit the hardest by the lockdown.

It is nothing but caste atrocity that the socially disadvantaged are being targeted with. Contemporary history should record such grave injustices being meted out to the wretched of this earth- the poor & low caste people in India. Why the lesser human lives do not matter is a question that should keep bothering us, but sadly enough it fails to prick the conscience of this great nation called India. The government has created an archive of distress, a museum of misery for migrant workers, this is how the Wire reported on the sufferings of migrant workers during this lockdown period.

Anuja Gyan Verma writing for the LiveMint noted that the economic crisis that has accompanied the covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented. The Centre and the state governments now face the task of providing employment for migrant workers, one of the hardest hit section of the population. Experts believe that the worst hit by disappearing jobs will be the socially weaker sections, especially people belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. During the same time period it was also revealed that in Madhya Pradesh nearly one-fourth of the returnees were engaged in the construction sector, and almost six out of 10 of them belong to Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Classes (SC) communities.

Covid-19 Pandemic and Response of the State 

COVID-19 pandemic and the response by the State in countries all over the world has raised many serious questions and perhaps we are still not able to find any right answers despite knowing it well how primordial value system of caste and race still guides human behavior and conduct in society at large.

The classic examples of caste and race determining the fate of millions of people into subjugation and brutal exclusion from the development process has meant that Dalits in South Asia and African Americans in US and vulnerable people in different other countries across the globe shall always remain lesser humans. And shall always remain sacrificial lambs too during pandemics like COVID-19, or natural disasters.

How the Indian State responded to a pandemic situation in such a callous manner is a question that still remains unanswered. But what is clear is that the duty bearers and their political masters need to be made more accountable. Accountability needs to be fixed at various levels to instill hope for justice among the vulnerable sections of society. But what was witnessed in terms of response by the State was a complete disaster which also reeked of casteist and communal overtones. Chitrangada Choudhury and Aniket Aga in a powerful opinion piece in NDTV noted that  India has a sickness so serious, that even its response to the Covid-19 pandemic betrays a fatal infection. Nowhere in the world has a lockdown been as inhuman or imposed with such contempt for the lives of its millions of working poor. The Modi government’s turning of a health challenge into a human catastrophe and the approval of a large section of India’s elites can only be explained by casteism, which grades people on a hereditary hierarchy of worth, and legitimises the brutalization of ‘lesser beings’. The lockdown is in effect a caste atrocity i.e. a willful act of violence inflicted on marginalized castes, and invisibilized in the name of halting a virus.

The lockdown which is still continuing in many visible and invisible forms is also clearly responsible for damaging livelihood of millions of people, who earned their daily wages till the time they were allowed to do so, but now with six months into without work, how they would continue to live a life of forced destitution? Moushumi Roy and Tirth Bhatta, in an opinion piece rightly claims that the pandemic is sending India’s poor into the abyss. Already rife with inequality, the pandemic has distributed suffering among India’s underclass.

Towards the end, it would be quite instructive to quote from Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s speech that he delivered on November 26, 1949 in the Constituent Assembly of India, “from 26 January 1950 onwards, we are going to enter into a life of contradiction. In politics we will have equality. One man, one vote. One vote and one value. But in society and economy, there would still be inequality. We must bridge this gap as early as possible. Or else, the victims of this inequality would blow up the whole structure which we have so labouriously built up”.

How long shall we as a nation continue to live a life of contradictions in our social and economic life? Why the gaps between haves and have-nots are widening day after day? There are several other related questions which warrant our urgent attention.

Conclusion

With coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown continuing in many ways, the times that the world is forced to undergo also remains uncertain and confusing. One perhaps does not know what would happen in upcoming days/weeks and months. What is also clear is that the pandemic has become a new normal. It may not be possible to go back to the old normal. But at the same time primordial and reactionary attitudes among human beings would continue in their newly acquired forms. There are so many questions for which we do not seem to have answers right now.

How should one deal with COVID-19 pandemic? Certainly not with social distancing, which in South Asian context, has inbuilt casteist connotations of discrimination and exclusion. More than anything else a sense of solidarity, empathy, generosity, warmth, compassion, share and care shall help us in not only helping the humanity but also to inculcate values in younger generation to respect every one and always help the needy.

Ubuntu is what we need now and also in future! A society without ubuntu is a dead society.

(A small part of this paper was presented by the author in a webinar on “Social Inequalities and Emerging Trends in People’s Movements in Post-Covid South Asia, organized by Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo, Sri Lanka, on August 24, 2020).

Dr. Umakant is an independent scholar and social activist based in New Delhi.


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