Report on ‘CoVid-19 : Public Health and the Sudden Visibility of Migrant Workers’

Migrant laborers are not an anomaly in Indian society and almost everybody is aware of their existence and the work they do. However, it is the current socioeconomic and health crisis brought on by the pandemic Covid-19 which has amplified our focus on these otherwise ignored migrant laborers and the difficulties they have to face. Social media, news as well as public opinion has varied greatly on the issue but there seems to be a consensus on the fact that India probably saw a great many deaths of these laborers before an equal number of people died due to Covid-19. Due to the sudden lockdown of all transport systems, lack of information and a great amount of mismanagement on the part of the states as well as central authority – many of these laborers have had to undertake inter-state journeys on foot with all their belongings on their shoulders. This has been extensively captured and documented by the media which has then shaped public opinion. In such a context where these migrant laborers are suddenly under the spotlight, Ranabir Samaddar and Samita Sen spoke in a webinar titled ‘CoVid-19 : Public Health and the Sudden Visibility of Migrant Workers’, organized by CRG (as part of its webinar series #bordersofanepidemic). Sukanya Bhattacharya reports on the webinar organized on 12th June, 2020.

The discussion started with the moderator, Professor Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury giving a brief introduction on forced migration as well as the displacement of population during the global pandemic as well as quoting the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants undertaken by the United Nations in 2016 which recognized the need to strengthen the existing laws and measures that protected the refugees and migrants. He also introduced CRG’s recent volumes Borders of an epidemic: Covid 19 and the Migrant Workers and Burdens of an epidemic: A Policy Perspective on Migrant Labour.

Professor Ranabir Samaddar started his talk with an analytical view of how the crisis responses seen till date could not respond to the overwhelming situation at hand. To him, writing policy briefs became meaningless and a critique in itself, as projecting the large number of policy implications meant starting from the beginning. He took the help of Foucault’s exercise of Future Anterior – a genealogical exercise, of looking at the past to find out about the future. In historical writing, there have not been many records of epidemiological moments in labor history. The diseases rampant among refugees have been recorded only in the context of camps but diseases within the laborers remained a relatively unexplored domain.

To investigate why laborers and their health remains unexplored, Samaddar then looked at the contested concept of public health in society. What started out as a fundamental pillar for the government in a bourgeois society, took a primary position in society once the Plague Act of 1896 was passed. The concern was to cleanse the city to make it suitable for trade and commerce once again. The definitions of public and health in the concept of public health also become necessary to study if migrant laborers feature in them or not.

Then, it becomes important to take public health out of its bourgeoisie structure and make healthcare universal and accessible for all. Samaddar then tried to investigate why Covid-19, which was initially an epidemiological crisis, exploded as a veritable crisis for the migrants and laborers in India. Privatization of the health sector and financial crisis which began before the lockdown contributed to the crisis as it also overlapped with a crisis of food shortage. Continuous constriction and narrowing down of public finance, lending of loan and credits and loss of employment in the construction sector along with over-centralization were other contributing factors. He pointed out an interesting dichotomy in the central government’s efforts to implement the National Disaster Management Act and Plague Act as they mostly deal with law and order and not necessarily with health. He also noted that a detailed analysis about how ‘disaster’ has been conceptualized regarding Covid-19 in India has not happened yet.  This would help people categorize Covid-19 as an epidemic, as a menace, a natural disaster from which people cannot guard themselves.

Samaddar concluded with some few important observations regarding public health in contemporary context. The intervention of Supreme Court was a significant and unprecedented act as it allowed the government some freedom in its actions while battling a crisis. The current epidemic has also brought forward the question of life itself. He questions how society can go back to a pre-Covid world and also raises questions about the new policy prescriptions within a Neo-Malthussian order where there is a distinct trade-off between some human lives to save others. He questions the idea of herd immunity that follows a certain variety of social Darwinism. The migrant question had never been taken importantly in the larger framework of social health making it a primary reason why it has been hard to come up with a solution for their crisis. To handle this efficiently, a need for a regulatory power arises which guides the public and cares for all kinds of lives in society. Following Marx where the question of labor is in itself a question of life, the crisis regarding the migrant laborers’ lives then also becomes one which needs urgent redressal.

Professor Samita Sen started her talk right where Samaddar had ended his, with a focus on the question of life and death. While Samaddar had looked at the modalities and conceptual boundaries of abstract as well as practical notions such as public health or disasters, Professor Sen turns our focus towards the real humans behind the statistics and numbers of migrant laborers we see daily.  She started off with how the reason behind the death of most of the migrant laborers has not been Covid-19, and how on 8th May, the country watched helplessly as 16 workers were run over by a train as they had fallen asleep from exhaustion on the railway tracks itself. Here, mobility became the cause of death during the reverse migration that the laborers undertook. The sheer number of laborers undertaking such a huge journey reeked of desperation – whose images gripped the nation. A major reason behind the reverse migration has been attributed to the emotional response of these migrants during such a crisis – the need to be closer to their family and kin has increased more than ever before. The need also got exacerbated as they were gradually pushed out of their housing, their employment and consequently – their wages.


[‘The paradox of trains: The migrants who died on the railway tracks thought trains were not running at all.’ Source: The Hindu, 9th May, 2020 ]

This reverse migration might just be an irreversible one as Sen points out, as the laborers might never return due to their loss of trust with their employers. Academicians specializing in labor from Mumbai approach the problem quite interestingly – as they term this not as migration but as a long established circularity. The rural to urban migration is actually a cyclical, circular movement. This circularity happens all the time to different groups of people but has never happened at one singular time. However, the Covid-19 crisis caused the concentration of these dispersed movements in a unilinear direction in a short and singular period of time.

According to Professor Sen, the right direction from here would be to ask questions about the nature of circularity and the informality that surrounds it. The sheer informal way in which migration has been managed is truly surprising as different sources quote different numbers of migrants even after the 1979 Act was implemented where each state was supposed to register their migrant laborers. This registration would have provided with a basic regulatory structure – in the absence of which, informality and non-regulation has thrived even more.

Another significant question that Professor Sen brought up was regarding the rampant relaxation of labor laws in different states of India. She called the current financial situation of India – where 67% of informal workers have lost employment and 80% of them are from urban areas – as not a crisis but a “secession of work”. The justification behind relaxing such laws can be only to blur boundaries and expand informality even more.

Consequently, it becomes necessary to characterize reverse migration by thinking of it as resistance due to loss of trust from the laborers’ side. Especially in a situation where politics in many cities has been actively defined against migrants, enfranchisement is required to give these laborers political powers.

For the past few months, life, health and labor – instead of converging, have started to diverge. Labor and the wage earned from it normally sustains life and health but now they do not converge to the same goal but are rather polarized – as we see through the figure of the reverse migrant. Only when all of these new thoughts will be inserted into the existing theoretical framework – can there be any solution at all.

With Sen’s conclusion – a vibrant discussion session ensued where the moderator selected from questions sent by the participants and presented them to the speakers. The first question that stood out was whether the problem of the migrant laborers a problem of the cities and who held the power to decide which lives were indispensable and which were not. The answer to this dealt with modern governmentality along with the history of urban public health. In such a situation, Professor Samaddar noted that logistical operations assume significance in migration and major assembly points modulate the way migrants organize. Migration thus becomes an autonomous act. Migrant laborers are typically quite invisible, only to be requisitioned when necessary. never counted as political entities. However, they only converge in urban areas where they are concentrated together to take the successive step to become political. He also invokes the neoliberal mode of governance to answer the question on who decides about the lives.


[Thousands of laborers came running to Mumbai train station thinking it was their last resort.’  Source: 16th June, 2020]

The second question that came up was about how migrants are often left out in politics of numbers where survival becomes the main concern. Professor Samaddar agreed with it and spoke of how the health of migrant and refugees was never a primary concern except when their health has to be looked after because of their economic benefits. The Marxist concept of reserve army of labor was also discussed whereby the return question is of paramount importance. How, after the crisis is averted, can the migrants be enticed to come back and join their work? In such a context, this return becomes a political act.

The third question that was raised spoke of the rural societies to which the migrant laborers would return. Professor Sen answered by looking at the inhospitable nature of the rural sphere and how these rural economies cannot sustain with the returning migrants.

In the end, it was unanimously agreed by all that the society had to be protected along with the migrants who are crossing borders and boundaries. Since, government holds the power of life by adjudication – life has to be guaranteed by guaranteeing labor and vice versa.

The moderator, Prof. Basu Ray Chaudhury ended the session by quoting from Gulzar’s poem on the migrant workers:

The pandemic raged
The workers and labourers fled to their homes
All the machines ground to a halt in the cities
Only their hands and feet moved
Their lives they had planted back in the villages…

They will go to die there – where there is life
Here, they have only brought their bodies and plugged them in!

They pulled out the plugs
‘Come, let’s go home’ – and they set off
They will go to die there – where there is life.

Sukanya Bhattacharya is an undergraduate student of Political Science from Presidency University and an intern with Refugee Watch Online. She can be reached at sukanya.mimi28@gmail.com.

Note: A part of CRG’s ongoing research in migration, this webinar was made possible with the collaboration of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, IWM, Vienna, and several institutions and universities in India.

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