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

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.

Delhi HC rules in favour of retired Air Force officer 'overcharged' for Covid treatment

By Rosamma Thomas*  In a decision of May 22, 2023, the Delhi High Court ruled in favour of petitioner Group Captain Suresh Khanna who was under treatment at CK Birla Hospital, Gurugram, between April 28 and May 5, 2021, for a period of eight days, for Covid-19 pneumonia. The petitioner had to pay Rs 3,55,286 as treatment costs, but the Ex-Servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) only reimbursed him for Rs 1,83,748, on the basis of government-approved rates. 

'Enough evidence' in Indian tradition to support legal basis for same-sex marriage

By Iyce Malhotra, Joseph Mathai, Sandeep Chachra*  The ongoing hearing in the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage provides space for much-needed conversations on issues that have hitherto remained “invisible” or engaged with patriarchal locker room humour. We must recognize that people with diverse sexualities and complex gender identities have faced discrimination, stigma and decades of oppression. Their issues have mainly remained buried in dominant social discourse, and many view them with deep insecurities.

Religious divide 'kept alive' with low intensity communalism in Gujarat's cultural capital

By Rajiv Shah  A fact-finding report, prepared by the Mumbai-based non-profit, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), has cited the Vadodara Ram Navami violence of March 30 as yet another example of how, after the BJP consolidating its hold on political power in Gujarat post-2002 riots and at the Centre in 2014, the nature of communal riots has changed, underlining, as opposed to high-intensity violence earlier, now riots have become “more sub-radar and at a smaller scale, more localized”.

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Caste, impact on Ayodhya area 'halting' BJP rulers to act against Brij Bhushan Singh

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  Finally, the #WrestlersProtest has got international attention. The United World Wrestling (UWW),  condemning the treatment and detention of wrestlers and expressing its disappointment over the lack of results of the investigations against Brij Bhushan Singh, accused of sexually harassing women wrestlers, has urged the "relevant authorities to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation."

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.

Unlike other revolutionaries, Hindutva icon wrote 5 mercy petitions to British masters

By Shamsul Islam*  The Hindutva icon VD Savarkar of the RSS-BJP rulers of India submitted not one, two,or three but five mercy petitions to the British masters! Savarkarites argue: “There are no evidences to prove that Savarkar collaborated with the British for his release from jail. In fact, his appeal for release was a ruse. He was well aware of the political developments outside and wanted to be part of it. So he kept requesting for his release. But the British authorities did not trust him a bit” (YD Phadke, ‘A complex Hero’, "The Indian Expres"s, August 31, 2004)

76% Odisha govt school infrastructure in dilapidated state, 'undermine' RTE norms

By Our Representative  As many as 75.86% (5,421) elementary schools in Odisha do not possess a playground, depriving students of physical activity opportunities. Also, 75.68% (5,408) of schools require minor or major repairing, undermining the norms and standards stipulated in the Right to Education (RTE) Act.

Can India's water management infrastructure address gender vulnerability issues?

By Monami Bhattacharya, Megha Gupta, Mansee Bal Bhargava*  The climatic pattern of the earth is evolving and changing for a very long time, but in the recent times spanning this century, the change has been drastic which has raised serious concerns to all. Climate criss is also clearly manifested as gender crisis where women are more vulnerable besides being more voiceless to raise the issue. India is marked as a highly climate-vulnerable nation. In addition, the gender disparity in the patriarchal society seems deeply and naturally ingrained among all.