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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 20, New Delhi, May 2, 2020

Migrant Workers in “The Present Time of Chaos”

Sunday 3 May 2020, by Arup Kumar Sen

Ranabir Samaddar delivered the Biblab Chakraborty Memorial Lecture (2018) titled The Present Time of Chaos. One of his seminal observations in the lecture was that “a historical sense is important in a situation of chaos, as the conditions of chaos do not exist in some ethereal space outside of history”.

Very recently, Calcutta Research Group (CRG), under the editorship of Ranabir Samaddar, has brought out a collection of essays around the lives and politics of migrant workers in India, focusing on COVID-19 (Borders of an Epidemic: COVID-19and Migrant Workers). In a sense, the collection represents “The Present as History”.

In his recent interview with The Wire, Samaddar has reflected on different dimensions of migrant workers in India, explored in the collection of essays edited by him. While talking about the effects of coronavirus-induced national lockdown on migrant workers, he observed: “Following the abrupt 21-day clampdown, we witnessed hundreds and thousands of migrant workers trying to reach home. No provisions were made to meet their needs of food, shelter, health, families and life itself...We do not know how many lost their way in the middle, how many finally reached their destination and in what condition. Or how many died” (The Wire, April 23, 2020). This signifies that the present time of chaos in India has distinct class dimensions.

How the migrant workers are treated in our neoliberal economy? To put it in the words of Samaddar: “...we have to understand the dynamics of the visibility and invisibility of migrant labour...The migrant workers are visible in the economy; they are invisible in politics. In many cases they have no right to vote in municipal polls, no social entitlements. They are not allowed to disturb the civil society-centred politics. But they must be available as a ready labour force, what Marx called a reserve army of labour. Appear only when summoned” (ibid).

Samaddar highlighted in his interview greater economic predicaments and harsher social marginalization of migrant workers in our country in the post-coronavirus situation.

It is difficult to predict what will be the shape and parameters of politics in the time of chaos. In his interview in The Wire, Ranabir Samaddar has given a broad outline of politics in the coming days:

Perhaps the biggest post-coronavirus political struggle will play out between those powers functioning along a neo-Malthusian line of “necessary loss” of a section of population in a time of epidemic (or a war), and those powers who will uphold the cause of life.

The present time of chaos in India brings back toour mind Antonio Gramsci’s observation made in his famous essay “Against Pessimism” (1924): “The great battles are drawing closer; battles which will perhaps be more bloody and harder than those of previous years...Clearly we will also need to fight hard...”

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