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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 38, New Delhi, Sept 4, 2021

Migrant Labour and the Pandemic: Domination and Resistance | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 3 September 2021


In summarizing the devastating impact of the two World Wars, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1950: “Never has our future been more unpredictable...”. She also explained her reading of the post-war world: “Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena — homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth”. (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Preface to the first edition, 1951)

During the seven decades after Hannah Arendt’s reading of the global scenario, we have witnessed many transformations on a world scale — rise and fall of the welfare state, collapse of “actually existing” socialism and rise of neo-liberalism as the dominant paradigm of capitalism.

Long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, neo-liberal paradigm of governance has dismantled the public health care system in different countries and made workers footloose. India is very much a part of this phenomenon.

While commenting on the economic transformation of post-colonial India, one eminent labour researcher observed: “In India, the pandemic is sweeping through a landscape of labour in which the crisis of survival was already chronic in the countryside, but increasingly also in the slums of the rapidly growing mega-cities. Dispossessed from agrarian property sufficient for viable livelihood, the land-poor and landless classes, in particular, are in frantic search of employment outside of agriculture, which from generations used to be the prime sector of the economy. Agricultural production has declined to less than 15% of national income, but is still reckoned to employ about two-fifth of the economically active population”. (Jan Breman, “The Pandemic in India and Its Impact on Footloose Labour”, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, October-December, 2020)

How the Covid-19 pandemic impacted migrants to the Indian cities has also been documented by Breman:

 The poor who are entitled to monthly food rations at a reduced price under the public distribution system (PDS) can consider themselves fortunate. Migrant workers absent from the place in which they have been registered for the grain subsidy could not claim such allowance provided in kind. Once dismissed from work, they were anxious to return to their places of residence, where some, at least, could have possibly qualified for the distributed ration. The panic flight from the cities was driven by despair and distress trying to get away from imminent disaster caused by the mix of instant loss of income, access to informal social safety nets at home and fear of the pandemic looming ahead. On their eventual return, the migrants faced strong suspicion that they might be carrying the malignant virus. Not infrequently they were compelled to isolate themselves for the duration of the incubation period, even when no shelter was madeavailable to them. (ibid.)

The above narrative highlights the predicament and vulnerability of the migrant workers in India in the post-COVID situation. However, we should not draw the inference that the footloose workers completely succumbed to the dictates of neo-liberal governance. The Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci, argued that domination and resistance go side by side in a capitalist regime. The following narrative bears testimony to the resistance of migrant workers in India in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic:

In our very limited capacity, we collated a map of 158 protests, involving over a lakh (of) protesters, mobilised on several kinds of issues like wage, food, returning home, shelter facilities and others. Their stories of resistance saw a diffused reportage, reported either as ‘conflicts’, ‘disturbances’, ‘skirmishes’, ‘chaos’ or ‘outburst’ rather than being represented as a form of resistance. We feel that this results from and powerfully reproduces a much older discourse around migrant workers. The corporate-controlled media has never paid much heed to migrants as resisting subjects. Unsurprisingly, it did not hear the eco of thousands of such sporadic protests across thecountry during lockdown... (See “Citizens and the Sovereign”, A Migrant Workers Solidarity Network Publication, November 2020)

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