Report on the Webinar: ‘Migrants, Morality, Middle Class and Pandemic’ by Rakesh M. Krishnan

The current pandemic and the consequent travesty that the migrant labourers have had to face has generated an unprecedented response from Indian society. Most of the middle and upper class had come out on social media to contribute to the growing discussion about the plight of the labourers. However, most of these responses are short-lived, individual and singular in nature. The speaker Rakesh M. Krishnan put up a comparative picture where on one hand, middle class people share news articles about the labourer’s death and right after that, share pictures of some delicacy they have cooked along with the rest of their family in their protected homes. This dichotomy has existed for a long time in society but has probably become even more apparent in the present context. Hence, the narrative of ‘3Ms’ – migrants, morality and middle class in the backdrop of a pandemic that Krishnan builds is an important narrative which is bound to be uncomfortable but is also necessary. Sukanya Bhattacharya reports on the webinar organized by Christ University Trivandrum on 22nd June, 2020.

‘Middle Class’ for Krishnan is a nebulous term – it includes those individuals and households who are above a certain level of subsistence but need to be employed to survive. Morality on the other hand has three aspects or media of expression – private, political and public. The kind of pictorial representation that we see pf the migrants’ journey involves either walking, cycling or hitchhiking – which indicates a structural failure of the current government according to Krishnan. In such a situation, Krishnan enquires if the moral outrage expressed by the middle class in the public domain even real? He thinks it is an uncomfortable but pertinent question especially when the pictures of the middle class family enjoying themselves in lockdown is juxtaposed with that of the desperate migrant looking to go back home.

Most of the Indian middle class had and still has the luxury to protect themselves by stockpiling the essential goods, to the extent that it can even be called “hoarding”. They also kept their maids and drivers out of their gated communities quite easily. All of this stemmed from their private morality of maintaining the civic duty of practising social distancing. However, their sense of public and political morality is sorely lacking as pointed out by Krishnan. Migrant labourers have been exposed to unknown and unsanitary conditions as they undertake dangerous journeys on “highways of despair” as seen all throughout April, 2020. They did not even have the luxury to be near their kin and family in most cases. Krishnan quotes a migrant labourer Atul Yadav to drive his point home, Yadav had said in an interview, “Hum muzdooron ka koi desh nahi hai”. The plight that the migrants have been left to manage and handle all on their own really made it seem like they belong to no nation with a state to look after them.

Here, Krishnan makes an important point of how the question for the Middle Class also becomes a question for the state. He talks about how public opinion has been produced and shaped in the present times as even the production of experts is tightly controlled by the middle class sensibilities. He sees no constructive intervention leading to structural transformation in society from the middle class apart from sudden outburst and temporary rage. Rather, the pandemic has exacerbated the class division as seen through the images of rich people’s pets being brought back home through a plane hired especially for them but migrants having to walk miles back home. He also classifies migrant labourers into two types – the first being the IT expert who works in a metropolitan city which is also an IT hub. The other is the construction worker who is employed as a casual worker in the unorganized sector. He also considers Ola, Uber, Swiggy and Zomato delivery people under this category and notes how they are not employees but “partners” – hence, these companies are exempt from paying them permanent employee benefits.

[‘Charted: Lockdown is only the beginning of misery for India’s migrant labourers’. Source: Quartz India, 7th April, 2020]

The unsystematic or informal documentation of these migrants does not make it easy to understand the exact number of labourers who are out of their own states with numbers ranging from 2 million to 10 million even. Hence, the need to formalize the general description of the migrant becomes important as maybe “footloose labour”. Along with that, their fluid socioeconomic position has to be looked at along with their lack of capital. Krishnan notes how most of these labourers come to the city for employment due to the weak agrarian economy and perverse job market but do not invest in housing there. Cities also offer enhanced economic freedom, anonymity where growth is possible. In fact, postcolonial culture celebrates this emancipatory aspect of the city. However, even in the cities there is always surplus labour which leads to lower wages and weak to zero bargaining power for the labourers.

It is psychologically proven that as the number of tragedies increase, unaffected human beings look the other away so as not to feel overwhelmed. In such a situation, can the state exhibit any concern for the toiling mass with such an unwilling middle class? It is the failure of society as a whole whereby the middle class failed to ensure political and public morality. Krishnan does acknowledge how there will be limitations to individual and communitarian enterprises during such a tense time. He suggests a structural and institutional compromise instead as the need of the hour. He recognizes and applauds the rise of voluntary organizations which provided food and medicines to the migrants but also criticizes the dependence on these good Samaritans as it is caused by a lack of proper institutional mechanism.

He brings up the example of the Spanish Flu which saw subhuman facilities that these workers dwelt in with a complete lack of medical infrastructure. Postcolonial India learned nothing from these precedents as the cities are still crowded with bad shelters for these workers. At this juncture, Krishnan starts an important discussion on the nature of democracy and growth in India along with the space that the labourers occupy. To him, democracy has now become entangled with growth where the growth percentage becomes more significant than the qualitative changes in socio-economic and cultural life of the people. Capitalist modernity has made people aspire and demand for Smart Cities as rural agrarian spaces are a matter of shame. Public Policy now focuses only on building better cities as empathy and service are replaced by consumerism and meritocracy. This leads to a breakdown of solidarity and trust and formation of networks, associations and channels.

Here, a critical look at the power, legitimacy and authority of the state becomes necessary as Krishnan emphasizes how the state does not exist in isolation. The lack of an empathetic disposition from the state and its executive branch to stop this “Covid movement” or the ‘Long March’ undertaken by the migrants raises the question if the migrants have had such experiences even before Covid-19 as well. Starting from droughts, crop market failure, lack of land – these people have had to make the transition from rural space to join unskilled labourers in the cities.

The middle class is often called the “conscious keeper” of democracy but for the longest time, they have normalized these disasters in society which keeps happening to the rural sector. Hence, the ‘Long March’ was also one in a long series. Did the middle class once again think that managing the migrant workers was a job for the state and would that explain their indifference? Here, Krishnan suggests how a forceful intervention might have been helpful. The subaltern obviously cannot speak if they do not even get to eat but organizing and mobilizing them might have been a work for the middle class. The middle class’s political morality got subsumed by the aspiration for economic growth.

[‘Meals, chores, entertainment: Lockdown brings families closer’. Source: The Indian Express, 28th April, 2020]

The minimum keyboard activism and sudden outpour of agony that we see from the middle class is a temporary feeling of solidarity as it is no longer happening in a far-away location. Therefore, Krishnan suggests that the only way to move forward is for the middle class to rise above its “temporary false consciousness” and to be responsible enough to hold the state accountable.

The question answer session that followed his speech once again clarified the stance Krishnan took regarding the entire situation. A lot of questions poured in about the immediate mitigation strategies for the pandemic and suggestions were given to hold the employers accountable. However, to Krishnan, short-term problem amelioration would solve some of the problems however it was necessary to look beyond the short term. An institutional and structural change has to be brought on only at the level of society and state interaction.

Another question that came up dealt with the social and political capital which the Middle Class holds and how it can be used to benefit the labourers in such a situation. Krishnan then provides a simple solution for the middle class to accept its failure and articulate on behalf of the ones who cannot.

Sukanya Bhattacharya is currently a third year undergraduate student at Presidency University and an intern at Refugee Watch Online. She can be reached at sukanya.mimi28@gmail.com.

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