Haunting visuals of thousands of exhausted migrants from across the country journeying back to their native villages in desperation will be imprinted on our collective consciousness for a long time to come. These visuals convey despair, not dignity – and don’t really tell us the full story. The story of what their lives look like otherwise. That this is not the norm. This is not just another Tuesday.
I’ve spent the last few months documenting the migrant crisis in India for my film ‘Refugees at Home’ – and their outrage at being stripped of their hard-earned self-reliance and dignity is what has struck me most.
As a construction worker that I interviewed from West Bengal, Arun Das, told me: “We are not beggars, we live our lives with imandari (honesty) all through the year by working hard. But right now, we can’t – we cannot provide for our families for the first time in our lives.”
Just like Das, many people who travel from their homelands to seek employment in larger, metropolitan cities are amongst the most ambitious, hard-working and driven people in their communities – leaving their homes in an attempt to better their lives and provide for their families.
And it is a testament to India’s broken labour laws and social fabric that a large number of Indians who travel to big cities end up in often uncontracted, low-wage jobs in the informal sector, making true financial stability a far reach for a majority of them. It is this financial fragility – driven by broader economic structures of oppression – that makes a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic so devastating for them.
When the entire country locked down overnight on 24 March with only a few hours’ notice, migrant communities were the hardest-hit. Over the last couple of months, they have struggled to navigate a new world with no income or money to buy food and essential medicines, abysmal employer support, suspended trains and buses, and very often threats to pay their rent or risk being evicted.
Amidst a pandemic that brought a nation of 1.3 billion people to a complete shutdown, we have been reminded of these communities who are so often entirely invisible to the rest of us.
In the last few months of reporting on the ground, many of the migrant workers that I spoke with told me about how they do not plan to return back to the cities they work in even when all of this blows over.
If the economic uncertainty and lack of food security amidst a pandemic weren’t bad enough, many migrants have had brutal run-ins with the police and other security forces while stranded away from home.
Perceived violence is quite possibly as important to consider as actual violence, and many migrants who themselves might not have been victims of lathi-charging, disinfectant spraying, and other shocking forms of police brutality are still incredibly scarred from hearing reports of these incidents from news sources.
We cannot understate the psychological trauma that this time has represented for thousands of people across the country. These factors are understandably drivers of one of the largest exoduses India has ever seen – a reverse migration of people from cities back to their hometowns en masse.
One might imagine that such a crisis would invoke nothing but empathy across the spectrum. But unfortunately, there has been a certain section of our society that has responded to this reverse migration with resentment towards migrants for leaving “just as the economy needs them most.”
One migrant who chose to be unnamed, said to me – “You care for us outsiders only when we’re needed, when our presence is critical to you, to your business and your growth. When we’re not useful like in the last few months, we’re left to die. ”
The magnitude of this cataclysmic humanitarian crisis could have been averted, or greatly minimised if we operated from the perspective of designing our response to the migrant crisis keeping in mind their intrinsic humanity, and not just the benefits they bring to the country as a collective workforce. These measures include immediate dissemination of surplus food grain and essential supplies, a few days’ notice before the lockdown was instituted and not relaxing existing labour laws in the midst of a pandemic amongst others.
In the months since, many successive economic measures and relief packages that the government has announced have failed to address the true gravity of the predicament that a large section of migrants is currently facing.
Even in simple economic terms – looking after the rights and providing for the needs of migrant workers in the months ahead will go a long way towards helping build a more resilient country as we emerge out of lockdown. The manpower put in by migrants workers across various critical sectors like construction, fisheries, and export-driven industries powers our economy, and to revive this very economy sustainably – we need to push for our most vulnerable migrant workers to feel supported and their needs to be met with the same precision, passion and fury as if they were our own family. Nothing less will do.
We might have failed them so far, but with thousands of migrants returning back to their villages in India that currently suffer from a disrupted agricultural sector and high levels of rural distress, and many who continue to stay in larger cities awaiting work – we still have the chance to make a difference.
To learn more about the impact of the nationwide lockdown on migrant communities and possible solutions that can make a difference, here’s a link to a recent report published by my collaborators, The Stranded Workers Action Network – a network of volunteers connecting relief to workers and documenting the crisis at the grassroots level in India.
In the months ahead, the algorithms on our apps may stop showing us pictures of distressed migrants on the road home, our news channels may stop covering their plight on primetime programming and our daily newspapers may not bear any mention of their struggles. When all of this fades away, do we have it in us to leverage our new-found empathy for their vulnerabilities and continue to still deeply care, and proactively push for government and industry support for migrant workers’ needs when they need it most? Or will they be invisible again?
Malaika Vaz is a National Geographic Explorer, TV presenter and wildlife filmmaker. Her work on projects for networks like Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and National Geographic in India focus on stories of endangered species. the human-wildlife interface and illegal trafficking. This documentary project on the migrant crisis was funded by the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.