Anjali Gera Roy and Swatee Sinha, Indian Institute of Technology, India
This essay dwells on the notion of invisible borders and suggests that segregation as a practice is infused within the urban infrastructure. Taking as its focal point the predicament of migrant labourers employed in the informal sector of the economy against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, it unravels a politics of the border which has always informed state policies. Migrants are often treated as parasites and as a social menace who flock to the cities and clog its civic space. While they are a much needed anomaly, bolstering the material infrastructure of the neoliberal economy by providing semi-skilled and skilled labour, they also pose a threat to its resilience. Redundant man power in the form of unemployed labour may bog down the economic momentum. Excess man power needs to be expelled to retain systemic efficiency. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, this miscellaneous crowd of undernourished and underpaid workers with their compromised immune systems suddenly transformed into a hot bed of viral escalation. In the absence of a clear cut logistics that could ensure food, shelter and social security for the unemployed labourers during the period of lockdown, the administration could only subject them to more rigorous drills as part of its sanitisation drive. The essay brings to the fore the voice of migrant workers mostly from the northern part of India who have emigrated to the ‘tech hubs’ of India in search of a livelihood and through their narration brings out their precarious positioning within the metropolitan civic space which treats them as a necessary menace. It is based on telephonic interviews with 25 displaced migrants in Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Telangana hailing from districts in UP and Bihar conducted between 24-29 April 2020.
The built environment of cities and the migrant worker:
Distancing and segregation remain an integral aspect of the striated and hierarchical organised city space with its high-rises, middle income, lower-income housing and make-shift tenements and squatter colonies. Informal makeshift settlements called jhuggis jhopdis do crop up in the interstices of high rises with the tacit consent of the residents and local politicians, providing refuge to the ever rising influx of rural land based communities forced to migrate to cities in search of a better livelihood. Skilled and semi-skilled workers who have migrated from the rural hinterlands into the city are often treated as parasites infesting the social space, posing a threat to the public health care system as corporeal proximity multiplies the chances of contagion. This precipitates the framing of aggressive policies focused on streamlining the city’s social infrastructure. Yet the migrants remain a necessary menace bolstering the material infrastructure of neoliberal regimes by providing skilled and semi-skilled labour for a paltry sum.
Etienne Balibar’s understanding of borders as embedded in the civic consciousness and materialised through state policies underscores the inequities that underpin the state infrastructure. Balibar revisits the concept of the border in the contemporary geopolitical context where it seems to be undergoing 'a profound change' in semantics. Border is no longer simply a territorial accreditation but has emerged as a fractured concept 'dispersed a little everywhere, wherever the movement of people, information and things is happening and is controlled — for example, in cosmopolitan cities'. (Balibar 2004, 1). Balibar’s revisionist formulation of borders as a dispersed phenomenon resonates with the present status of the migrant worker in the city.
The essay revisits Balibar’s notion of the border against the backdrop of the nationwide lockdown following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic; it examines borders from the twin perspectives of the stranded migrant worker often homeless and with no access to basic civic amenities and of the worker-in-transit negotiating with checkpoints and highway patrol during the spate of reverse migrations to their native villages following the outbreak. The article argues that the aggressive contouring of both space and urban demography through makeshift barricades and enforced containments to curb the growth of the virus has only served to expose the often invisible lines of demarcation spanning urban morphologies. It focuses on case studies that bring to the fore the material deprivation of an urban underclass of circular migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh employed in the informal sector and living in makeshift tenements in India’s ‘tech hubs’ Bangalore and Hyderabad.[i]
State directed interdiction:
The notion of the border has gained a ubiquity implanting itself in all narrations of the body politic. The idea of the invisible border or the border that can be strategically manipulated to allow selective access to civic amenities gives us a deeper insight into contemporary state politics pertaining to the management of a migrant labour force.[ii] The civic infrastructure/ built environment of the State apparatus revolves around a referential axis that ascribes identity, consolidates and in the process generates 'nonreferential spaces: nonplaces' (Davidson 2003, 11). The state’s delineation of frontiers permeates the civic space that controls migrations, determines access to civic facilities and creates ghettos or non-places populated by delegitimised, spectral presences. Davidson uses the term 'interdiction' to explain the the process by which nation states regulate migrant or refugee flows 'prohibiting, intercepting, or in some cases, deflecting unauthorized movement' (Davidson 2003, 5) and 'exercise or attempt to exercise sovereignty both inside and outside their established frontiers' (Davidson 2003, 4). State-directed interdiction[iii] may be multi-layered, involving multiple screening mechanisms or a phase wise assimilation/rejection, recognition/withdrawal of domicile status based on policies of migrant management.
The COVID-19 scenario has triggered a rigorous process of plugging the perforations in the notion of the border to stem the enormous surge of human traffic which has overwhelmed the administrative unit of the state vested with the task of reparations. It is this explosion/implosion of the concept of the border that forms an intriguing area of investigation causing widespread fibrosis and thickening of the border zones as a reactive process to stem all influx through stringent bureaucratic policies of inclusion and exclusion into the public sphere. The imposition of curfew, the suspension of industrial production and construction projects, loss of livelihoods and lack of a systematic distribution of aid compel itinerant, informal workers to undertake epic inter-state journeys to their native villages as part of a reverse-migration drive to seek refuge in agrarian modalities of sustenance having suffered systemic abandonment.
Bhaiyyas [Uttar Pradesh and Bihar migrant workers] [iv] in tech hubs
There is a bureaucratic layering that requires inter-state migrant workers to register their name and phone number to procure ration which again is a frustrating and a time consuming process. With the imposition of the curfew from 25 March 2020 and mobilisation of social distancing protocols, the fringe elements were left to their own devices in a paralysed economy that further denuded their status to vagrants. With no social safety net they found themselves exposed to the virus and the more palpable threat of death by starvation.
Hailing from the northern regions of the country, these workers' distress can be assessed along multiple planes: the experience of being stranded in the southern reaches of the country, the imposition of a month-long curfew foiling their hopes of returning, dwindling food supplies and lack of access to state sponsored ration often reserved for local residents with a valid card[v], the perennial issue of hunger precipitating extreme journeys, the language barrier that forecloses the possibility of sending out distress signals to local authorities who already seem over taxed, unsympathetic employers who often abandon them to the vagaries of the crisis. The aid extended to these displaced individuals by local NGOs often falls short of the reinforcements needed to alleviate the situation.
These migrants thus inhabit a liminal space who are denied right of access into the civic space of the city proper. The words that recur time and again in these migrant narratives are raashanpani [rations], dikkat [problem], bhukh [hunger], vyavasthya [arrangements] and guzara [making ends meet], underscoring their minimalist concerns. Famished livelihoods, fear of eviction, lack of money and food which had been integral elements of the everyday life of the itinerant worker are suddenly accentuated with the outbreak of the pandemic, escalating the scale of crisis to an event of mass tragedy. Problems keep cropping up and extension of the lockdown at work seems to have robbed these migrants of the last vestiges of hope. There is a palpable sense of desperation as these young men wait for a commute to return to their native villages where they hope to be able to have two square meals a day.
Neeraj, a twenty-something youth from Deoria (a district in eastern Uttar Pradesh) stranded in Bangalore, sums up the general fate of the inter-state migrant. Neeraj is somewhat familiar with the local tongue, having lived around the area for two years, but this history of a relatively longer residence doesn’t seem to have improved his prospects in terms of accessibility to raashanpani and a stable shelter. Plagued by the heat in poorly ventilated quarters, on the brink of starvation, suffering from perennial stress and uncertainty as to what the future holds, his voice is curt and sometimes a little brusque. Relief measures seem inadequate and selectively deployed. When the lockdown is lifted and train services resume he is hoping for a quick exit, having suffered estrangement and systemic deprivation at several levels. The city, his adopted home for the last two years, has disowned him in the present state of crisis.
Ramgya, another migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh stranded in Telangana, hails from Maharajganj in Gorakhpur and echoes Raju’s disappointment. He etches out a livelihood as a painter. Living in a jhopri [a makeshift shack], there are health issues with the weather worsening; medicines are expensive and hard to procure. There is absolutely no vyavastha [management] to pragmatically resolve the crisis in terms of logistics. Food packets distributed for free are inadequate in terms of quantity and instead of having meals at regular intervals, now he has restricted his diet to one or two meals a day, saving up as much as he can for the future.
Umesh, stranded in Telangana, mirrors the strained conditions that put to test the endurance of these abandoned laborers with no access to raashanpani. Umesh says people like him have sunk into absolute neglect being treated, as he explicitly states, like kira makora [pests], waved away from medicine shops, denied health services and treated like a menace. With a mild fever brewing and the stifling heat that threatens to aggravate his condition Umesh’s fragile health is craving for reinforcements. At his native village he can still manage to survive on roti and salt but here the sense of abandonment is acute further compounded by the fact that he is from a different state.
Ramlakhan, stranded in Telangana, hails from Kushinagar, a district in Uttar Pradesh. His words again underscore the immediacy of hunger and the possibility of starvation, which needs an urgent redressal. An acquaintance joins in over phone. A similar story surviving on grains and pulses with no money to procure vegetables. Dikkat has a great degree of discomfort with no accessibility to basic resources, and the uncertainty regarding commuting are foremost on his mind.
Santosh speculates it’s probably the language issue that is the reason why their problems remain untranslated. Santosh has migrated from Delhi where he was employed earlier. Guzara [survival] is the only concern and he is planning to get back on the road on foot or maybe on a cycle to return to his native village in Uttar Pradesh. He is aware it may take 20/25 days and may not be the safest bait with the heat and the unfavorable weather multiplying the chances of mortality. Bhukh is a slow killer and people seem to be wasting away. The only concern is to procure enough to survive. With three people cooped up in a cramped shelter, their thoughts drift back to the same concern, survival. Food distribution is not systematic and seems to be working smoothly in sporadic pockets. Helpline numbers are unresponsive.
Systemic abandonment and reverse migrations
Jeetu, from Lucknow and stranded in Chennai, started for his native village in Uttar Pradesh on 2 March 2020, much ahead of the announcement and implementation of the lockdown on 25 March 2020. With a grim prognosis of the imminent economic downturn and uncertainty regarding raashanpani, he planned a quick exit before things deteriorated. He coordinated with other laborers from adjacent villages in his home state and together they planned an exit trip from Chennai. They started on 2 March 2020 and after a span of eighteen days reached their respective villages. Jeetu, along with other stranded laborers on a similar trail, managed to reach a place somewhere in the vicinity of Jhansi by hitchhiking on a truck that agreed to ferry a contingent of ninety laborers. Jeetu somehow managed to dodge police surveillance on the highway. Whenever they encountered a patrol car or passed a check point the truck driver cleverly dismounted the human cargo. Stuck in Kanpur until 8pm, they were finally given an alternative and allowed to walk along the rail tracks to reach Lucknow but were denied entry into the city proper. They were instructed to take to the bypass and finally got a car which dropped them off at Bahraich where they were taken into custody by the police. After a preliminary clinical checkup they were allowed to cover the remaining stretch and instructed to self-isolate for 14 days on reaching their destination. From Bahraich to the village it was again a long and arduous walk. Their itinerary, which lasted eighteen days, in addition to the vagaries of the road was also laced with uncertainties in terms of food and sustenance. With no route charted out to facilitate the exodus of the migrants and absolutely no reinforcements in terms of food and water arranged by the government, they could only fall back on the sporadic aid provided by well-wishers, but mostly they travelled on empty stomachs. Having exhausted his meagre savings of 1,700 rupees to pay for the commute, Jeetu was on the road with no resources and money to fall back on. With all their savings exhausted, what spurred them on was the hope to die in the comfort of their homes. Jeetu was lucky to reach home, but many others were not fortunate to make it. As we listen to his voice visuals crop up of being stranded in dark highways, hunted down by searchlights, prodded with questions at every checkpoint and subjected to cold bureaucratic procedures which treated them as aliens.
Shyam Sundar’s journey from Telangana to Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh on cycle, embracing an uncertain terrain, reiterates a similar tale. He embarked on his journey on 31 March 2020. A contingent of nine labourers cycled from Telangana till Bahraich, a district in Uttar Pradesh. Mediawale (the media people) would sometimes provide food, and at times they would depend on roadside eateries. They would cycle from 4am to 9am and rest during the daytime to shelter themselves from the heat. They resumed their journey from 3pm in the afternoon, taking a halt again at 9pm. It took them around ten days to cover the stretch. A tailor by profession, he had travelled to Telangana on 17 March 2020. Folks from his village who are engaged in the biscuit trade in Telangana were kind enough to lend him a cycle as commute. With no prospect of a steady ration and unavailability of aid in an unknown city, Shyam Sundar thought it best to return. Every now and then, overpowered by fatigue, he and his cohorts would rest under the open skies on the highway. They encountered other migrants on the way, some of whom were walking back on foot. Shyam Sundar covered a distance of approximately 2,000 kilometres on his cycle. On reaching his home village of Pradhan, the local administration and the health department quarantined them in a school. He was barred from going to his family.
These case studies reflect the challenge that the migrant worker faces caught in between a desire to return and to endure under extreme conditions for the sake of livelihood. The irresolvable contradictions that reside in the city’s work ethics, its built environment of selective inclusion when it comes to migrant labour is underpinned by the neoliberal impulse to extract the most from available human resources in the form of cheap labour recruited under shady policies. With a fragile public health care system, low in accountability and an indifferent civic consciousness, the emaciated spectral bodies of the indigent masses, the human detritus of corporate regimes are left stranded on the road, exposed and vulnerable.
[i] Telephonic interviews were conducted by Satyendra Raj with 25 migrant workers in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi between 24-29 April 2020 for this article.
[ii] This politics may be made manifest in a process of documentation at a very fundamental level such as the procurement of a ration card that ensures food security.
[iii] The movement of both refugees and economic migrants are placed under a system of surveillance that enacts a staggered absorption through painstaking paperwork.
[iv] Bhaiyya is a derogatory term used to refer to migrant workers from villages in UP and Bihar that have seen labour migration overseas and within India for more than a century. While migrants from UP and Bihar constitute a significant labour population in metro cities like Kolkata and Mumbai, the movement to the ‘tech hubs’ of Bangalore and Hyderabad appears to be a more recent phenomenon. 200 migrant labourers from Bihar were found to be living in Hongasandra municipal ward: https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/bangalore/others/migrant-labourer-from-bihar-creates-coronavirus-scare-in-bengaluru-slum/articleshow/75319021.cms
[v] This may be an Aadhar card or a ration card as a key marker of citizenship. The Ration and its present digital version enables every eligible household in the country to collect their daily staple as a food security measure. Lack of a card bars access to basic food supply. Migrant laborers continue to remain outside the purview of government initiatives undertaken to redress poverty and alleviate hunger.
Ballibar, E. 2004. We, the people of Europe? Reflections on transnational citizenship. Translated by James Swenson. Princeton University Press: Princeton & Oxford.
Davidson, A. R. 2003. Introduction: spaces of immigration 'prevention': interdiction and the nonplace. Diacritics 33: 3-18.
Migrant labourer from Bihar creates coronavirus scare in Bengaluru slum. 30 April 2020. Bangalore Mirror. Accessed on 30 April 2020.
Migrant interviews conducted over telephone by Satyendra Raj between 24-29 April 2020.
Anjali Gera Roy and Swatee Sinha
Anjali Gera Roy is Professor and Swatee Sinha is Assistant Professor at the department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.