Skip to main content

Death of migrants amidst lockdown: Moral 'distancing' in time of social distancing

By Umang Kumar*
How should ordinary citizens understand the nature of responsibility in the case of the recurring deaths of migrant workers that they are witnessing? So many have died on the road, absolutely needlessly, in the process of trying to escape death by hunger which the Indian Covid-19 lockdown was making a reality. India has a very large number of (internal) migrant workers, especially from its more rural areas, who travel to more urban centers, looking for work. How does one even begin to view such instances, say, as a matter of ethics?
By International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) estimate, close to 80% of India’s economy is in the informal sector. The country has about 45 crore internal migrants as per the 2011 census. For such a large percentage of the economy to have been thrown into disarray and acute distress, the official recognition of their hardship has been grudging and sparse.
There have been no admissions of any moral discomfort and feelings of remorse in any meaningful manner. There are occasional social media messages from position-holders expressing sorrow, but by and large there has been little admission of guilt, misdoing or miscalculation.
What is especially disturbing, from an ethical viewpoint, is the impersonalization of the deaths - as though they were no one’s fault, as though they were happening because of ill-advised choices on the migrants’ parts to head home. There is no attempt at a genuine and heartfelt acknowledgement of the unfolding tragedy to recognize the enormity of the situation.
Is it possible to assign moral, and even legal, responsibility in such cases? How does one assess the role and responsibility of executive-level decisions? Or is one to simply let such instances pass, thinking of them as “collateral damage,” as in military operations? Does one view the situation merely as an unfortunate epi-phenomenon (a secondary-effect), as a sideshow to a “noble war,” in which some sacrifices are inevitable?
Legal theorists and others in the legal professions can probably slice-and-dice such situations to evaluate accountability and culpability. For the sympathetic, ordinary observers, who have the privilege to view the unfolding drama from a distance, the imperative issue is to make sense of the injustice playing out before their eyes -- and maybe press for some justice.
Can such injustices be relativized in the larger picture of the struggle against the virus, as seems to be happening? Can they be normalised as unfortunate road accidents, invisibilizing the turbulent and raw story enveloping the migrants’ distress?
What we see is a moral distancing from the tragedy. There appears to be a feigned uninvolvement and disengagement with the incidents as though they have nothing to do with us, as though they ought to be viewed only impersonally. There are no causes one should look for beyond individual folly. One should also not seek to determine responsibility since the lockdown placed the onus of compliance on each individual, seems to be the attitude.
In fact, in the Indian prime minister’s first lockdown speech there was a sense of the impending hard times for the poor, when he stated that, “This crisis has certainly brought on a very difficult time for the poor.”
These “difficult times” turned out to be deadly for the migrant workers. It will be a hard case to advance that such deaths are not on account of a hasty and unilateral lockdown. The timeline of the lockdown has been discussed and it has been pointed out that the decisions leading up to it were taken without adequate preparation, and without consulting the people who were likely to be most affected. So, putting the burden of sticking to a lockdown on migrant workers, imposed without their assent and understanding, seems to be grossly unfair.
For its proponents, the sudden announcement of the lockdown is viewed as a tactical choice, to freeze people in their tracks to stop the spread of the virus; a sort of morally higher-order decision bound up with the reality of “difficult times” for many, but one which was still the most optimum recourse for the greatest good.
That it resulted in such undeniable hardship to a significant section of the population will be viewed, by the decision-makers and proponents, as an unfortunate and unintended consequence. In fact, as is becoming increasingly clear, besides being “unintended,” the distress to migrant workers also seems to be a case of an “unanticipated consequence.”
The executive’s role during Covid-19 in India is increasingly being admired according to different polls and surveys. It seems that the people of India are managing to see some bigger picture of the fight against Covid-19 against whose backdrop they are able to subsume the “smaller” tragedies of worker deaths.
Deaths become rationalized and incorporated in grand narrative arc of fight against virus -- and moral compromise is skillfully effected
These deaths become rationalized and incorporated in the grand narrative arc of the fight against the virus -- and a moral compromise is skillfully effected. It is almost as if all such people are saying: “How do you stop people who want to keep walking?”
It is precisely here that the moral question becomes very important. For it is the differential attitude towards lives that makes the insensitivity towards some even more acute and stand out. It is a moral question that concerns one’s true caring towards the most vulnerable, the workers in the informal economy, even if some special safeguards are coded into legal obligations.
It also casts a profound doubt of the nation’s valuation of the labour that the migrant workers provide; while there might be inconvenience at not having them around to serve our endless needs, their well-being, their humanity and their flourishing is none of our concern. 
How they live, how they conduct their daily lives in order to make urban life possible has been none of our concern. And now that their often precarious lives have been turned upside down, we have no mechanisms to reach out to them and stand with them in their hour of distress.
A journalist reports how the Indian prime minister reacted in the early days of the travel ban when he heard complaints from some incoming air-travellers: “During the present pandemic, when the Prime Minister received two complaints from returning passengers about the scanning at the Delhi airport being inadequate, he woke up all departments concerned in the middle of the night to examine the video footage from the surveillance cameras to see if there were any slip-ups.”
We do not know how many government departments have been similarly roused from their sleep on account of the tumult in the migrant workers’ lives. But how we treat those who are most vulnerable, especially when their lives have been upended by decisions beyond their control but set in motion by an identifiable set of “political actors,” is of paramount importance in assessing our political and societal priorities, and moral compass.
How we respond to any special hardship caused to them -- which in India has meant death also -- is a question of undeniable moral ownership and our capacity for empathy. How one “ought” to respond is a moral question, different from whatever technicalities and legalities might advise.
Dr BR Ambedkar did not trust in a moral responsibility towards the Scheduled Castes on the part of India’s rulers after Independence - mostly composed of the so-called higher castes. He had decided “to have the rights of the Scheduled Castes embodied in the Constitution,” as he stated in "States and Minorities".
It seems that in the outward concern for all lives, some lives actually matter less than some others, especially because they can be considered expendable, commodifiable, and an indiscriminate mass. Surely our claim to lofty ideals of caring for everyone and thus operating on a moral pedestal are irreparably undermined.
One could of course chalk-up such moral indifference as inherent in the socio-economic systems we are under, which are anti-people in spirit and where inequality and impoverishment of the most marginalized is a direct result of official policies. In India’s case, it’s steady increase in inequality has been documented by economists as not being accidental and temporary, but long-term and a feature of the economic system.
In the “Communist Manifesto”, Marx observes that, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The evident apathy and indifference from India’s ruling classes towards the plight of its working class is a glaring case in point.
The Indian socialist leader, Ram Manohar Lohia, in his attempt at fixing accountability for the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 in which hundreds of thousands had perished, observed the following just over a decade after the tragic event, as he echoed Dr. Ambedkar’s mistrust of any morality-driven emancipation for India’s marginalized masses:
“At the bottom of all of India’s ills is the almost complete loss of identification between the rulers and the ruled, the middle class and the mass. This absence of identification has been over the centuries documented as total divorce in the shape of castes. The right word to use is not divorce but a state of total unrelatedness. India’s masses have been totally unrelated to her ruling classes, the vast sea of the mass to the tiny ruling minority among the high caste.”
On a similar note, an article on the demonstrable differences in the effect of the virus on African-Americans in the United States, titled “The Politics of Disposability” notes, “systemic social inequalities have made some groups more vulnerable than others...when the dust settles...there will be a tale to tell of who mattered and who was sacrificed.” In India, we already can read the tale of who matters and who can be sacrificed.
---
*Writer based in the National Capital Region of New Delhi, India. Blog: migrantworkerscenter.wordpress.com

Comments

TRENDING

Arrest of Fr Stan Swamy: UN makes public letter seeking explanation from Govt of India

Counterview Desk In a letter to the Government of India (GoI), three senior United Nations (UN) officials – Elina Steinerte, vice-chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur on minority issues – have said that the arrest of veteran activist Father Stan Swamy in October 2020 marks “the escalation of harassment the human rights defender has been subjected to since 2018.”

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Farm laws 'precursor' to free trade deal envisaged by US corporates to allow GMO

By Rajiv Shah Did the Government of India come up with the three farm laws, first rushed by promulgating ordinances in June 2020, to not just open the country’s agricultural sector to the corporate sector but also as a precursor to comply with the requirements of the United States for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), as envisaged by the outgoing US president Donald Trump?

Modi govt 'implementing' IMF-envisaged corporate takeover of Indian agriculture

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak* The surge of wealth of Indian billionaires and the Modi-led BJP government’s onslaught on poor, marginalised and farmers continue to grow simultaneously as masses face annihilating pandemic of coronavirus. There is 90 % rise of Indian billionaire’s wealth over last one decade. It is not accidental.

Differing from Ambedkar, Kancha Ilaiah holds a 'different' theory of caste system

By Banavath Aravind* I was introduced to Kancha Ilaiah’s work when I was about 20 years old. He was then in the midst of a controversy for a chapter in his book "Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution", which termed the Baniya community as social smugglers. During many of his debates, I had come to notice his undeterred fighting spirit in trying to bring up certain fundamental social issues that were hitherto undiscussed. I eventually came across some of his works and started reading them silently. I’m deliberately stressing upon the word ‘silently’ here, as this was the kind of silence particularly associated with sensitive social issues like caste, religion, etc. But, as I write this essay, I feel silences on sensitive issues should be broken. Ilaiah opened up an entirely new debate that had the vigour and strength to counter the systemic Brahmanism. His methods of research were also novel in terms of going back to the roo

New trend? Riots 'expanded' to new rural areas post-2002 Gujarat carnage: Report

A VHP poster declaring a Gujarat village part of Hindu Rashtra  By Rajiv Shah  Buniyaad, a Gujarat-based civil society organization, engaged in monitoring of communal violence in the state, in a new report, “Peaceful Gujarat: An Illusion or Truth?” has said that a “new trend” has come about in communal violence in the state, where the parts of Gujarat which didn't see communal riots in 2002 are experiencing “regular bouts” of communal violence.

A new fad in India, coding-for-toddlers culture needs to be 'nipped' in the bud

By Aditya Pandey* We are all aware of the dire consequences of subjecting young kids to intense academic pressure from an early age. In India, we have coaching institutes like FIITJEE and Resonance offering programmes for 6th standard kids to prepare them for “NTSE, IJSO, PRMO and other Olympiads”. The duration of these programmes is around 175 hours – hours that could've been spent playing games and making friends instead.

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Fr Stan's arrest figures in UK Parliament: Govt says, Indian authorities were 'alerted'

London protest for release of Stan Swamy  By Rajiv Shah Will Father Stan Swamy’s arrest, especially the fact that he is a Christian and a priest, turn out to be major international embarrassment for the Government of India? It may well happen, if a recent debate on a resolution titled “India: Persecution of Minority Groups” in the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament is any indication. While Jesuits have protested Fr Stan's arrest in UK and US, the resolution, adopted in the Parliament, said, “This House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India”.

More than 5,200 Gujarat schools to be closed down, merged, says govt document

RTE Forum, Gujarat, releasing fact-sheet on education By Our Representative A Gujarat government document has revealed that it is planning to close down 5,223 schools in the name of school merger. The document, dated July 20, 201 was released by the Right to Education (RTE) Forum, Gujarat. It shows that the worst-affected districts because of this merger are those which are populated by marginalized communities – especially tribals, Dalits and minorities, said RTE Forum’s Gujarat convener Mujahid Nafees.