It's been a few weeks since the Coronavirus outbreak. Most of the world is under lockdown. Today, it is the social media hashtags that make the world seem noisy and obnoxious (earlier, it was traffic lights, honking, nosy relatives and smug colleagues). Instagram is flooded with food du jour of boisterous celebrities, from broccoli and avocados to creamy Malabari dishes. We bake cakes, fritters and fries. Meanwhile, the migrants share food in cramped conditions and walk miles in towards their home. It reaffirms the non-elasticity of class; class is crisp cotton. The Bollywood' babe magnets', dolled beauties and we, the 'mango' people, inhabit layers of the top pie. The 'mango’ people (middle class/aam admi) may smirk at those on the top, but we are just a shade less blind to the plight of those at the bottom. If those 'deluxe' are at fifty shades, we are at forty-nine or eight? It doesn't matter.
On any given day, of our privileged reverie, are we not guilty of making people invisible? The wand of bubbled existence is magical, convenient and alluring. The security guards, the sweepers, the waiters (and waitresses), construction workers, garbage pickers, sanitary workers, traffic police and it can go on. What do we do when we see them each day? We don't avert our eyes; we forget to notice. What have we lost and gained here? We are happy in our pretence, make-believe world of tranquillity and equality. What do we lose? We continue to de-humanise the 'self' and 'others' in the process.
The COVID-19 lockdown in India has snuffed out the smokescreen of equality. The 'invisible' are visible again on our TV sets and mobile phones. We chuckle our mouths and gape with furrowed brows, showing our 'empathy'. We revel under the cloak of complacency as soon as the images disappear from our screens. The statistics, the numbers, show that" Over half of India's daily wage and migrant population earns just Rs 200-400 a day ($2.6-5.2). It is much below the prescribed minimum wage of Rs 692, Rs629 and Rs 571 for skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers respectively (in Delhi). More than 80 per cent of migrants will run out of food before the lockdown ends (Data collected by Jan Sahas).
The numbers are stark. Yet, numbers do not say anything about the kind of intense stress and bullying the migrants face. It doesn't speak how our attitude, as a society, is towards migrant workers. Beyond numbers and lockdown, it is time to introspect our attitude towards the 'invisible'. As the vast nation takes a flight towards 'growth' and 'development', the bottom half keep on crawling and bicycling towards basic minimum. Beyond the economic difficulties, how have we treated the migrants?
As a research scholar, working on food sovereignty in the tribal Kondhs society, I met young men who seasonally migrate down south for work. Kondhs are a strongly communitarian tribal group in Odisha. A young man, Kishore (name changed) told me, "Here, in the village, we get all our basic requirements. We earn more cash when we work in other regions, but there, we are just treated like dogs". Kishore was not alluding to economic problems alone but to the social grating. The callousness, as he puts it, of the 'people in big buildings', if a maid or a worker asks for some help when in need is disheartening. They rasp for excuses and rarely help. Kishore permanently settled in his village a few years back. He has taken up agriculture and is happy to be away from the 'city people'.
Unlike Kishore (and other Kondhs tribes), most migrant workers are not lucky. What millennial call a 'back up' plan doesn't fall into the lap of landless, migrant wage earners. There is no concession for a slight delay in work, falling sick or at any smallest of failings. Often, migrant labourers face bullying, racism and are mould into stereotypes in our minds. The north-east waiters or the Bihari labourers and others are bracketed into certain 'things'. Hackneyed labels in the guise of 'opinions' further widen the gulf between the poor and the privileged.
The lockdown, as we know, is a temporary phase. It has highlighted the dismal condition of migrant labourers and poverty. However, the concern is equally about our flimsy mind. After the lockdown is passé, how many of us will treat migrants differently? Will the top ‘pie-eating' us realise the role migrant labourers play in our agriculture sector? Will there be songs or claps or 'a minute' dedicated to recognising their effort in bringing comforts to our feet? The problem is not just about being poor; the double whammy for the migrants is our indurated hearts. Today, our hearts may ache for their plight, but most of us will never allow them visibility in our minds. The 'othering' of those at the bottom is permanent, unlike any lockdown. Economic poverty may have 'expertise solutions', but profound change in our attitudes and introspection can elevate us above our pious platitudes. It can make us a little sensitive towards those whose labour is paramount to our existence.
(Abhinita Mohanty is a Research Scholar (Sociology), dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Views expressed are personal.)