The Covid-19 crisis which erupted in the early part of the year 2020 and turned into a series of lockdowns starting towards the end of March 2020 tells us a lot about the Indian economy and political systems. The first shot came with the announcement of the lockdown coming with a 4 hour notice. Many people in cities were simply caught unawares and had no time to prepare or procure essential items. In many cities workers who come from other parts of the country were simply prevented from leaving. The closure of all modes of public transport has caused unspeakable suffering to the masses. There are stories of workers who lost their livelihood walking back hundreds or even in excess of thousands of kilometres to their homes. Typically, large numbers of these `migrants’ (a new term in the Indian socio-political vocabulary) were suddenly `discovered’. Elsewhere in the country in neighbourhoods such as Dharavi millions found themselves to be cloistered in sub-human conditions, without the choice of moving out. The political climate was vitiated with Muslims being accused of spreading the disease because of one unfortunate conference of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi in March, at which several delegates from countries that had some cases of Covid-19 being allowed to attend. What has happened since that time and now has shown the ugly face of the Indian economy and political system and the complete lack of availability of basic facilities for most people in the country.
Of special note is the plight of migrants, and a study of this tells a lot about the Indian political and economic system. A particularly poignant story is that of 16 migrants killed while sleeping on a train track in Aurangabad. It is believed that they were walking along, or fell asleep on the tracks believing that a train would come on which they could travel. What they had with them was a handful of rotis and some currency notes. This served as a signal of the utter and complete destitution of these migrants. The question then is who are these migrants and why are they present in such large numbers?
The renowned journalist and public figure Mr. P. Sainath speaking to The First Post in an interview that appeared online on May 13, 2020 points out that “Migrations have taken place for more than a century. But they have exploded in the past 28 years. The 2011 Census shows us that between 2001 and 2011, India saw its highest migrant flows — in our independent history.’’ This is the period that corresponds precisely to the onset of the liberalisation and privatisation programme launched by the Indian rulers first by the Congress and UPA Governments and followed and intensified by the BJP and NDA Governments. Thus the blame for the condition of migrants must be placed firmly at the door of the ruling establishment. Furthermore, Sainath says, “We smashed agriculture, and millions of livelihoods collapsed. Every other livelihood in the countryside has been savaged as well. Handlooms and handicrafts together are the biggest employers in the country after agriculture. Boatmen, fishermen, toddy tappers, toy makers, weavers, dyers; one after the other, they are going under like ninepins.’’ It must then be agreed that the rise of the Indian economy and it’s growth at 9 percent per annum, is firmly tied with these policies — that of destruction of the countryside and agriculture and moving the population by those policies into the cities for the growth of private profit service sector, construction and other activities. There is no regard for the lives of the millions who are thrown to these winds. In this context, Sainath notes, “…but the people we should be most concerned with are what some of us call footloose migrant workers. The footloose migrant has no clear idea of a final destination. They will come with a contractor and work at a construction site in Mumbai for 90 days. At the end of that period, they have nothing. The contractor will then put them in touch with someone in some other part of Maharashtra, and bus them there. And that goes on indefinitely. That is a wretched life with total, unending insecurity. They are in millions.’’
There are other categories of migrants that follow the seasons and participate in agriculture whose conditions are not as desperate as those of the migrants above. Rather than address these issues, the Governments, State as well as Central governments have turned the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity to please their masters, Indian and foreign multinationals, and train their guns on partially eliminating labour laws, which would make Indian labour essentially bonded or slave labour. All the conditions of the migrants and of the labour into severe violation of basic human rights. There has been an outcry but it is muted due to the conditions of the lockdown and the suppression of any kind of public opinion. There will be widespread opposition when the lockdown is lifted, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the Indian people have no role in any kind of decision making. The present economic and political system are nothing more than a dictatorship of the most monied classes that call all the shots in the country. The special role of the migrant crisis in this tragedy highlights the complete inhumanity of the economic and political system. There must be a wide ranging debate on the nature of these so that the country has a future, one that is just and fair and restores a semblance of humanity to the country. Let us all work towards such a goal.