A 12-year-old female migrant worker living in my home state of Telangana in south India died on April 20, as she walked the distance of 100 miles to her home, during the national lockdown.
Jamlo Madkam was only 6 miles short of reaching her doorstep when her frail body succumbed to exhaustion. The child and her family were uprooted overnight, as the central government gave all citizens four hours to return to their communities and remain indoors for the next several weeks.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed India’s biggest moral culpability over the past decades of growth. The nation keeps its workers, the backbone of its economic development, on the verge of hunger. Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and the largest producer of grains, milk and rice, India ranks 102 among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index. Over the lockdown that started on March 24, botched policies, blatant neglect, public and private corruption and lack of reliable information have turned this persistent hunger into mass starvation. Yet many of us in India have been unwilling to reckon with this reality.
It is our national shame but without enough outrage. We failed Jamlo. This May Day, we should be marching for her and the rights of over 56 million migrant workers in India. The level of state neglect and social depravity that led to Jamlo’s death should stir us into a collective action.
The unmistakable global revelation of this pandemic period is the inequality in the labor market, within our countries and across our borders. The classification of ‘essential worker’ that we recognize during this crisis with eager claps and clanks is disingenuous when it does not translate to more social value or economic protection for the individuals. Without sanitation workers, food producers, cleaners, daily laborers, our economies would collapse under ordinary situations. Without their efforts during this extraordinary period, we would be teetering toward contagion and mass casualties.
Indispensable to the economy, yet historically neglected, Indian migrant workers travel from one of the 29 states to another, with most working informally for daily wages. About 75 percent of them, roughly 42 million, reside in urban centres.
Given that the Indian census board has kept track of the numbers of migrant workers and their general locations, their reverse migration from the cities back to their villages at the announcement of lockdown was no surprise. The government could have acted promptly by transporting hundreds of thousands like Jamlo safely back to their homes using the extended network of railways and buses. This required coordination between the states, decisive leadership from the center, and above all, humanity.
While the Indian government announced a 23 billion USD aid package, a survey of over 11000 migrants workers conducted between April 8 and April 13 revealed that an astounding 96 percent had received no rations. For labourers who literally live hand to mouth (27 million had rations to last a single day at the start of lockdown), this is a matter of life and death.
‘We are simply too many mouths to feed.’ ‘Malnourishment in India has decreased over the past years.’ ‘It would have been much worse had it happened decades ago.’ I have heard this reasoning echoed through social media posts and personal conversations with fellow Indians. When confronted with the stark realities, we tend to resort to self-consolation. But such claims that pulverize an individual life like Jamlo’s into anonymity are unconscionable. Indeed, it would have been much worse had this virus entered our country decades ago – like the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed 12 million Indians. Fortunately, we have advanced to the point of becoming the largest manufacturer of generic medicine and the world is looking towards India to make an affordable vaccine a reality in the future. Yet we continue to ignore the plight of our majority.
India is a country with a high demographic dividend. Simply put, the working age population far outnumbers those who have retired. Is it then not ironic that we consistently fail to invest in this potential? Why is our able bodied population struggling for daily survival when they are actively contributing to our economy, some like Jamlo who start at an inexcusably early age?
Amid the extension of the lockdown to May 15, it is heartening to see growing civic action. Individuals and organisations are stepping up to feed and shelter those stranded amid the crisis. Decades of feeble faith in our governments paradoxically created a strong civil society. But we cannot remain reactive until another calamity hits us. We must further mobilize to challenge our current leaders about every rupee that has been allocated for fellow citizens in need. Why is it not reaching at the right pace? How will the government tackle the recessions and lack of employment in the aftermath of this shutdown? How can they better invest in the futures of children like Jamlo that are the country’s ‘dividend’?
We have had sound decisions from individual state governments worth emulating across the board. Kerala has aggressively tested and traced contagion and expeditiously treated its COVID-19 patients. Owing to its strong social welfare system, authorities quickly set up relief shelters and support for migrant workers in its territory, respectfully denoting them “guest workers.” On the other hand Bihar, a state that produces many migrant workers, was able to track 285,000 of those returning and digitally transfer cash aid to their accounts. In Karnataka, the state set up canteens throughout the state to feed stranded people. These are living examples of how to shelter workers, disburse aid and create economic cushions in a vast country with varying resources. These actions should not be outliers but part of a larger established support network.
For such change to materialize, we need a blanket shift in mentality. We must together re-consider what progress and development mean. We must prioritise affordable housing over building new skyscrapers. We must choose food security over luxury items. We must strengthen social support and healthcare over investing in exploitative industries. Without meeting the basics for a majority of the population, we cannot consider ourselves a country in development. Given the stark divides between the rich and poor that the pandemic has amplified, we are a country in stagnation. The onus is on the minority of India that has the luxury of choice but also the opportunity to rectify the inequalities.
It is only when we can admit our failures without hollow excuses that we will start to stir our collective consciousness. At the start of his first term, the Modi government took much pride in the national “Make in India” campaign that promised goods ‘for Indians, by Indians.’ In the following years large conglomerates continued to replace small business owners, while the promise of ten million new jobs became a distant cry. We must demand that the ‘Make in India’ campaign becomes a reality, but we also must protect the workers who make India what it is today.
(Writer, researcher and visual storyteller, Preethi Nallu has reported on global migration issues for news media, UN agencies, think tanks and advocacy groups. She is the founding editor of Refugees Deeply and part of the editorial team at StoriesAsia. She also works for Copenhagen based International Media Support. Views expressed are personal)