Silent Footfall: India’s Migrant Worker Crisis

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The pandemic revealed the precarious political and economic conditions of migrant workers in India. Their distress and their long, torturous flight from the city show how they have been rendered politically redundant and are not visible to the capital and the state as rights-bearing subjects.

 

India’s Lockdown

An apocalypse, the novelist Junot Díaz (2011) reminds us, as he drills down into the etymology of the word, is as devastating as it is revelatory, revealing in its ruinous wake the frictions and fractures that are otherwise cloaked by ‘normality.’ The revelations of the apocalyptic pandemic of 2020 were many, but for India there is perhaps no more enduring image than that of the caravans of desperate workers that made their way from urban India to distant villages in search of sustenance. When India’s first lockdown was announced, citizens were given four hours notice, and no arrangements were made to ensure that populations directed to stay in place had the wherewithal to do so.  The open secret of urban India – of cities built and animated by the labour of barely tethered migrant populations – presented itself in ways that could no longer be ignored. As the economic weight of the lockdowns bore down on the already tenuous finances of the urban poor, the frayed tethering ropes snapped, triggering an exodus of millions. This apocalyptic ‘migrant crisis’ revealed the impoverished foundations on which the Indian growth story rests.

Tellingly, despite the disturbing reports and visual images of stricken workers battling starvation and police violence enroute an uncertain reception in the villages from which they had migrated, this event has left little political trace. More than ten million workers, by the government’s own estimate, had left the cities of India to return home during the lockdown but the Indian state did not have any records of these workers’ deaths and injuries as they wound their weary way home. Nor have they sought to build a database of this thus far invisibilised population that would enable migrant workers to become politically visible. Such a database would create the foundations for the portability of social protection programs and entitlements. What the migrant crisis had made patently evident was that the extant systems of governance and welfare, anchored as they are in the modernist assumption of sedentarism, are inaccessible to working populations compelled to live and earn livelihoods by being on the move. The design of these systems clearly indicate that such populations are not the normative subject of the body politic, making it challenging therefore for migrant workers to be seen as rights-bearing subjects to whom the state is accountable.

When the lockdown was lifted, it was business-owners who were provided relief by the state and not labour. During the lockdown, many workers had been summarily fired with no dues paid, many more were subjected to wage theft as employers used the pandemic to refuse to pay back wages, and daily wage workers lost out altogether. Yet for them there was no relief on the horizon. Instead, the virtues of atmanirbharata (self-reliance) were extolled by none other than Prime Minister Modi as he challenged the collective right to welfare. When the lockdown orders were lifted, business owners’ associations appealed to the state to suspend labour laws -to make up for the losses incurred during the lockdown. Twelve-hour workdays were among the changes that these associations proposed to the Labour Ministry.  The ministry promised relief, and different State governments quickly took steps to suspend various provisions of labour law, in particular those that limited the length of the working day and required the payment of overtime wages.

More than ten million workers, by the government’s own  estimate, had left the cities of India to return home during the lockdown but the Indian state did not have any records of these workers’ deaths and injuries as they wound their weary way home.

In the state of Gujarat, the state government made the amendments invoking Section 5 of the 1948 Factories Act, which allowed for industry to circumvent the act on the grounds of a ‘public emergency,’ a provision that allowed for the Act to be overridden on account of a threat to national security.  In doing so, the state of Gujarat conflated the interests of capital with that of national security and positioned the corporeal security of the labourer, held together by labour legislation, as dispensable. Challenged by trade unions (Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha and Centre for Indian Trade Unions), the Supreme Court of India admonished the state’s abdication of its responsibility to labour, arguing that they were in effect “force[ing] an already worn-down class of society, into the chains of servitude” when they should actually be attending to the welfare of labour whose “feeble bargaining power stands whittled by the pandemic” (Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha & Anr. Vs. The State of Gujarat 2020).  The court held that “The notifications, in denying humane working conditions and overtime wages provided by law, are an affront to the workers’ right to life and right against forced labour.”

Despite the intervention of the Supreme Court of India in this particular case, in the months following the lifting of the lockdown, state governments across India variously amended the Factories Act, knowing full well that despite the objections raised by unions, workers were desperate for work, having been duly disciplined through their abandonment by the state and capital for the full duration of the lockdown. The calculation proved to be correct as workers returned to the cities that had betrayed them in search of wages, driven in no small part by cuts to social welfare programs, and escalating household debt.  And the calculation revealed that questions of labour – their working conditions and their conditions of social reproduction – had indeed been rendered politically redundant.

 

Political Marginalization of Migrant Workers

The political redundancy of labour is apparent from their abject conditions of living in the city, their wages, and the precarious working conditions, all of which attest to the challenges they face of being recognized as rights-bearing citizens (Menon 2018). Living in burgeoning informal settlements where they are deemed to be ‘squatters,’ their claim to a right to the city is always under challenge. They typically face brutal eviction drives as well as attempts to remove their names from the electoral rolls and deny them the right to exercise their franchise on grounds that as ‘squatters’ they forfeit the right to do so (cf. Writ Petition of Madhav Gadkari & Ors versus Union of India & Ors 2004).  While more permanent labour migrants to Indian cities, despite numerous eviction drives, find a way to get on the electoral rolls, temporary or circular migrants, a population the sociologist Jan Breman (1994) memorably described as “wage hunters and gatherers,” usually try to tether themselves to the electoral rolls of the villages they hail from, especially if part of their household continues to live there or they own some land in the village. They do so for multiple reasons, primary among them is to confirm their household’s status as legitimate beneficiaries for rural development and welfare programs, as well as because of the challenges they face, as an itinerant population, in proving their residency in urban India where the middle-class citizen and the state variously work to render them politically invisible. For these temporary migrants, then, the ability to exercise their franchise hinges on the affordability of their passage home and on their ability to forgo work in order to travel home to vote.

The Election Commission of India (2022), in its analysis of low voter turnout, identified the challenges faced by internal migrants to cast their vote as a significant factor. Their proposal to enable remote voting for this sizeable population was turned down by the government on the grounds that an accurate identification of temporary migrants was not possible (Paliath 2024). For the itinerant populations, who are neither on the electoral rolls in the city nor in their villages, they belong to no political constituency, consequently even the momentary political visibility afforded through elections and the affirmation of being recognized as a part of the body politic is denied. As Banerjee (2007, p.1560) points out in her work on the meaning of voting in rural Bengal, “Exercising one’s right to vote… provided one of the very few ways to express one’s citizenship and in a more appealing and dignified mode than merely claiming one’s rice ration.”  Cumulatively, these conditions of living and working contribute to what Shah and Lerche (2018, p.19) refer to as the experience of ‘internal alien-ness’ of migrant workers, wherein there is little possibility for them to be seen or heard as rights-bearing citizens as they make their way to and across cities, individually or in the large caravans witnessed during the lockdown.

Most recently, labour’s political redundancy was underscored by the willingness of the Indian government to recruit and supply construction workers to Israel to take the place of Palestinian workers whose work permits had been revoked in the wake of the October 7 attack by Hamas in Israel. 64 workers left for Israel on April 2nd before the Indian government belatedly issued travel advisories that cautioned travellers that they were heading into an active war zone. Workers headed to Israel are not required to register in the Ministry of External Affairs’ portal for international labour migrants, and the government remains tight-lipped on how the safety of these workers will be ensured.  For the various state governments who enthusiastically embarked on recruitment drives, the May 2023 bilateral labour agreement with Israel represented a handy solution to cratering unemployment figures in the run up to the national elections.  Once dispatched, it is unclear what lines of accountability and redress are available to these workers and the families that they leave behind.

The reluctance of the state to build databases, either on migrant workers in India, or those being ‘exported’ to Israel, on the grounds that it is unfeasible or unnecessary, is curious when everywhere else on the political landscape the Indian state appears to be heavily invested in building registries, harnessing AI, and using biometrics to build the foundations of a surveillance society. This investment in surveillance purportedly would shore up national security by making it possible to track movements of people, funds and information.  There is therefore a deliberateness to the near absence of information about populations compelled to be on the move.   Rendered unknown and unknowable, the footfall of caravans of migrant workers walking across the country cannot be heard, and their rights become barely perceptible.  Today, as increasing numbers of people have to migrate for home and livelihood, the emergence of governance structures that derive and demonstrate power from being able to track movements of people, money and information but show little inclination to produce security and protect the rights of people on the move, is perhaps one of the more disturbing portents issuing from India’s apocalyptic migrant crisis.

 

 

References

Breman, Jan (1994). Wage hunters and gatherers: search for work in the urban and rural economy of South Gujarat. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Election Commission of India (2022).  Discussion on improving voter participation of domestic migrants using remote voting. Circular No. 51/8/16/RVM/2021-EDPS.

Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha & Anr. Vs. The State of Gujarat (2020). Writ Petition (Civil) No. 708 of 2020. Supreme Court of India.

Madhav Gadkari & Ors. Vs. Union of India & Ors. (2004). Writ Petition, Bombay High Court.

Shah, Alpa and Jens Lerche (2018). Tribe, caste and class: New mechanisms of exploitation and oppression. In Shah A., Lerche J., Axelby R., Benbabaali D., Donegan B., Thakur V., & Raj J. (Eds.), Ground down by growth: Tribe, caste, class and inequality in twenty-first century India (pp. 1–31). New Delhi: OUP.

 

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