‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ —Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The images of migrant workers and their plight have receded from our screens; perhaps most of them have already returned to their villages.

Images are transient in the digital world, replaced quickly by other sets of images begging for attention. The images that haunted us were of working families who walked hundreds of kilometres during the sudden nationwide lockdown, haunted by starvation, their belongings carried on their heads, their children walking barefoot or in broken flipflops, the old and sick carried on shoulders.

These images told of the hunger and humiliation they suffered on their long journey, and of the many who died cruel deaths before reaching home. The images are already beginning to be history in public memory.

If the post-pandemic, post-Covid world is to be restructured as inclusive and just, as equitable and empathetic, then the experiences of migrant workers must be saved from receding into history, for the lockdown was not only a tragic experience, it also exposed the nature of the urban economy that thrives on exploiting the labour of informalised workers.

How can the disembodied poor be saved from becoming history? By remembering.

By re-membering who the dispossessed people are, remembering how our lockdown drove them to such despair, remembering what they encountered on their long journey home, and the political and social failures to respond to the crisis, we may be able to build the foundation for a better, and kinder, and equitable, and inclusive, and just world.

The urban informalised economy in India is predominantly worked by an estimated 100 million migrant labourers from rural areas, who work in construction, manufacturing, hospitality, trade, services and sundry other jobs that city-dwellers require.

Without a work contract, health insurance, or any financial, public, or social security to buffer them through a crisis, migrant workers in the informalised sectors of the economy are prone to vulnerability and destitution, as their exodus in the wake of the lockdown showed.

The daily-wage economy is even more precarious within the informalised economy and daily-wage earners are more vulnerable. It is estimated that around 40% of Indian workers earn a daily wage, of as little as 400 or 500 rupees, and women daily wagers earn even less.

The vast majority of migrant workers who come to the cities to earn an income are either farmers with small or marginal landholds, or landless labourers.

What drove millions of workers to undertake the long and arduous journey on foot? The fear of imminent starvation. The basic need for bare survival overtook their fear of the deadly virus. They were placed in a situation where death from lack of food became a more immediate possibility than death from the disease. And if they were to die in any case, as many said, they chose to risk their lives and reach home somehow.

People felt orphaned and abandoned by their employers and governments. A feeling of rejection, non-belonging, hopelessness, betrayal, and sheer despair is palpable when we hear their voices on the videos recorded by journalists.

The pictures are equally haunting: public authorities spraying toxic chemical disinfectants to “sanitise” these workers; a child asleep on a suitcase while the mother drags it; a child trying to wake his dead mother on a railway platform; scattered rotis on a railway track where a train crushed 16 workers to death; people walking in the dead of night to avoid the scorching sun; people packed inside a cargo carrier.

There are many such images we need to search and remember.

There was a total political failure in responding to the migrant workers’ crisis. That no one thought about the millions of workers in the cities who would be jobless and stranded points to the absence of the majority of Indians from political decision-making.

Some of them left the cities as soon as the lockdown was declared; others waited for their employers and the government to give them some assurance and help, failing which they set out for their villages.

Meanwhile, the union government was telling the apex court that there were no migrant workers on the roads, even as thousands of them were making the hazardous journey on national highways.

Meanwhile, three state governments - Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh - proposed to change labour laws to make them more amenable to employers.

Uttar Pradesh proposed to suspend for three years the legal protections dealing with wages, working hours, and health and safety measures among others that safeguard the rights of workers, thus reducing the already precarious informalised wage-work to modern slavery.

After 47 days of this, when “special” trains were organised by the railways to take the migrant workers home, the hassle and expense of booking tickets itself created panic among people, and many had to take loans or sell their belongings to get a ticket home.

The trains went on detours, taking a much longer time to reach their destinations, further exhausting an already weary and hungry people.

It is alleged that the government of Karnataka even cancelled the special trains to keep workers captive for construction industrialists.

Not only did the union and state governments not put any pressure on these industrialists to pay their workers during the lockdown, their proposals to change the labour laws and attempts to keep workers captive revealed a State that was ready to sacrifice the poor for keeping the industries of the rich running.

The police, instead of facilitating the distressed workers, gladly assumed even more authority. Caning ordinary people, making them crawl as punishment, forcing them to travel in vehicles that were carrying dead bodies - there were numerous such stories of police action. The police saw the workers as a menace and dehumanised them.

Along with the political failure, our society failed colossally to respond to this crisis. From tacit support to legitimise government inaction or obduracy, to deflecting the crisis, to complete silence as if this were not an issue that matters, the complicity of the propertied classes was all too apparent.

Our society’s indifference, apathy, and hostility were staggering. This cannot be shrugged off only as a lack of moral conscience. It exposed our allegiance to the State and to the neoliberal economy, the two forces responsible for the crisis.

The same people would have responded to a crisis caused by flood or cyclone, because they see these as “nature’s fury” – but the beneficiaries of a lopsided economic growth propelled by liberalised big business supported by the State chose to turn their eyes away as the edifice on which our riches are based came crumbling down.

This social failure was further exposed by our indulgence in aestheticising, romanticising and glamorising migrant workers.

A picture of a 15 year old girl who cycled 1,200 kilometres from Gurugram to Bihar, carrying her injured father on the pillion, was seen as “beautiful”. People who undertook long and arduous journeys on foot were saluted and appreciation was showered on them. Their reaching home became a feel-good sight.

It says a lot about people, about a society, that sees aesthetics, romance and glamour in sorrow, cruelty, hunger, and death. It was sheer desperation and willpower that gave these workers the agency, but to appreciate that agency without acknowledging the contexts and reasons is to hide, or worse, approve what led to the crisis.

Millions of informalised workers constituting the workforce in urban economy remain invisible to city-dwellers. The crisis that unfolded during the lockdown exposed an exploitative economy that survives on the cheapened labour of people who leave their villages and a starved agrarian economy to come to the cities in search of work.

If we are to change the structure of exploitation and inequality, the invisibility of migrant workers must be made visible. They did become visible for a short while. We must not push them back into invisibility again.

“…the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” —James Baldwin, ‘Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes’

Ranjita Mohanty is a Delhi based sociologist