Swapnil Dhruv Bose reports on a webinar with Behanbox and Migrant Workers Solidarity Network on migrant resistance across India, on 12th June 2020.
Suchitra Vijayan, founder of The Project Polis, conducted a webinar on the migrant crisis in India on her platform on the 12th of June. She was in conversation with Sunil Tamminaina, a research scholar in JNU Delhi who is also an activist associated with the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network in India along with Bhanupriya Rao, a researcher and writer and founder of Behan Box, a digital data-driven multimedia platform, where they tell stories of everyday realities through voices from marginalized groups with data on gender issues.
Speaking about his organization, Mr. Tamminaina reflected on The Migrant Workers Solidarity Network’s effort to unionize and collectivize the migrant workers in India, something that has not been successfully attempted before in the history of India. The Migrant Workers Solidarity Network tracks migrant workers’ resistance across India in an interactive map. He said the map “documents all the migrant workers’ protests that have happened during the lockdown.” While talking about the role of mainstream media outlets in covering this crisis, Sunil noted that “most of the discourse surrounding the migrant workers’ crisis was along the lines of charity, relief for those who needed the help. It portrayed workers as perpetual victims who needed to be helped out.” The map was created to subvert the narrative propagated by mainstream media that most of the protests were communal in nature. They have documented 158 protests involving more than 1 lakh migrant workers.
Ms. Rao’s organization conducted a survey across16 states. The survey looks at the condition of ASHA workers (Accredited Social Health Activists, India’s frontline social health workers who were always on the margins of the Indian healthcare system) during this pandemic. They often work without fixed pay (except in some states like Andhra Pradesh and Haryana) and have been working for 12-16 hours a day to keep up with the workload of the COVID-19 crisis. The government had promised them an incentive of ₹1000 to deal with the pressures of the pandemic. However, Ms. Rao’s survey found that 12 of the 16 states had not paid the ₹1000 COVID incentive to the ASHA workers. The incentive is not nearly enough payment for the kind of work that is expected of them. On top of that, the government gives each worker only one sanitizer a month and does not provide them with masks or PPE kits. They end up having to spend their own money on these essential products and they are left with no choice because these products could mean the difference between life and death for them.
Mr. Tamminaina also commented on the deteriorating situation in the state of Gujarat as most of the protests have happened there. There is a lack of oversight and little to no regulations by the government. Protests have been staged in Gujarat since the beginning of the lockdown, sometimes militant in nature, in places like Surat. The reason for these uprisings were primarily immediate causes like lack of food and shelter but also the sufferings and injustices that the working class have suffered for decades now. Sunil’s organization have tracked 21 protests in Gujarat.
The media has portrayed immigrant workers as vulnerable bodies rather than communities capable of resistance. According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the state creates “docile bodies” to maintain a system of control. The docile body is “something that can be made; out of a formless clay, an inapt body [from which] the machine required can be constructed” (Foucault 135). Migrant workers in India have also been reduced to the status of these docile bodies that are being manipulated by the government and the poorly implemented legislations that dictate their lives. Mr. Tamminaina believes that the significance of migrant workers’ protests is not only the resistance against the government’s neglect during the pandemic but a vociferous opposition against decades of oppression perpetrated by neoliberal capitalism. It is the migrant worker’s insistence that he or she is not docile and that such blatant disregard for their existence will not be tolerated.
Ms. Rao emphasized on the lack of gendered documentation of the crisis. She raised pertinent questions like, “Most of the images of migrant workers walking back home were of men, what about the women walking back home?” The apparent lack of attention dedicated to the anxieties of women during this crisis, women who were stuck without adequate resources to look after their families is a major concern for everyone who is worried and affected by the pandemic’s effect on the most vulnerable sections of society. During the mass exodus of migrant workers from various parts of the country, no arrangements were made for the pregnant women walking back home, for women and their menstrual health. These lack of preparations have already resulted in multiple fatalities while the country was under lockdown. Ms. Rao spoke more about the plight of sex workers who were not provided with rations. They slipped through the cracks of welfare programs that the government implemented. Right now, sex workers and other marginalized communities are completely dependent on the efforts of NGOs around the country like Apne Aap for their survival. Among the issues that were raised, the lack of documentation of the mental health crisis triggered by this unprecedented global disruption was also mentioned by Ms. Rao. It is important to include mental health in the discourse since we have witnessed the terrifying impact of the present crisis on mental health and wellbeing in general among all sections of the population.
Mr. Tamminaina criticized the government’s response to the pandemic stating that “the lockdown is said to be a measure against the pandemic but it is actually a toil on the working people of this country in the name of fighting a disease.” Health infrastructure was lagging behind because resources were not mobilized. There was a lack of PPE kits and other essentials and a significant shift from the neoliberal paradigm was required to handle this pandemic effectively and redistribute resources quickly on a large scale. Most of the responsibility was put on individuals instead of the ones in charge. This shifting of blame has resulted in the unmitigated disaster that our country is heading towards.
“We need to stay alert and monitor the government’s activities, a government which has an affinity for exclusionary policies like CAA and NRC”, said Ms. Rao while reminding us of the other socio-political forces at play during this disaster management period. She reiterated that the documentation of undocumented sectors of marginalized communities is dependent on a collaborative effort by multiple organizations working towards the same goals. Earlier, it was the fear of being disenfranchised from the country and losing their citizenships due to the recent legislation. The present crisis has made them even more vulnerable, they are now exposed to new anxieties, like the ones mentioned above. Ms. Rao insisted that it is extremely important to provide a platform to the voiceless. People should be made aware of the kind of conditions they are having to endure because of governmental neglect.
Sunil put his point across by stating the example of protests in IIT Hyderabad campus where workers who were working for multinational corporations’ construction sites demanded their wages and that they be sent home. One of the first train services after the commencement of the lockdown was used to send them back to their home towns and villages. According to Sunil, this is an example of successful resistance on the part of the migrant workers within the limited rights and liberties that the government granted them. “Advocacy is an essential part of activism, we have been pushing for a comprehensive legal framework which covers citizenship and workplace rights of migrant workers”, he said.
In the Q&A Session with the audience, parallels between the Black Lives Matter movement and the situation in India were drawn by some members of the audience. We need to find more creative ways to resist state oppression in the light of serious health concerns. Such large scale mobilization of protestors might not be possible right now because of the authoritarian measures put in place by our government and the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in India but everyone can do their part by donating to NGOs, chronicling these acts of resistance and being aware of what is happening in our country. When asked about the resistance put up by migrant workers in India, Ms. Rao beautifully answered:
“Even the act of walking back home is a form of resistance.”
Swapnil Dhruv Bose is a student of English Literature at Presidency University, he can be reached at email@example.com.