The long walk home by destitute migrant workers has become the defining image of India’s response to COVID-19 but their suffering predates the pandemic.
It is a sweltering May afternoon when Pintu Kumar, 39, reaches a bustling Mumbai train station. Bags weigh down his shoulders and sweat trickles onto his face mask. The sound of clamouring voices and scenes of snaking queues await him. He tightly clutches a train ticket and weaves through the crowd towards the platform.
“There must be some 2,000 people on this train, and everyone is ecstatic,” he says, his voice dry from exhaustion.
The long steel spine of Shramik Express was taking them home.
The passengers on this train – and the millions stranded across cities – would become the face of India’s biggest labour crisis since 1947, the year of its partition.
COVID-19 has become a familiar struggle worldwide. In India, however, a humanitarian crisis has dwarfed the pandemic – arresting the fate of its 140-million migrant workforce.
“We haven’t seen this happen anywhere else in the world where measures taken to protect from the virus have been worse than the virus itself,” says Anindita Adhikari, a scholar working for the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN).
India’s burgeoning unorganised sector remains an afterthought
Migrant workers in India are a part of the informal sector – described as the “poor working class” – employed in unorganised economic activities by the International Labour Organisation. In India, the informal sector constitutes about 90 per cent of the national workforce.
That amounts to 400 million workers belonging to the economically-weaker sections of society, who are particularly vulnerable to easy exploitation by business owners.
A subset of this sector are the migrant workers, who travel the length and breadth of the nation in search of work and economic security, often living isolated lives in the shanties of big cities.
They work as drivers, factory workers, farmers – all without job security or social protection – slowly building up cities from the ground. Pintu has worked as a construction labourer for the last 20 years, but the structures he built bear little trace of him.
“It is an ‘invisibilised’ population which makes our cities grow and run,” says Adhikari.
Estimates of their numbers vary due to population density and mobility. Officially, their strength had never been acknowledged until now – when they started to leave cities in clusters.
Against the backdrop of a pandemic, their reality had exacerbated.
A long walk home
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March – giving India’s 1.3 billion people a four-hour notice to prepare.
Overnight, millions of workers were pushed out of employment and into poverty. Many could not afford rent or food and were left stranded, as non-essential travel ceased.
Yet, the roads continued to teem with people. Thousands started walking, with children and bags, to their home states. Others cycled or hitchhiked dangerously.
“They [government] didn’t see them, didn’t anticipate the response this group of people would have,” Adhikari says. To her, the hasty lockdown symbolises authorities’ disconnect with migrants lives.
For some, the long road home proved to be fatal. At the time, SWAN released a report documenting 189 lockdown-related deaths — from suicide, deaths during the journeys, hunger, and police brutality. The number had doubled by mid-May as India entered its fourth lockdown.
“It is no longer a trade-off between lives and livelihoods, but between lives and lives.”SWAN report
Relief and reality of the official narrative
But a mass exodus meant the State could no longer turn a blind eye. On the 35th day of lockdown, the government finally arranged special Shramik trains to take them home.
Many paid 800-1000 Indian rupees (£8-10) for these journeys – even as they lived in debt traps and struggled to feed themselves. In contrast, the government ran evacuation flights for nationals stranded abroad – footing a bill of over £600,000.
By 27 May, 80 migrants had reportedly died on these journeys due to starvation or from heat stroke.
Their tragedy had caught up with the nation. Raghav Mehrotra, a researcher at Aajeevika Bureau, points out how class and caste biases shaped the national response.
The middle class and elite are complicit in the exploitation of the informal sector, says Mehrotra. Caste barriers loom heavily in India, determining one’s social capital. Most informal workers belong to “scheduled tribes” or “adivasi” castes – considered inferior in the traditional social hierarchy.
The pandemic, in some ways, tugged at the national conscience. Images of people marching 1,000 miles sparked compassion and conversation. Scattered networks of non-profits and individuals offered them food and supplies.
The government, on its part, set up limited public shelters and food drives in cities. An economic stimulus came in March which overlooked migrant workers, who as Mehrotra explains, are not covered by the federal framework for entitlements or benefits.
The State addressed their hardships through a relief package in May, which many worried might be too little too late. On 28 May, the apex court ordered the government to facilitate free transport of all migrant workers and provide them with necessary supplies. According to the Indian railways, almost 4,400 Shramik trains had ferried over 6 million workers as of 3 June.
As of 8 June, almost 67 per cent workers were still stranded, 85 per cent had to pay for free travel, and a majority of them had not received food supplies as promised by the government. These findings by SWAN surveyed almost 2,000 migrants and illustrated the “archive of distress and museum of misery” that the government created.
Mehrotra notes that it is not the infrastructure which is lacking. Government docks currently house surplus grains which could feed hungry mouths. It is instead being made into sanitisers to be sold to big conglomerates.
The government, he argues, is unwilling to work for the poor.
A perfect storm for migrant workers
In May, some states relaxed labour laws known to be notoriously restrictive. The latest reform is expected to help industries recover after the pandemic.
For the workers, however, the “reform” negates their bargaining power. “What we’re saying is eventually you can go back to work, but in worse conditions than you were already in,” Anindita Adhikari says.
The dismantling of laws during a crisis removed any illusion that the government cares about the working class.
While the national economic output increased by 3 per cent between 2011 and 2016, inequity has grown in tandem. In January, the World Economic Forum found India’s social inequality to be staggering.
It is no wonder that Pintu Kumar chose to go back home. For him, the lockdown offered an impossible choice. COVID-19 didn’t scare him, he says; hunger did.
By June, India had recorded over 300,000 cases, overtaking Britain to be the fourth-worst hit country by the pandemic. A flattened curve lies nowhere in sight, but the social and economic impact of the lockdown has made its mark.
This crisis, Adhikari argues, was completely avoidable.