A migrant worker in Delhi looks into the camera and says, “We have nothing as everything has been lost in the pandemic. Just give us a job, not anything else.”
In another shot, the supervisor at a building construction site in Mundhwa, Pune, worries that the labourers are living in crowded huts that are unsafe at a time when a virus is spreading through proximity. He wants to create more hygienic dwellings for them.
These scenes, capturing widely different realities of the pandemic from across the country, are part of a film, titled Nothing But Our Chains, directed by Pune-based writer and artist Isha Pungaliya for Working People’s Charter (WPC), a national initiative that brings together more than 150 workers’ collectives.
“It was a dire time for working people because everything shut down and they did not have anywhere to go. It was the time that relief organisations needed to step up to face an unprecedented crisis. The film documents their efforts in providing food security, transport and other aid to the migrant community. A lot of middle-class people came out during this time to help in terms of monetary help. I am hoping that the film will reach out to people to make them aware and sensitive,” says Pungaliya about the 45-minute film, which is based on footage sent by relief workers on the ground, especially in north India.
The film opens with images of relief work and includes experts tracing the present crisis to the country’s economic and socio-political policies. The issues range from the uneven construction of cities that push workers into ghettos to the condition of women during the crisis. “We try to understand why we see the working classes in such a dire situation? Why do they have to migrate? Why don’t they find work in their own place? Migrating is physically and emotionally difficult for people, especially since it is hard labour rather than cushy jobs that take them to far-off cities,” says the director.
“The idea of the film was motivated by the power of the visual image, which has a ripple effect on the larger masses. The Covid-19 pandemic threw a massive challenge at WPC and partner organisations, and we decided that we should have a film documenting our efforts in managing an unprecedented situation,” says Chandan Kumar, national coordinator of WPC.
Towards the end of the film, Kumar says that various organisations working at different levels needed to come together to face the challenges posed by Covid-19. ”The crisis has given a big opportunity to respond to the “unfinished agenda” , i.e, recognising the invisible work and contribution of migrant workers in nation building,” adds Kumar.
In one scene from Pune, which captures helplessness and urgency, a relief worker talks about the challenges of sending migrants home at a time when trains were irregular and crowded.
While the filmmaker experienced the crisis of the migration, she did not add footage of people, including children, she had encountered, asking for groceries and rice flour outside shops in Pune, to respect their dignity and privacy.
There is, however, a shot of the owner of a steel plant after the lockdown eased and work began. “Most of the workers had left and the plant owner said he could not even pay his workers. Much of the work was not happening,” says Pungaliya, emphasising the importance of the hands that keep the wheels of normalcy turning.
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