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Beyond solidarity: The migrant labour and the unemployed will be demanding their rights, not our mercy

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: There is something deeply morally odd in using the language of compassion in relation to the state. What we need from the state is not compassion, it is a minimum sense of justice.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Updated: April 18, 2020 9:29:05 am
coronavirus, coronavirus India lockdown, India lockdown migrant labourers, coronavirus India lockdown migrant labourers, Express Opinion, Indian Express Over the next few weeks, decisions will be made that will have far-reaching consequences for the Indian economy. (Express File Photo)

Dealing with a pandemic requires high levels of solidarity. It is, however, becoming equally clear that expressions of solidarity risk devolving into a sentimental charade. There is an incredible number of people across different sections of society who have, often at great risk to themselves, and under difficult circumstances, helped prepare us to fight the pandemic and mitigate a looming humanitarian disaster. The widespread cooperation with the gruelling demands of the lockdown, on some interpretations, can also be seen as expressions of solidarity. But this should not blind us to the fact that solidarity, in the true meaning of the term, is failing us, just at the moment we need it most.

It is failing us because at the core of the idea of solidarity is not pity, compassion, or even care. It is justice. The harrowing scenes of grief and injustice that are now emerging call for an immediate response. Pity, compassion and care, as morally worthy as they might be as sentiments, are not fundamentally related to solidarity. Solidarity presupposes something like the idea of commonality, some form of identification. Pity, compassion and care are acts of kindness that can often presuppose distance and power. Even the act of helping, as necessary as it might be, underscores someone’s privilege. This is why, in normal circumstances, it is an affront to the dignity of people to make them depend on someone’s compassion. Compassion as an expression of solidarity presupposes power, because it appeals to someone’s discretion, not to their obligation.

There is something deeply morally odd in using the language of compassion in relation to the state. What we need from the state is not compassion, it is a minimum sense of justice. In fact, the appeals to compassion destructively depoliticise social policy by appealing to sentiment. By contrast, genuine solidarity, that speaks the language of justice, will ask hard questions about rights, institutional obligations, processes and accountability. Compassion speaks to the language of subjecthood, justice speaks to the language of citizenship. Justice allows you to be angry at the state when you see injustice. Compassion is a disfiguring appeal to someone’s power. The original meaning of the term solidarity was a juridical term, connoting joint liability. This had the advantage of not just emphasising a commonality, but also of the fact that there was an obligation. There was no choice in the matter.

So a justice-based solidarity will ask a different question. It will not ask: What is the bare minimum we can get away with to avoid starvation, or social unrest? The question is, what does the state owe as a matter of obligation in these circumstances? The state may yet announce a more ambitious economic package. But by waiting so long, and reducing millions of citizens to an avoidable and abject dependence on compassion — waiting for food if available, dependence on NGOs — the state has already added the injury of indignity onto economic hardships. Grain distribution was necessary. But a widespread distribution of cash, through various mechanisms, as advocated by so many political parties and experts, was the requirement of justice. When the state has to be pulled in this direction, kicking and screaming, you know it is not thinking justice.

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Second, a genuine solidarity would now ask very different kinds of structural questions about the economy. There is no reliable data on this yet. But one thing is very clear. Perhaps as many as 50 per cent, if not more, of households in India, will not have savings, assets or resources to survive even a couple of months of stopping economic activity. The fall in poverty in the last two decades has blinded us to the precariousness of most households in India, even those above the poverty line. The numbers put out by Mahesh Vyas of CMIE are stunning: An employment rate of 23.4 per cent in an economy with a labour participation rate of 36 per cent. In short, pervasive unemployment or underemployment will remain a feature of the Indian economy for the foreseeable future. The interesting question is: What would social solidarity look like in these circumstances? It will require us to think of a much more ambitious architecture for the welfare state, including some guarantee of basic minimum income. The question of justice will be one which focuses our attention on the fact that citizens should not be put in a position of dependence in the first place such that we have to appeal to compassion.

Third, justice would require that appeals do not substitute for policy. The government has rightly called for employees not to be fired in the current circumstances. It certainly behoves all private organisations, as a matter of justice, to ensure that the pain within those organisations is justly shared. What this looks like will depend on the nature of the organisation. But an appeal from the state not to fire people, without any serious financial backing for this proposal, is a species of sentimental tosh.


Fourth, solidarity requires rethinking the relationship between public and private, especially in health. Right now, the focus is on creating preparedness for tackling the pandemic. In health in particular, we opted for a private risk-based insurance system, as opposed to strengthening the public system. In an insurance system, we, in a sense, share risks for our own long-term individual self-interest. In public systems, we share common goals and objectives in the promotion of health care. The pooling of risk through private insurance is not the same thing as collective preparedness. The latter requires solidarity. That is one thing this crisis has made clear.

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Fifth, there will have to be a massive stimulus to the economy, geared towards driving growth. But any stimulus will also have deep distributional consequences. Who will get relief? Who will pay for it? How much appetite do we have for taxing the rich more, as almost every right-minded economist is proposing?


These may seem like large-scale structural questions. But they are the questions of the moment. Over the next few weeks, decisions will be made that will have far-reaching consequences for the Indian economy. Will these decisions be guided by our current language: In the short run, a plea for compassion; in the long run, deep structural injustice? Or will they utilise an opportunity to ask questions that indicate a genuine solidarity. Compassion might be about looking at people’s hearts, real solidarity is about following where the money and power flows. The migrant labour and the unemployed, whose quiescence we seem to take too much for granted, will be demanding their rights; not our mercy.

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This article first appeared in the print edition under the title ‘Beyond solidarity’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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First published on: 18-04-2020 at 03:07:04 am
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