Sankara Krishna, University of Hawaii, USA
A pivotal moment in Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things is rendered by her as 'the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while. In clear view. For everyone to see' (Roy 2008: 35).
COVID-19 has thrown much about our world, our hidden morality so to speak, into stark relief. It appears that for many among the world’s political and social elite an abstraction called 'the economy' or 'the market' matters a great deal more than human lives; that 'pre-existing conditions' that make one more susceptible to dying from an epidemic are inseparable from poverty, unemployment and access to health care; and that given the overlap between these pre-existing conditions and brown-black populations globally, we can expect COVID-19 fatalities to develop into an unlamented ethnocide of colossal proportions. Perhaps most importantly, the current pandemic has revealed starkly that when our world is faced with imminent collapse, far from that prospect bringing us together as humans, we are more likely to attack each other with even greater ferocity on the basis of class, race, caste, religion, or nation, just to live a little bit longer. The response to the pandemic encourages us to think that a bleak dystopia like Cormac McCarthy’s 'The Road' is a more accurate prognosis of our likely future than the optimistic scenarios envisaged by humanists of various hues.
In this brief essay, I explore what COVID-19 has thrown into relief about India. I have long argued that part of the reality of being in India’s middle class is to regard oneself as inhabiting an ‘over-populated’ society, one in which a significant proportion of the people is seen as redundant or disposable - not unemployed so much as unworthy of employment. They are regarded as a drain on the state’s exchequer, as a burden on a meritorious middle class, as unhygienic, and as people whose poverty is the result of bad habits and sloth. They are not so much the deserving poor as they are those who deserve to be poor. For many in India’s middle class, her huge population might well be called a 'great denominator': it reduces everything about us – our per capita GDP, our growth rates, our achievements in domains like information technology or space exploration- into insignificance. What of any significance could possibly remain once it is divided by a number as huge as 1.3 billion, really? To the middle class, our over-population diminishes our status in the eyes of other, more prosperous, advanced nations, and detracts from our ability to enjoy the nation.
This sense of inhabiting an over-populated nation is frequently expressed in middle class fantasies of an authoritarian state that would implement a draconian family-planning policy the way China did; or in semi-serious comments about how it might not have been a bad thing if the late Sanjay Gandhi had had his way for a decade rather than merely a year back during the Emergency of the mid-1970s; or in futuristic depictions of Indian cities replete with flyovers, skyscrapers and superfast trains – but markedly bereft of people. As far back as 1959, the father of India’s nuclear program and a scientist lionized to this day in multiple hagiographies, Homi Bhabha, 'jocularly' suggested that it might be good to invent some substance that when mixed with rice could reduce the fertility of Indians by 30%. In more recent decades, the trauma of being an over-populated country is displaced most strongly onto the allegedly hyper-fertile, polygamous, alien Muslim bent on breeding the Hindu into a minority in his own land.
A minuscule minority with a majority complex
In mid-February 2020, the Income Tax department revealed that 57.8 million Indians filed tax returns for the previous year, of whom only 14.6 million people owed any income taxes at all as the rest fell below the minimum threshold for taxation. Given that India’s current population is about 1.353 billion this means only 4.27% needed to file a tax return and only about 1.08% paid income tax. I mention this statistic to underline something about India which is relatively invisible to the world: the extraordinarily miniscule size of what one might call its formal or organized economy, one that constitutes the mainstay of its middle class, and, conversely, the gigantic extent of its informal economy, the home of the great denominator, as it were.
This informal economy is characterised by an exceptional degree of precariousness of income, employment, housing, food, personal security, access to public health, education, and other essentials of the barest life. This is reflected in the fact that India leads the world in terms of the percentage of its children who are malnourished, significantly higher than even sub-Saharan Africa, and that as much as 75% of its people subsist on less than US $2 per day. India is ranked 129 out of 189 countries in the United Nations’ Human Development Index, a ranking that has barely budged despite impressive GDP growth rates for over 20 years. This disjuncture between impressive growth rates and sustained colossal poverty led the economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen to observe that 'There is probably no other example in the history of world development of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of broad-based social progress'. (Dreze and Sen 2011).
Dreze and Sen made their observation in 2011, and the growth picture has slowed down greatly since then, which means the fate of India’s precariat has only worsened in the ensuing decade. Today, as much as 28% of the world’s poorest people live within India’s borders and yet we lag behind most countries in terms of government allocations to public health, primary education, or public housing. In a reflection of our priorities, despite this gigantic level of poverty, in 2018, we were the world’s fourth largest importer of armaments. Colossal amounts of state funds are being squandered on building the world’s largest statue, on remaking Lutyens’ Delhi, and other vanity projects.
Many of the Indian government’s 'policies' on tackling COVID-19 reveal the mindset of a regime that regards only a certain fraction of the population as constituting the nation, and the rest as disposable. It is the mindset of a middle class that has already escaped the great denominator and sees itself as akin to middle classes in spaces like Singapore, Bangkok, Dubai, London, Sydney or Chicago. When Prime Minister Modi declared a national lockdown slamming the brakes on a gigantic economy with exactly four hours’ notice, he was not thinking about how this might impact anyone in this precariat, but was signaling his decisive leadership qualities to a tiny audience watching the spectacle on their flat-screen televisions.
Of Migrants and Muslims
About 20% of India’s population, about 270 million people, are internal migrants - that is, they cross district and state borders to work elsewhere to make a living. Remittances by such laborers to the home village is critical to a larger family’s survival. Most of this internal migration is forced, that is, caused by moribund rural economies with little prospect for survival, let alone upward mobility. It frequently involves leaving the poorest states to find seasonal, and often dangerous, employment in richer states and bigger cities. A large proportion of migrant labor works in the construction industry, building the corporate skyscrapers, apartment complexes, shopping malls and roadways that now predominate in Indian cities and are used mainly by its middle class. Many migrants work as drivers, maid servants, vendors, day laborers, part-time factory workers, and a host of other jobs that are routinely glorified as being in the 'service sector' but are, in reality, in the 'servile sector', a form of existence on the very edge of survival and barely distinguishable from slavery.
When the lockdown was declared, not only were these millions deprived of their daily bread because they lost their jobs, and with that their living space, they were also denied the means to return to their home states and villages as all forms of transportation, including buses and trains, were instantaneously stopped. Tens of thousands of migrant laborers fled the cities to return to their villages on foot, carrying their meager possessions over distances of hundreds of kilometers, and in some instances over a thousand. (The distance between Delhi, the nation’s capital and host to a huge number of construction laborers, and Jharkhand, a major ‘exporter’ of such labor, is in excess of 1,200 kilometres). Fearing they may be carriers of the dreaded virus, some were denied re-entry into their home states by regional governments or to their homes by village panchayats, and either forced to return to the cities they fled or interned in relief camps that were highly vulnerable to the COVID-19, besides other diseases. Some of the laborers were hosed down with a chemical spray by the police, as if they were themselves vermin as distinct from humans possibly infected by a virus. Still others were forced to crawl on their hands and knees as punishment for violating the quarantine orders, and many were brutally beaten up policemen using lathis. One photograph showed a migrant laborer on his knees carefully collecting spilled milk off the road – while a few feet away, stray dogs lapped up the milk. Still others have talked of fearing death from starvation and exhaustion – and there is already evidence that some have died as a result of the Government’s hasty and unplanned lockdown.
Migrant laborers do not have access to free or subsidised food through India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) because the ration cards that enable access to that do not work outside their home villages or small towns. As it is, estimates are that over a 100 million Indians who should qualify for subsidised food through the PDS are unable to access it due to bureaucratic inefficiencies of various sorts. India currently has more than enough food reserves in storage to feed all of its poor for months during this pandemic. Every year, an unconscionable amount of such stored food is allowed to rot or is consumed by rats due to the poor storage conditions. Yet the central government has not undertaken the steps to distribute this food free to those who need it, irrespective of whether or not they have the requisite IDs or ration cards. Given the availability of food and the presence of a fairly dense network of railways and roadways, the lockdown could have been conducted in a manner that spared India’s migrant laborers the nightmare they are enduring.
The contemptuous treatment of migrant labor is exceeded, if that is conceivable, by that meted out to India’s Muslims. As far back as 2006, the Sachar Committee reported its finding that the Muslim community in India was the poorest section of society, beneath even those of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. In fact, not only were they the lowest section of society they faced the greatest obstacles in terms of upward mobility. Muslims were grossly under-represented in public or private sector employment, among degree holders, faced discrimination when it came to housing or to credit or to educational opportunities. The Committee’s recommendation that the Central government institute a program of affirmative action to redress the plight of India’s Muslims was met first with inaction by then-ruling Congress party and by active opposition by from ruling BJP regimes since 2014.
Fifteen years later after the Sachar Committee Report, the world in which such a Report and such a recommendation were even possible seems as if it were in a different galaxy. A series of actions – the removal of Kashmir’s special status and its bifurcation; the house arrest of all its political leaders; the enactment of Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens; the brazen attacks on campuses such as JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia seen as bastions of secularism; the vandalisation of Muslim homes and neighborhoods in Uttar Pradesh with the documented involvement of the Police; the ongoing persecution of the protesters at Shaheen Bagh; the growing instances of mob violence and lynching of Muslims- all enacted with either the covert or overt support of the ruling party has made it clear that to them India is a Hindu nation in which minorities, especially Muslims, are second class citizens, if that. As with right-wingers in the United States seeking to Sinicize the coronavirus, the ruling party and its storm troopers have communalised the virus in India as a Muslim conspiracy, as even an act of biological terrorism. A hysterical majoritarian media and WhatsApp forwards have acted as a resonance machine that drowns out any coverage of this matter. The central government has used the pandemic to intensify its crackdown against Muslims as well as all forms of democratic dissent and reasoned critique of its policies.
While India’s middle classes have long harboured what I have called a genocidal or exterminist fantasy regarding its superfluous population, the current situation is marked by a degree of communalising of that fantasy that is unprecedented. For the longest time, India’s middle classes prided themselves on their (self-anointed) aberrant or exceptional status as one of the few third world democracies.
That claim, a largely illusory one to begin with, is looking more threadbare than ever.
Dreze J. & Sen A. 2011. Putting growth in its place. Outlook (India). 14 November. Accessed at: https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/putting-growth-in-its-place/278843
Roy A. 2008. The god of small things. New York: Harper Perrenial, 366 pages.
Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He can be reached at email@example.com while his books, journal articles and other publications can be accessed at https://manoa-hawaii.academia.edu/SankaranKrishna