Unimaginable. Untold. Unaddressed.

Kirthi Jayakumar
Posted May 25, 2020 from India

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the social inequalities that have been constantly exacerbated through the use of patriarchal, privilege-centric, and power-driven policymaking at all levels. The absence of intersectional thinking and the heavy focus on the top-down approach in policymaking both in response to crisis and in peacetime creates parallel worlds that face the same larger challenges – except one is encumbered by historical oppression and marginalization, while the other has historically gained and consolidated privilege and power at the cost of the former.

Systemic Apathy

Offering an entire nation – the second most populated one, no less – four hours to lockdown, India’s response to the pandemic safeguards those in privilege. Following the nationwide lockdown, even as most of India remained where they were – home – two sets of Indians were left stranded. One, immigrants scattered in different parts of the world. Two, migrant workers in different parts of India. Even as flights ferried several Indians home from different parts of the world, migrant workers walked several miles toward home carrying all their belongings, carrying just-born children and toddlers, without food or water. Several died on the way. Many continue walking, remaining exposed to both the risk of infection and the risk of being weathered by the journey home. Women and children are doubly vulnerable. Menstruating bodies, pregnant and newly delivered mothers, infants and toddlers, people with disabilities, and injured people are encumbered by greater challenges as they attempt to make a journey home.

It must, however, be doubly emphasized that this reality is not unique to the pandemic: India’s economy has a dark underbelly that has been hidden and overwritten with (sometimes purported and manufactured) stories of glory and success and miscalculated GDPs, to say the least.   

The idea of “home” is in itself a matter of privilege. Migrant workers fundamentally leave home and travel far away – sometimes to parts of the country that are entirely different from their own in terms of language, food, culture, and even climate – only to be able to earn. Unlike the appropriating group on social media that bandied the term “MeTooMigrant” – a group that “migrated” to other states with full access to social capital, a place to live in, work to do with salaries that more than meet their expenses and help them save – migrant workers have often arrived in new cities and towns with no bearings whatsoever, in the hope that they would find work with decent wages to put food on their plate and a roof above their heads. In this pursuit of work, they are forced to engage in labour that pays bare minimum or less, in labour that does not pause to even so much as acknowledge their right to dignity, and in labour that involves casteist, classist, and gendered violence targeting their bodies. 

Elites for Elites

In the time since the lockdown, even as most have lamented about the economic downturn that the pandemic has ushered in its wake, very little has been done to understand the human cost of the pandemic and policies in response to it from the lens of the last mile. The “human cost” unfortunately looks like Instagram stories filled with privilege missing out on the joys of life without a lockdown – and few are willing to look past it.

The government is a large player in this apathy – but large-scale business owners who employ migrant workers, factory owners, and middle-class employers like you and me – are equally complicit in this. On the one hand calling for employers to retain employees on pay roll, the government (in several states) has also suspended the application of labour laws for the next three years – in the name of reform. This is a dangerous turn – one that returns to a state of bonded labour, no less – and anything but reform, given that this has suspended the provision of minimum wage, the payment of overtime without a limit on the number of working hours, establishing safe working conditions, and enabling trade unions to represent worker interests, among others. Even as hotels were readied and made available for those that were brought back from other countries, no effort was made at the central or state level to open up spaces to accommodate migrant labourers be that the enormous wedding halls and school/university premises. Instead, trains were arranged for the migrants to return home: with the caveat that they had to pay for the tickets – which have to be booked online, no less. Serpentine queues of migrants in the hope of finding tickets were met with complete disrespect and apathy: with several being turned away after hours in the heat, for "lack of paperwork." To expect a migrant worker to access the internet, to expect a migrant worker to have to pay for a ticket at all, and to have a bank account to make that online payment is a glaring reflection of structural apathy and violence.

This structural violence and elitist apathy – factors that have endured longer than COVID-19 – are the lone factors to blame for this situation. This strikes at the fundamental root of human security - with gendered impacts as well. An intersectional, inclusive, impact-oriented system that is committed to truly delivering and enabling welfare would never have allowed such a reality to see the light of day. Instead, we have a small fraction of civil society that is working tirelessly to put food on the few plates they can reach, or to send some migrant workers back home through buses and other means, and leadership that tells us to take care of ourselves while bailing out on doing its duty.

This story was submitted in response to Dispatches from the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Comments 12

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Anita Shrestha
May 26
May 26

THank you for sharing

Tamarack Verrall
May 27
May 27

Dear Kirthi,
There have been only spotty reports about what migrant workers have been enduring, and you have done them honour here. This pandemic calls out the unethical and cruel world economy which at this point has the richest 1% owning almost half the wealth of the world and founder of Amazon poised to become a trillionaire. "... one is encumbered by historical oppression and marginalization, while the other has historically gained and consolidated privilege and power at the cost of the former". So true, we are fed "stories filled with privilege missing out on the joys of life without a lockdown" while behind the scenes governments prop up the same system. So many World Pulse sisters are working where and how it matters most. Your story is a powerful call for us to charge our governments and ourselves to turn this disaster into a global humanity committed to end poverty.
Deep sisterhood love,

Hello, Kirthi,

Thank you, as always, for using your eloquence to speak out what women and your nation as a whole is going through during this pandemic.

Our country has migrants,too. A lot of what you wrote resonates with us.

India is so blessed to have you. Please keep on raising your voice!

Beth Lacey
May 27
May 27

Thank you for these very sobering thoughts, Kirthi

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi

Hi Dear Kirthi,
How are you doing? I hope you are well. Thank you for sharing your post. Thank you for speaking out. Looking forward to many more of your posts.
Have a great day.

Julie Desai
May 28
May 28

Very good read

ninad nagarkar
May 29
May 29

Thank you Kirthi for such a wonderful feature on the hidden infliction of the pandemic and lock-down. The labors were landless from where they walked and are going to be landless to where they are headed.

May 30
May 30

Thanks for sharing,
its now aturning point

Laetitia Shindano
May 31
May 31

Chère Kirthi
Merci de nous relater la situation que traverse certaines catégories de la population dans votre pays en temps de Covid-19. Courage pour le travail que vous Ménez en vue de lutter contre ces discriminations sociales.


Eleanor Cowan
May 31
May 31

Thank you for this excellent article, Kirthi! As Tamarack notes, you have honoured the migrant workers who, although unrecognized, are essential to India’s wellbeing. What are the most practical next stepA, in your opinion?

Adriana Greenblatt
Jun 03
Jun 03

Kithi - wow, just wow. Thank you for continuing to educate me and so many others on this reality of migrant workers that I have the privilege to read about, rather than experience. The idea of “home” is in itself a matter of privilege, wow. When I see your posts I also hope that you are able to find your own way to take breaths and restore yourself, your commitment is just moving beyond words, and I send you the unconditional love and listening and support you continue to offer others. "I am connected, we are powerful" Kithi, sending you this mantra today and a massive safe distance hug from Montreal,

Sinyuy Geraldine
Jun 03
Jun 03

Dear Kirthi, thank you for sharing this sad story about the other part of the population in India whose lives are rendered more difficult by the Covid 19 lock down besides unthinking gov't decisions. I feel for those whose journeys home are painful, those who have lost their loved ones in the course of these journeys. But Kirthi, when you talk of these migrant workers journeying "home", I think that you are making a mistake because if they really had homes in all the word implies, they would not have migrated. For me, home is where one finds shelter, food, comfort, love and all. I have written alot on migration, my PhD theses has a chapter called the search for love, home and identity. I know it all Kirthi, especially as my author is a descendant of indentured servants from the Ganges in India. V. S. Naipaul. We can only pray for these poor people.