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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 21, New Delhi, May 9, 2020

How the Poor Survive?

Saturday 9 May 2020, by Arup Kumar Sen

In an interview in 2014, the eminent political philosopher of our time, Giorgio Agamben argued: “Public power is losing legitimacy. A mutual suspicion has developed between the authorities and the citizen”.

This is very much evident in contemporary India in the wake of coronavirus-induced national lockdown. Thousands of migrant workers thronged Anand Vihar bus terminus on the Delhi-U.P. border with their families, including children, at the end of March, 2020, in a desperate bid to return to their distant villages in other states, for survival. The same thing was found to happen in Mumbai. Over a thousand migrant workers gathered outside Bandra railway station in mid-April, demanding that they be sent home at the earliest as they are unable to sustain themselves during the lockdown. The police reportedly resorted to lathi charge to disperse them.

Why so many migrant workers and daily wage-earners are leaving the cities and walking with their families without any provision of food and shelter during the journey, for reaching their far-off villages? According to Pronob Sen, the present chairman of the Standing Committee on Economic Statistics, the footloose daily-wage workers are walking back to their distant villages in thousands as “they have lost trust in the system”, and have greater trust in their village social kinship networks than the government’s ability to look after them. (See The Wire, March 27, 2020)

The footloose poor people not only depend on the village social networks for their survival, they often survive in the cities, depending on the welfare measures of the community networks/organisations, particularly in moments of crisis. Several social organisations and NGOs came forward to provide food to daily wagers, homeless and other people affected by the curfew imposed in Maharashtra in March, 2020, in view of the coronavirus pandemic. Some Sikh community members had been organising ‘langar’ (free kitchen) at a gurudwara in suburban Mumbai. The Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, Students Islamic Organisation of India and some other organisations were found to distribute food packets to people in Madanpura, Jogeshwari, Andheri, Oshiwara, Kurla and Vikhroli areas of Mumbai, and Mumbra and Kalyan in Thane.(See The Economic Times, March 24, 2020)

In contemporary India, we find that, for many poor people, some kind of community support is important not only for their economic survival, but also for their survivals as members of the minority community/communities.

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