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Between Lockdown and Crackdown

Gendered impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of migrant workers in India

by Radhika Menon

A migrant worker family from another state waits in long queue to get their names registered so that they can board a train to their village, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of new coronavirus in New Delhi, India, Thursday, 21 May 2020. Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Manish Swarup

COVID-19 has emerged as a social and health crisis in India leading to displacement, loss of livelihood, institutional betrayals, and state violence. This article points specifically to the patriarchal nature of the state’s response strategies and the gendered impacts on lives of migrant workers.

The first case of COVID-19 in the country was reported on 30 January in Kerala. By the first week of February, the Kerala state government had declared a health emergency. In contrast to this swift response, the All-India Union government remained in a state of denial and was non-committal in Parliament. By March, several persons with a recent travel history reported positive, by when the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared a pandemic. Even at this stage, the Indian government’s response strategy was not clear. Until suddenly on 22 March, a day of national lockdown was announced. On 24 March, a national lockdown for three weeks was imposed with a four-hour notice, but without any economic package for those who lost their livelihood. The lockdown was extended four times, before being tentatively lifted on 8 June. In the meantime, cases are rising rapidly across the country.

State Apathy and Infantilization of Migrant Workers

Lockdown has been the main public health strategy of the Indian state to deal with the pandemic. However, in its implementation, the state overlooked the lockdown’s impact on the lives of migrant workers. It is estimated that there are 120 million internal migrants who seek their livelihood away from their villages. This in the construction sector, domestic work, textile industries, agriculture, brick kilns, transportation, mines, hawking, and provision of services. While their labour is leveraged for neo-liberal economic growth, they earn low wages, live without social security guarantees in informal housing and with little access to public facilities.

According to the World Bank estimates, the COVID-19 national lockdown impacted nearly 40 million migrants. Faced with the sudden loss of livelihood, little savings, and credit supply from local stores drying up, migrant workers began to return their villages. Many were left without shelter, as house owners implemented social distancing in cramped settlements and evicted them. Workers in the agricultural and construction sector were deprived of revenue as subcontractors refused to pay their wages. In the absence of economic support from the state, thousands of workers began a reverse migration to villages—an exodus that has still not stalled. The total number of displaced migrant workers remains unclear.

Because strict travel restrictions were implemented, workers heading home fell victim of heavy-handed police action - including public caning, humiliations, and corporal punishments. Meanwhile, the highest court of the country refused to recognize the plight of workers, and dismissed petitions seeking relief. Lacking transportation, under-nourished, poor migrant workers risked their already frail health by walking thousands of kilometres along with their families. These included women in late stages of pregnancy, children, and infants, elderly persons, and persons with disabilities. During this perilous return journey, hundreds died, and babies were delivered on the road. This is in sharp contrast to the return of international migrants from the Gulf, Europe, and North America, for whom the government provided flights and adequate transportation. Transportation was also organized for upper-middle-class, internally stranded students, pilgrims and celebrities, exposing the state’s double standard towards the rights of citizens.

Although workers desired to return to their homes in order to escape illness and hunger, the Indian state took it as an irrational demand - and held them responsible for their misery and death. The government remained in a state of denial for more than five weeks before Shramik (Labour) trains started to transport workers to their home states. After that, state reluctance translated into apathy. There were disputes over payment of train fares, workers had to wait for several days and weeks before they could get a seat; trains took detours of hundreds of kilometres without informing the workers and ran late by days. Heat, hunger, exhaustion, and illness took their toll. In one case that has become symbolic of the tragic plight of women workers and children, a young woman died on a railway platform while her toddler played beside her corpse.

Significantly, imposed travel restrictions and state apathy towards workers were aligned with the interests of the real estate lobbies and the needs of capital. As lockdown was implemented, workers were initially left to fend for themselves as employers refused to take responsibility. Later, reverse migration fuelled fears of labour shortages, and the state machinery tried to stop trains and block road transport to restrain workers. Effectively, the state chose to stand by big capital in the time of crisis and undermine.

The plight of workers is analogous to women’s conditions in a patriarchal society, wherein the husband’s family controls their labour, bodies, and mobility once they leave their native household. The state regards workers as the property of the capitalist, and exhibits patriarchal muscle in controlling their mobility even in the face of extreme suffering, thereby denying workers rights as free citizens. This patriarchal logic was extended through the infantilization of workers whose legitimate demands were rejected as irrational, comparable to the treatment received by women attempting to escape exploitative demands and disputes at the marital household. On the one hand, the workers found that they were unwelcome, and governments in home states displayed disinterest and seldom offered even precarious quarantine centres. On the other hand, the state sought to control workers’ mobility and freedom, analogous to the patriarchal politics of honour women are subjected to. In this fashion, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh declared that workers from the state could be hired only with permission from his government, provoking fears of exploitation among workers.

Exercising Masculine Culture and Establishing Patriarchal Ideology

In the state of Kerala, there was a proven success of testing, better public health care, and empathetic monitoring of cases. In contrast the union government’s choice of lockdown as the main and only form of containment, indicates a predilection for appearing decisive irrespective of the merits of the action. The neo-liberal health care measures through years of privatization have eroded health systems in India. Hesitant to expand public health facilities and reverse privatization, the government instead fell back on a masculine culture. This was to not take health issues seriously in the beginning, and then implement a tough lockdown and crackdowns. This was irrespective of its effectiveness in a country where large segments of the population have no housing to “stay at home” or means to practice social distancing. By addressing citizens as children and delivering instructions to the minute, Prime Minister Narendra Modi embodied the role of the patriarch. His exhortations included calls to participate in national events of clapping, lighting lamps and showering flowers as a response to COVID-19.

Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 on the Migrant Community

The developments following COVID-19 also raise several concerns around gender-based discrimination and violence. The spurt in politically motivated social media campaigns on the origin of the virus led to racial abuses and attacks on internal migrants from North-Eastern parts of India; particularly women, who were mistaken for Chinese citizens. Moreover, marginalized castes and tribes form a large section of the migrant workers. As they return to the villages in a state of helplessness, fears of caste violence and resource fights from which many have tried to escape re-emerge. For the women, this means a renewed struggle against rigid caste hierarchies as well as patriarchy.

Hunger and food insecurity continues to be a problem. Families of workers who stayed in the cities have spent large parts of their day in search of food at charities and hunger relief centres, often coming back without enough. In a country with high levels of food-linked structural and familial violence against women, food shortages are an aggravating factor in gender relations at home. Notably, the state’s hunger management measures have overlooked central aspects of gender justice. Rations have been distributed through e-coupons which can be accessed only through smartphones. Since women have less access to technology and digital services, this mechanism effectively prevents access to food during the crisis.

The anxieties caused by the loss of livelihood led to several suicides among workers. Women in many such households have jobs but are left to look after young children and the elderly. In the absence of state support, there are fears that human traffickers could exploit desperation. Domestic violence took on new meaning as the sudden lockdown trapped women within abusive households with their oppressors. Stepping out invited the wrath of police and fears of contracting the virus. Due to movement restrictions, victims could not get relief and the lack of safe shelters has emerged as a major problem during the pandemic.

Notably, concerns of migrant workers’ plight has often revolved around the male worker and his productive role. However, women form at least 70 percent of internal migrants. Public policies did not take into account the productive and social reproductive roles of women in migrant households. Low or unpaid wages keep them in economic insecurity and dependent on the men in the family or their male employer. The situation post-lockdown has been particularly trying for single women with children who migrated to make a living, but on whom the lockdown has pushed to seek refuge with reluctant relatives. Moreover, the future of livelihoods is uncertain for many female migrant workers. This is especially the case for women working in contact-intense professions such as beauty care.

The health conditions of women workers also pose a serious concern as they return to the villages. The overall health level of migrants is poorer than that of village residents. Moreover, the harsh conditions of their return and health hazards during the journey are unlikely to be addressed by the limited rural health infrastructure, which is already under pressure because of COVID-19. The chances of their falling ill and being neglected become higher in rural areas. The situation is especially worrying for those who were involved in sex work, and have had to return to abusive households to escape hunger. Many have interrupted critical treatment for HIV and risk flare-up of the disease.

In conclusion, COVID-19 stripped away years of invisibility of migrant workers and their neglect. But if the lockdown presented sights of helpless migrant workers, it also raised images of women workers protesting for food, wages, and refusing to die of hunger. As the workers return home, the emerging areas of concern are becoming new areas for mobilization. Organized struggles have led to gains such as preventing governments from acting at the behest of capitalists, and have called out the state’s infantilization of workers and the disregard of their demands.

The patriarchal state may have disowned its responsibilities to women and workers. Rural India is becoming the next stage in the spread of the pandemic in India. It is clear that only through the recognition of the needs of migrant workers’ households, and the productive and social reproductive work of women in these families, can COVID-19 even be attempted to be controlled.

Radhika Menon is a social commentator, activist and academic based in Delhi, India. This article first appeared on the rosa luxemburg stiftung's Website. Reproduced with the author's permission.

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