Arundhati Roy on Indian Migrant-Worker Oppression and India’s Fateful COVID Crisis

In India there is never one story but thousands, even millions, and so the detrimental impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on this country of more than 1.3 billion, especially among the poor, has been profound, causing immense suffering. Nor did it help matters much when Prime Minister Narendra Modi shut India into immediate lockdown without warning to mitigate Indians from contracting COVID-19. Thousands of day-laborers and migrant-laborers were left stranded in large cities without food or money such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Gandhinagar, Chandigarh, Chennai, Jaipur, and Lucknow, among others. It was the largest lockdown in the world because of COVID-19.

If such workers had prior warning, say at least a week’s time, then it may have prevented such a massive humanitarian disaster. Yet, Modi and his BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government, did not seem to be concerned about these rural migrants when planning their lockdown. Thousands of migrants are still making the long trek home to their rural villages, while hundreds of them are dying along the way from exhaustion, heat fatigue, thirst, starvation, and road accidents.

Furthermore, if you are suspicious like me that Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases are being underreported in India, this is most likely a safe assumption. At the moment, India ranks 10th among countries with COVID-19 cases. There are simply not enough tests (0.28 tests per 1,000 people as of April 20th) to assess its more than a billion population.

There is so much misinformation about COVID-19 in India, that a group of at least 400 university-affiliated Indian scientists, Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19 (ISRC), are debunking myths about Coronavirus such as whether or not cow dung or cow urine will boost one’s immunity against the disease. What is worse, healthcare workers have been targeted with violence as carriers of Coronavirus as they have been in Mexico, and ethnic populations have been stigmatized and beaten because of false rumors about contagion. For example, Muslims in India have been condemned as COVID-19 disease transmitters and as scapegoats, an ethnic population in India of about 200 million. Moreover, Indian Muslims have been attacked, refused medical aid, and boycotted from such negative associations about them as so-called “super-spreaders”.

As acclaimed Indian novelist and political activist, Arundhati Roy explained in a recent interview (May 13th) on France24: “Because in India a lockdown means something different than in Europe or America, because in India a lockdown means people compressed into physical spaces, not distanced, because people live in such small and squalid conditions, most people.” Indeed, as elsewhere in the developing world, where social distancing is near impossible, the same insalubrious conditions exist in India. In India, the healthcare system is underfunded, and sanitary conditions are not good. By contrast, Brazil with its “massive slums” (favelas), is now the country with the second most Coronavirus cases across the globe, whereas the United States still has the most.

On March 24th, Prime Minister Modi appeared on Indian television and announced a “total lockdown” of the Indian nation. All of India’s markets were to be closed as well as all public transportation and even private transportation would be disallowed as well.

In an opinion piece for the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy, wrote about Prime Minister Modi’s absolutist decision-making (April 3rd): “He [PM Narendra Modi] said he was taking this decision not just as a prime minister, but as our family elder. Who else can decide, without consulting the state governments that would have to deal with the fallout of this decision, that a nation of 1.38bn people should be locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice? His methods definitely give the impression that India’s prime minister thinks of citizens as a hostile force that needs to be ambushed, taken by surprise, but never trusted.” Hence, it was ironic when epidemiologists and other scientists across the globe praised Modi for his firmness in locking down the country. Yet, such comments were mostly thoughtless without thinking about India’s massive destitute population.

Roy went on to explain: “Many driven out by their employers and landlords, millions of impoverished, hungry, thirsty people, young and old, men, women, children, sick people, blind people, disabled people, with nowhere else to go, with no public transport in sight, began a long march home to their villages. They walked for days, towards Badaun, Agra, Azamgarh, Aligarh, Lucknow, Gorakhpur—hundreds of kilometers away. Some died on the way.”

The scenes in India of these day-laborers, the so-called migrant workers, were beyond measure, a humanitarian crisis of untold thousands walking in desperation to their home villages. As Arundhati Roy expounded in the Financial Times: “They knew they were going home potentially to slow starvation. Perhaps they even knew they could be carrying the virus with them, and would infect their families, their parents and grandparents back home, but they desperately needed a shred of familiarity, shelter and dignity, as well as food, if not love. As they walked, some were beaten brutally and humiliated by the police, who were charged with strictly enforcing the curfew. Young men were made to crouch and frog jump down the highway. Outside the town of Bareilly, one group was herded together and hosed down with chemical spray.”

In her France24 interview, Roy elaborated: “As for the workers, who are being called migrant workers, who by various schemes and economic policies, who were really swept out of the countryside into cities, and into very, very precarious, very low-paying jobs, and crammed into tenements on the edges of cities. And then, suddenly on the 24th of March, they had no money, they had nowhere to live. They just had to leave. And there was no transport, as the whole world witnessed this. And until today, thousands of people are still walking. But the only good thing is, if we don’t trust the figures entirely, the numbers of people getting infected is increasing. The numbers of deaths are nowhere near where they have been in Europe and America. So, why that is, everyone has theories.”

And yet for the mass exodus back to the countryside, still happening today, Arundhati Roy, proclaimed on France24: “There is going to be so much desperation, there is so much desperation. We are talking about a situation of mass hunger. A lot of people are walking. The reason people are walking to their villages is because they hope that you know that a little bit of land or some community support they will get…there is millions of tons of food in government warehouses to be distributed…Whether those people after going through this absolute trauma, will come back [to the cities], one doesn’t know. Right now, there are still people being held in quarantine centers, detention centers. Some of them are being prevented from going home. There is talk of industries more or less forcing them to work in industries which are just opening up now.”

There are approximately 139 million who are considered to be migrant-laborers and like most of the poor in India, are largely ignored and unnoticed by India’s ruling elite-class. According to recent statistics, about 270 million Indians live at or below the poverty line (2011-2012) and more recently the numbers are estimated at 70.6 million. Yet, the Coronavirus has probably changed all of this, given the forced unemployment from the virus.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged about $266 billion in economic stimulus, or 10% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to address the COVID-19 issue and protect India’s economy. Yet, not much of anything is being done to help the migrant-laborers making the arduous trek, mostly on foot, to their home villages. State governments have been quicker to act in aiding these hapless commuters in distributing food rations.

The lockdown has caused real desperation among the poor in India’s rural areas such as among residents of a slum colony in Bengaluru (Bangalore) City. Without work, they are struggling to feed their children and themselves, and worse, vegetable prices increased. Furthermore, ration cards are not being distributed as they were before the lockdown, and without men earning from migrant work, starvation is a real issue.

Recently, one of these millions of migrant-workers, Rampukar Pandit, whose anguished face was captured by a photographer on a New Delhi roadside, upon learning about his sickly child at home and with no public transportation to take him home. He began walking to reach his eleventh-month old baby, a 745-mile journey to Bihar State, but was already exhausted without food on the excursion home. Pandit had only reached New Delhi’s outskirts when his image was taken. When the journalist asked Pandit about how Modi’s government has largely done nothing for migrant-workers such as him, Rampukar asserted: “I am a nobody, I’m like an ant, my life doesn’t matter. The government is only concerned with filling the stomachs of the rich.”

In a more recent, Financial Times article (May 23rd), political activist Arundhati Roy, avowed: “The zero-planning lockdown has meant that in these last 59 days (make that 120 days of lockdown and a 10-month internet siege for Kashmir) India has witnessed a nightmare from which we [in India] may never fully recover. Unemployment was at a 45-year high before the lockdown. The lockdown is estimated to have cost 135m jobs.”

In all likelihood too, the migrant-workers who were left stranded in India’s major cities without food, shelter, or money, and who were forced to make their way to their home rural villages somehow, are spreading COVID-19 to the remotest areas of India. So, Prime Minister Modi’s plan to save India with an extreme lockdown, in fact has done the opposite.

Coronavirus in all likelihood is spreading like wildfire among the faceless thousands to other nameless thousands—to everywhere in India.

In sum, Arundhati Roy in her celebrated novel, The God of Small Things (1997), prophetically declared: “It was a time when the unthinkable became the thinkable and the impossible really happened.”

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).