COVID-19 Around the World

Ekalavya in India

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Lockdown and the Invisible Migrant Labourer

Amidst the nation-wide lockdown in India, every day, there have been long lines of migrant labourers walking barefoot towards their homes, often with their families. They are attempting to traverse distances of hundreds of kilometres. Some have managed to reach their destination. Some have died. Some have been faced by cordons and either turned away, or stopped and cooped up for undetermined, non-specified time.

Migrant workers travel miles from their villages for work, often living in makeshift slums along the way and on-site. They eat at local stalls. They do not usually have stable structures as residence. Their homes are in hamlets very far from the cities where they go for work.

It means the hygiene conditions of labourers may be considered negligible. It means clean or even functional canteens or places to have food, or restrooms, need not be thought necessities that need supplying. Or, for the matter of that, creches where there are female labourers.

When something like the COVID-19 pandemic happens, they have nowhere to go but back. And when the pandemic causes public transport to shut down indefinitely, they have to perform that long trudge, on barefoot if they must.

In India, the lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus has suddenly made a figure visible– this figure of the migrant labourer. Even if one does not see them as the most vulnerable but anxiously imagines their bodies as the most infectious, there is no getting around it: they are suddenly visible now. Everyone can see them, does see them. Even the eye of those sections of the media whose particular proclivities lie more towards covering the morale-boosting exercises citizens are sporadically engaging in, occasionally swivels around to fix on them.

This visibility, which could have been expected to have beneficial consequences, has not had them, however. In fact, at the same time as this suddenly explosive visibility of the people themselves, there seems to exist a curiously paradoxical invisibility of concern about their futures that skirts close to apathy. The trend of certain local measures (most in reaction to the economic recession the pandemic has caused) that will closely affect their future lives seem to give cause for alarm.

The Madhya Pradesh government has decided to pass a measure allowing factories to resume operations without many of the necessary requirements listed in India’s Factories Act. Daily working hours go up to twelve per day, from eight. And weekly duty goes up to seventy-two hours.

Uttar Pradesh has issued an ordinance scrapping almost all labour laws with the exception of a very few, for three years. Murmurs all over the country suggest many other state governments may follow these beginnings in terms of local measures.

This means factories can operate without obeying the requirement of providing first aid boxes, drinking water, or decent protective equipment. It means qualities such as adequate lighting and ventilation can be considered immaterial for some time now until such time as economic activity can be got back on track.

There are signs that local measures are being taken to address the problem of the barefoot journeys of the migrant labourers. Uttar Pradesh itself has taken steps. On the evening of May 7th 2020, a group of one hundred and seventy-two workers trying to perform the walk home to Uttar Pradesh from Delhi and Noida–many of them on bare feet–were stopped by the Uttar Pradesh police on a highway in western UP’s Bulandshahr.

These people were given food, and moved to a college in the area. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yoga Adityanath’s state government then said it would arrange buses to take them home. Yogi Adityanath himself then went on record to say that not one single migrant should be walking back home on foot from big cities like Delhi.

These are welcome steps. But it is not possible to say the same of what, at this point, it seems these labourers will be travelling back home to.

Ekalavya Chaudhuri, India

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