Epidemics are “not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” says historian Frank Snowden in his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities.”
The critical vulnerabilities of Indian society that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed are undoubtedly those laid bare by the humanitarian crisis that unfolded as the nation-wide lockdown took effect. The searing images of the endless ordeal of tens of thousands of famished and exhausted “migrant workers” trying to make their way back to their home villages to escape starvation in cities where they work, will endure long after the pandemic is over.
The world’s severest lockdown dealt a body blow to their insecure and fragile urban livelihoods, and many of them also faced imminent eviction. With public transportation shut down, many began their long journeys on foot over distances that could span hundreds of miles. A large number of them died of heat, exhaustion and starvation; and quite a few were killed in horrific accidents.
Reverse migration of this kind is not how epidemics and migration have historically been linked together. This history is mostly of the fortunate few fleeing urban contagion to places where the chances of survival are better. This happened at the time of the Black Death in Europe in 1348; and in more recent years, during the SARS outbreak in China, and in New York City during the current pandemic.
To be sure, reverse migration to villages by the working poor is not new to the history of epidemics in India. During the plague panic in colonial Bombay — which gave us the infamous Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 — more than half the city’s population left for the countryside fleeing the disease as much as the colonial state’s authoritarian response to it. But they were caught between the plague-ridden city and the famine-stricken countryside, and the flow of migrants soon became a two-way process. It produced a crisis of labour supply in the city’s important cotton textile industry that led to a shift in the balance between capital and labour which worked to the advantage of workers — albeit temporarily.
The multitudes escaping Indian cities more than a century later, however, are mostly employed in an informal labour regime in industries and service sectors increasingly characterised by outsourcing and contracting-out arrangements. Without the moral imagination and political will to launch a massive social intervention, it is unlikely that the shock to the labour supply will yield even modest wage or welfare gains for these workers.
A report by the Stranded Workers Action Network, which its authors describe as “distress-biased” because it draws on data collected from those who made distress calls to the network, found the majority of them to be factory or construction workers on a daily wage. The rest earned their daily wages as drivers, domestic workers, and self-employed workers — among them were street vendors and those engaged in zari embroidery work. It is not a representative sample, but the figures convey some idea of the circumstances that pushed them to the brink; only about 6 per cent of those who reached out to the network received full wages during the lockdown and about 78 per cent received no payments. Ninety-nine per cent of the self-employed — among them, street vendors and rickshaw pullers — earned no money at all during the lockdown.
That such important segments of India’s urban workforce are “migrant workers”— and the fact that we refer to these poor fellow citizens as migrants — is itself quite telling. They are not all migrants in a strict sense. It is their precarious employment and the high cost of permanent relocation in cities that make them oscillate between urban India and their home villages. Many male seasonal migrants leave their families behind and return to their villages when old age or illness makes them unemployable.
A 2012 volume of essays on internal migration in India published by the UNESCO distinguishes three types of rural to urban migrants: (a) permanent, (b) semi-permanent or long-term circular and (c) seasonal and temporary or circular migrants. Significant segments of India’s informal or unorganised economy escape official statistical recording. Seasonal or circular rural-to-urban migrants, for example, are a major segment of the workforce in India’s formidable construction industry. Yet neither the Census nor the National Sample Survey, says Ravi Srivastava, who has studied internal migration extensively, “adequately capture seasonal and/or short-term circular migration”. He and his research team have tried to get a handle on the phenomenon with a number of micro-level field surveys to complement macro data.
The difficulties encountered by Srivastava and Rajib Sutradhar in surveying construction workers in Delhi and its satellite towns are revealing. First, the gruelling work schedule of construction workers — long hours and seven days a week with no rest day — made access to them difficult. Second, the construction sites that included the living areas for workers are guarded by private security guards creating another set of hurdles. Several interviews “had to be abandoned half-way due to the hostility of security staff and/or contractors”.
When the term informal sector began to be used in development studies in the 1970s it was thought of as a residual — even temporary — niche peculiar to the urban economies of developing countries. As Dutch sociologist Jan Breman puts it, informal economy activities were expected to “fade away with the expansion of the formal economy”. But during the successive decades “informality turned out to be not a waiting room but an end station for the swelling workforce locked up in it”.
The informal or the unorganised sector now accounts for nearly half of India’s GDP and 80 to 90 per cent of the labour force (including non-plantation agriculture). Outsourcing of work to smaller firms and contractors has informalised even many organised sector industries. With the erosion of labour rights and social protection associated with formal sector jobs, it is not surprising that our cities now host thousands of people whose precarious livelihoods keep them steps away from destitution.
But a far more deleterious effect of informalisation is that we now seem to be on the verge of abandoning even the aspiration for an inclusive future. With informal employment dominating the economy, laws regulating working conditions are now nothing more than aspirational. Still, it boggles the moral imagination that soon after the historic exodus, in the middle of the pandemic, a number of state governments decided to dilute labour laws turning the clock back on legal working hours from eight-hour days to 12-hour days (six-days a week). And this with the half-baked intention of attracting businesses that might leave China.
One can only hope that our society will regain its moral compass and re-discover the quality that Adam Smith — popularly thought of as the high priest of capitalist individualism — called sympathy. No matter how selfish we suppose human beings to be, he said, “there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 28, 2020 under the title ‘The fortune of others’. The writer is professor of political studies, Bard College, New York. He is the author of In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast.
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