The Human Cost of a Pandemic

Ploughing_paddy_field_with_oxen,_Umaria_district,_MP,_IndiaWe are suddenly finding a lot of sectors hamstrung by the disappearance of migrant laborers who made them. So now the country is beginning to figure out who its workforce is. And it is not the bright boys of Bengaluru – P Sainath on his podcast for the People’s Archive of Rural India.

These words from Mr. Sainath, a Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning journalist from whom I had received my PG Diploma in Multimedia Journalism in 2012, reminded me of a personal experience.

During my three years in Delhi NCR (2016-19), I came across numerous people, working as cycle rickshaw driver, house help, peon, construction worker, ragpicker, etc. An overwhelming majority of them were migrants from different parts of the country, some were even from across the border, and all with hopes of building a better life for themselves as well as their next generation. Despite the many diversities that they came from, these laborers could be broadly categorized into two groups – unskilled/semi-skilled people who come to large cities owing to lack of employment opportunities in their places of origin, and semi-skilled/skilled people who migrate with hopes of better employment.

I remember talking to a rickshaw driver in 2016 in DLF Phase 2, Gurugram, who told me that he was doing the same job in a small town in Bengal but came to NCR to earn more. Parallelly, another rickshaw driver in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi, had told me in 2018 that he was a farmer in Bihar and had moved to NCR to drive a rickshaw because it was either this or death. The two stories were so very similar and yet were that of progression and regression. There are millions of such stories, of aspirations and sacrifices, that make up our metropolitan prosperity but rarely do we think about them. The mass struggle of migrant laborers amid the Coronavirus lockdown has lifted the veil from these stories.

More than 270,000 people have died worldwide from the Coronavirus disease between the first week of December 2019 and the first week of May 2020 while over 3.9 million have been infected in over 180 countries. With a cure for the contagious disease believed to be 12-18 months away, the world has gone into a prolonged lockdown to arrest its spread, a move that is expected to cost the global economy over US$2 trillion in 2020. India, meanwhile, has lost more than 1,800 lives while close to 56,000 people have been infected. The lockdown in India has halted the movement of humans and goods as well as business activities, throwing the lives of millions of migrant laborers into deep uncertainty.

With manufacturing, construction, and other labor-intensive industries suspending operations amid the lockdown, millions of migrant laborers in the country’s largest industrial centers have lost their pay and have been trying to return to their hometowns. Income being put on hold, the migrant laborers have been burning through their savings and even skipping meals to save money, that is when they are not starving owing to the lack of food. While India was one of the first countries in the world to impose a nationwide lockdown to battle the pandemic, the Central Government failed to provide adequate and timely financial stimulus to ease the burden of the crisis on a cross-section of people.

The Government also did not factor in the human cost of the pandemic with a total disregard for blue-collar workers and the poor. When visuals of thousands of migrant laborers walking thousands of miles to their homes started circulating on the internet, the large majority of India woke up to the shocking realities of this country we do not pay much heed to otherwise. This exodus, which comes worryingly late, has already claimed scores of lives and worsened the prosperity of millions. The Government had not allowed migrant laborers to go home at the beginning of the lockdown, now this late movement will further delay return to normalcy and spread the infection in small towns and villages.

Even in a crisis, rules for migrant laborers are being made not for their welfare, but to appease political party donors who are industrialists, builders, etc. A handful at the top sought to restrict the movement of migrants from their places of work amid the lockdown till the work starts. The laborers, of course, will not be paid while work is suspended, but they should not leave either. And with the number of Coronavirus cases spiking as we test more, the industrial activity will not start anytime soon. The state has not spared a single thought for the thousands of scared, confused, ill-informed people who are away from their homes or struggling with their families and without a proper meal in weeks. This is exploitation.

Migrant laborers leaving cities in thousands is, of course, detrimental to the economy, but if we cannot pay for their welfare, if we cannot protect their human and civil rights, that is a cost we will have to bear. The exploitation of blue-collar workers, farmers, etc, has been the bedrock of economies that value growth over development, so there’s nothing new about it. But the Coronavirus crisis has revealed to everyone just how much we neglect and exploit the people who manually build our country. This is ironic because an economy can do without a writer like myself, or a software engineer and such, but it just cannot do without industrial laborers, manufacturers, farmers, construction workers, etc.

India’s labor force is currently estimated at more than 485 million, as per the International Labour Organization. There are also an estimated 30 million Indians overseas, out of which 9 million are in the Arab States of the Gulf. The majority of these people are into blue-collar jobs, who have built cities from the ground up. Neglect of such people amid an economic crisis is grossly irresponsible since they are a leading force in mass consumption. Migrant laborers spend the larger part of their income in their daily sustenance as well as in bettering their lives. Not to mention, they are also the leading source of consumer creation for the future. Migrant laborers build and secure our economies.

India had gone into the Coronavirus crisis with pre-existing economic weaknesses caused by record-high unemployment and record-low consumption. The country’s single biggest asset is its consumer base, weakening it further amid the pandemic will be the making of a social and economic upheaval unlike any we have seen in the past. Let’s hope the ones at power will put the nation ahead of personal ambitions.

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