Interview | 'At the Stroke of Midnight, Migrant Workers Became Aliens in a Double Sense'

Ranabir Samaddar, director of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, speaks about the factors behind the migrants’ desperation to reach home and the dynamics of the visibility and invisibility of migrant labour.

With the abrupt imposition of the lockdown aimed at arresting the spread of the novel coronavirus, and prospects of earning a livelihood in cities and urban areas drying up, India stood witness to a mass exodus of migrant workers at the end of March. In fact, the world over, lockdowns over the virus have brought normal life to a standstill and rendered millions unemployed.

Recently, the Calcutta Research Group (CRG) brought out a collection of essays around the lives and politics of migrant workers. In an interview, Ranabir Samaddar, the director of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, speaks to The Wire about the factors behind the migrants’ desperation to reach home, the dynamics of the visibility and invisibility of migrant labour and the boundary making exercises in economy and governance that produce migrants.

You have been tracking migrant workers, their economic and social journeys, for a long time. What are your reflections on the current situation?

The large number of unfortunate coronavirus deaths the world over – particularly of elders and medical personnel amid the ruins of the public health system in advanced capitalist countries, remind us of the calls for a closure of the liberal world.

Denial and dithering have combined with pseudo-Darwinian herd immunity theories to escape the closure; literally, the closure of families, neighbourhoods, schools, cities, provinces, states, modes of transportation, and closure of the system. Borders are closed.

These closing lines, drawing inwards like concentric circles, have rendered unwelcome the migrant labour returning home. A male or a female migrant worker is perceived as a potential carrier of the virus. Perhaps this is the ultimate vindication of the closure agenda championed for two long centuries by xenophobic politics and ideology. This is the agenda of liberal rule coming under the garb of trade protectionism, regional integration, WTO, barbed wires, construction of walls, closure of ports, and drawbridges to stop the migrants. Isolation camps and segregation centres for migrant workers resemble detention centres. This is true of our country also.

Also read: Will Migrant Workers and Their Grievances Always Be Invisible to the Public Eye?

Following the abrupt 21-day clampdown, we witnessed hundreds and thousands of migrant workers trying to reach home. No provisions were made to meet their needs of food, shelter, health, families and life itself. Evicted from temporary shelters, without money and food, tens of thousands of migrant workers – mothers with children, young boys and girls, single women, husband and wife, young single workers – trekked hundreds of kilometres to reach small towns and villages. Some among them perished on the roads. We do not know how many lost their way in the middle, how many finally reached their destination and in what condition. Or how many died.

Migrant workers walk to their native places amid the nationwide lockdown, on NH24 near the Delhi-UP border, March 27, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

But we do know of savage incidents that took place. For instance,  a group of workers was sprayed with disinfectants, like dead animals, to purify them of COVID-19. Migrant workers carrying their belongings and small children were beaten up, and frog-marched on interstate highways because they disturbed the lockdown.

The question uppermost on my mind is: what accounts then for the spectral presence of the migrant as a worker? There’s the question of borders operating as a principle of the economy of life. In this case, it is the border between visibility and invisibility – presence in economy, absence in the formal organisation of life, particularly in a time of war – this time the war against the epidemic.

The political class is anxious: will migrant workers as potential carriers of the virus not spread the disease?  However, as mysteriously as the migrants emerged on the scene, a few days on, they also vanished from the scene. The image of the migrant –  an anomalous figure in a well-planned containment strategy will soon fade from the public gaze. The fight against the virus has shifted already to other priorities.

Recently, the Calcutta Research Group has brought out a collection of essays in the form of an e-book, probing the reasons for what was witnessed in the streets. Can you please dwell on some of these reasons.

In the CRG book you are referring to, The Borders of an Epidemic: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers, we attempt to throw light on the factors behind the migrants’ desperation to reach home. This forces us to redirect our attention to what you may call the “other scene” – the scene that produces the unsettling figure of the migrant and the accompanying process of redrawing of borders and boundaries of politics, economics, urban territory, occupations, clan and kinship networks. This also involves factors of caste, gender, division of labour, making up the fault lines on the map of protection. But this is a big question, requiring time. We planned and published this book in two weeks!

So, here I shall limit myself to three observations:

First, we have to understand the dynamics of the visibility and invisibility of migrant labour. We know the role of construction industry, estate business, reprocessing industry and waste renewal, urban rent as the basis of urban prosperity. And also the role of logistical economy – the bridges, ports, highways, speedways, virtual finance, the logistics of data economy. Yet we rarely recognise the role of migrant labour in this logistical process. The migrant workers are visible in the economy; they are invisible in politics. In many cases they have no right to vote in municipal polls, no social entitlements. They are not allowed to disturb the civil society-centred politics. But they must be available as a ready labour force, what Marx called a reserve army of labour. Appear only when summoned.

Second, the boundary making exercises in economy and governance produce the migrant. Till the lockdown was suddenly clamped, we were oblivious of the presence of the migrants. Once they took to streets, we became aware of the anomalous figure. The boundaries of what we call the “mainstream” make the State forget or ignore the migrant worker. You may have noticed that there are no special Reserve Bank of India provisions to look after migrant workers;  no special Finance Ministry measures.The idea is saving the economy. And the migrants in the streets disturb this neo-Malthusian order of “saving the economy-saving the society” order.

Also read: In Sketches, Migrant Labourers’ Long, Long Journey Home

Finally, there is also the case of inadequate government knowledge and of those managing the economy of migrant workers. They are aware of the remittance economy, because hard currency is involved in remittance. But inside the country, the governmental calculation is different. The epilogue in our book discusses this enigma.

Thirteen years ago, a government report on unorganised sector workers informed about the extent to which migrant workers were crucial in managing the so-called growth sectors. Yet, migrant workers are ignored  in GDP calculations. Even progressive economists and trade union organisations are guilty of this neglect. How many of us remember this is a centenary year of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)?

Where is a labour movement in solidarity with migrant workers – even to extend logistical support or mutual aid?

Migrant workers rest on a railway track during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in in Mumbai, India, April 2, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Prashant Waydande

In his essay ‘The Body in Surveillance’, Badri Narayan Tiwari talks about the political and economic dichotomy in how we treat the body of a migrant worker. 

Badri’s poser, suggesting there’s more than what meets the eye, is significant. At one level, we can argue that the poser relates to the individual body of the migrant, a source of money, income. At the same time, that body is also a source of concern. As Engels noted nearly 180 years ago, the worker’s body is a concern for the wealthy classes for its potential to be the carrier of diseases.

Later, he again noted that the city needed the worker, but it must keep the worker at bay – quartered in designated districts, etc., and this led to some of the major early urban reforms. With the migrant body, the dilemma increases.

Yet as you read Badri’s piece in the context of other reports in the book, you will think the government does not know what to do with the migrant worker’s body. Managing the body leads to managing the population – essentially a bio-political task of the State. Hence, you can see elaborate methods of public health, hygiene, food security, slum sanitisation, etc. But the first public health crisis exposes the major fault lines in this composite social body. Race, caste, gender, age and wealth – show their ineradicable presence.

Also read: Coronavirus Lockdown: As Hunger Grows, the Fear of Starvation Is Real

Social policies are meant to manage these fault lines and protect the composite nature of the social body, which means maintaining the society as a body. But what do you do with the migrant’s body, which unsettles every governmental norm of settling and managing the poor? Social governance fails at the final frontier of public health management. Even modes of surveillance fail because the migrants mostly want to stay away from the radar.

Another essay, ‘The Return of Bihari Migrants after the COVID-19 Lockdown’, reveals the fear and anxiety around migrants returning home.

In this insightful essay, the authors highlight migrant lives in the time of an epidemic. How they symbolise fear and anxiety of the society. The migrant becomes an alien even in his/her own village, locality, and state. They are the virus carriers.

But let’s consider who is a potential carrier? Everyone except you and few others you have spent time with till last night, under the same roof. Racism begins from this biologism. It continuously draws the boundary of safety and purity inward.

The community is redefined on a continuous basis. The migrant worker, whose remittance saved the nation, the state, etc, becomes an alien. What is merciless in redrawing of such boundaries of safety is that the place where the migrant worker had worked till the other day, disowns her. At the “stroke of midnight” (the lockdown began close to midnight) the migrant worker became alien in a double sense – at home and in the land where she worked. Tell me what does citizenship mean in this context of total dispossession?

Also read: Outsourcing Governance to the Citizen

The essay ‘Glimpses into the Life in the Time of Corona’, introduces the theme of care economy, linking care with the general theme of labour in the time of coronavirus. How can this be worked out in everyday life?

This is one of the most significant issues we wanted to address. It relates to care workers, a large section of them migrant workers – both in the institutionalised care system and the vast non-institutional field involving the elderly, the sick, and other vulnerable persons in families, as well as in neglected care homes. Fundamentally, it raises the questions around the ethics and politics of care.

An entire history predates the modern ethics of care. Care involves the responsibility of a range of institutions – the state, the nation, various collectives, families, and individuals. And of course, the sick and the vulnerable who need care. Power is always linked to responsibility. Refugee care is linked to the power of the state or of the global order. But neo-liberalism has put paid to this order of linking power, responsibility, protection, and care.

While care has become a vast industry – deploying hundreds and thousands of workers, the profession of care at the same time has transformed to being just another branch of economy, complicating in the process its organic links to protection and responsibility. Re-ordained by the market, care, essentially a humanitarian notion, has become an economic category.

For instance, In the UK, the only deaths counted as COVID-19 deaths are the deaths in the hospital system (NHS). What happened to the unfortunate deaths in small nursing homes, at home, or in old age homes? We know that in Spain there were innumerable cases of elderly people in the old age homes who remained uncared for and were left to die unnoticed. Think of the vaunted National Health Service (NHS) in the UK now caught unprepared for the war against the new virus. A report of 2014, warning that NHS reforms along the line of reducing staff and defining spare capacity as waste, would make it vulnerable to pandemic, was ignored.

Also read: Is India Neglecting Its Migrant Workers Abroad?

Without beating the bush then, we confront the question: how will the entire society be cared for? This of course calls for a new kind of public power, a new republican authority built on the sans culottes of the society – slum dwellers, neighbourhood committees, local clubs and associations, associations of health care workers, workers in waste processing and reprocessing – sections in greatest danger, who will be also engaged in defending the vulnerable.

It is legitimate then to envisage a caring society centred around the urban and semi-urban poor. They will trust the government because the latter will be able to provide the necessary number of say ventilators, protective gear, arrangement of work and food during lock down. Trust is crucial. Without trust, society cannot rely on its rulers to save people’s lives.

“Care of the self” will mean an alternative politics of life, caring for each other – a principle of solidarity. Mitigating risk will mean the first principle of care for care workers in times of an epidemic. Such care workers include all logistical workers who maintain collective life by supplying food, milk, medicines, sanitation, warehouses, electricity, connectivity, etc. They are the front soldiers in this war.

Migrant workers who have returned from Maharashtra and Gujarat being screened for COVID-19 at the Ratanpur border in Dungarpur, Rajasthan. Photo: The Wire

As we know, long-term residential care in public healthcare organisations has been reeling under reduction of public funds, and an all-round failure to keep up with demand for public services. Everywhere new managerial policies are promoting part-time jobs, contract work, privatisation of health care facilities, shrinking of municipal services.

What happens then to 24-hour nursing services, which should be accessible, based on need and not ability to pay? How is the state going to protect homes for the lower middle classes and the poor?  In the case of long-term care, relatives and volunteers, most of whom are women, are under pressure. The contractualised women perform the precarious work of caring and nursing. They are often the racialised migrants. Whether in hospitals or in nursing homes or in individual families the bulk of the work is carried out by personal care providers. There is no dedicated work-force for an ageing population. The political economy of health has been never as paramount as in the battle against the virus.

What this crisis has brought to the fore is an acute lack of knowledge about the life of migrant workers and the economies built around them. The pandemic has created new boundaries. What will be the contours of a post-coronavirus society?

In a post-coronavirus order, there may be a big question mark over the infrastructural design our country was following with a hub and spoke network. Migrant workers, crucial in the logistical redesigning of the country, will have to be retrieved by  bosses of industry and commerce. But that will require re-financing the logistical economy all over again. Given the new great depression, migrant workers face an extremely difficult future. But if their future is bleak, so is the future of the logistical economy of capitalism. Perhaps we shall witness greater anarchy, with thousands joining what is called the gig economy – well, another form of logistical economy.

Till now migrant labour was crucial, but they could be made even more invisible than before. The nature of the exclusion of migrant labour is becoming more social. In this epidemic, the exclusion is characterised by the way the affected communities and population groups participate in identifying and excluding the potential victims of the disease.

Also read: An Invisible Virus Highlights the Virulence of an Age-Old Visible Virus

To defend the community, vigilantes are coming out, erecting gates, preventing outsiders from entering, and thereby working as the inner perimeter of a community, including a slum settlement, a city ward, a village, a clan, a kin network, or the nation. Disease brings out this stark reality.

From communal strife to ethnic conflict, from national wars to civil wars, and from resource strife to a communicable disease leading to pestilence – the operation of power is not simply vertical but horizontal also. In this play of power the migrant stands on the borders of an entity. She belongs to the world of labour, but if she cannot sink her identity as labour in the boundary-making exercise, she will be compelled to remain forever a migrant who will be subjected to the vigilantism of the community.

Race produces an irrevocable reality of physical segregation of a group. Diseases like conquest and war unleashed the process of segmentation, exclusion, and exacerbation of social fault lines, operating with greater ferocity in the public health care system. With no provision for screening, detecting, treating, and little provision of food and other means of sustenance for daily wage earners and migrant labour, and only the enforcement of quarantine, the migrant worker is the ultimate figure of the abnormal.

For the State, the migrant worker is a nightmare for logistically managing the society. For the migrant worker, the logistical reorganisation of society in order to fight an epidemic is a nightmare.

Perhaps the biggest post-coronavirus political struggle will play out between those powers functioning along a neo-Malthusian line of “necessary loss” of a section of population in a time of epidemic (or a war), and those powers who will uphold the cause of life. The former will have the power to arbitrate the number of deaths, the latter will draw legitimacy from the fact that it will fight till the end to guarantee life.