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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 17 New Delhi, April 11, 2020

Lockdown and the Unmaking of Workers

Saturday 11 April 2020, by Arup Kumar Sen

The eminent Marxist historian, E. P. Thompson, in the preface to his celebrated book, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), stated: “By class I understand an historical phenomenon unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasize that it is an historical phenomenon”.

In the present historical moment, a process of unmaking of the Indian working class is taking place in different geographical locations in the wake of Coronavirus-induced national lockdown. How this process unfolds is very much evident in the textile town of Bhiwandi, over 30 kilometres from Mumbai.

According to local estimates, at least six lakh workers operate over 15 lakh operational looms to spin yarn and make cloth in Bhiwandi. An additional one lakh daily wage workers work as loaders and transporters at these looms. Every lane of the town is dotted with big and small looms. On March 21, 2020, as soon as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra ordered the shutdown of workplaces until March 31, “power looms in Bhiwandi immediately fell silent. (The Wire, March 31, 2020)

How such a lockdown affected the Bhiwandi workers? To put it in the words of the field report of Sukanya Shantha:

It has been eight days since the Maharashtra government imposed a complete shutdown in the state as a precautionary measure to control the spread of the coronavirus. But this sudden announcement has had the worst impact on migrant labourers and daily wagers, virtually pushing the over six lakh migrant power loom workers in Bhiwandi towards starvation. (ibid.)

How this crisis is reflected in the consciousness of workers of Bhiwandi? Mohammad Sajjad Ansari, 50-year-old migrant worker from the Madhubani district of Bihar, said despondently: “We first listened to the chief minister and a day later to the Prime Minister and decided to stay back. But now, we are left here with no food or aid from the government. We will all die of hunger even before the virus catches us”. (ibid.)

What happened in Bhiwandi is not an exception. This happened in almost all industrial sites.The recent unmaking of migrant workers in Bhiwandi and other industrial centres in India is an “historical phenomenon” which testifies that coronavirus-induced national lockdown has distinct class dimensions.

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