Santosh K Singh, Ambedkar University, India
Why did the migrants decide to return to their villages in this crisis, given that villages have mostly been portrayed as hopeless and redundant by sociologists?
The disturbing visuals of thousands of migrants moving towards, what they repeatedly referred to as their 'home', on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, have become emblematic of the human tragedy of the pandemic. These images from all over the country are chilling reminders of stark differences between the lives of the migrant workers and the privileged city dwellers.
The urge to reach 'home', even at a distance of sometime more than a few hundred kilometers, captures the personal experience of this calamity. In fact a young man Ranveer Singh, 38, from Madhya Pradesh, who decided to undertake such a journey from Delhi, died on his way, barely a few kilometres away from his destination, as a result of cardiac arrest caused by extreme exhaustion. The situation visually has uncanny pathos-filled resemblance to the post-partition mass exodus of people across the border with hapless people trudging along with their little children on their shoulder, the old and the infirm carried on palanquin made of long cloth sheets.
Given that all these years we have heard only miserable stories of life in villages of India, how does one understand this almost obsessive rush for that purported hell–hole called the village? Is there something missing in our sociological understanding about these spaces called 'rural' and 'urban' in India? Did we, like always, look at the villages as mere economic units? And thereby made the mistake of underestimating the 'cultural' and thus the communitarian grid of social fabric of the villages? Did we suffer from over-determinism in demonising the rural and read too much in to the economic crisis that reflected in the wake of spate of suicides in the countryside? What is it that drives the migrants back to their roots in such a crisis?[i]
The reality is that the urban seems self-oriented, narcissistic and atrociously monetised. If you have no money, you have no trust. Lack of trust means no networks and therefore you are left to fend for yourself at the faintest sign of your misery. As a cultural space, urban is a cocoon whose privileged dwellers may play guitar in the balcony in times of crisis but will rarely ever reach out on the ground if the call of humanity demands so. That requires a stony, unbending Dasrath Manjhian like will that can break through the mountain. [ii] Rural, it seems, still has that death defying collective will and resilient community networks, unlike the urban whose collective conscience is brittle, cosmetic and self serving. And the altruistic core that defines any human grouping perhaps most organically permeate through the raw kinship and communitarian veins of the rural society.
The fact that a substantial proportion of these migrants are seasonal and single males from the countryside, the disastrous prospect of lockdown for a few months stirred rustic-rationality of where to go and who to look up to. They obviously knew the unforgiving nature of the urban more than the policy makers and officials who went around telling them to stay back without much preparedness. The raw logic of 'warmth of familiarity' back home was so over riding as to set them even on a course of hundreds of kilometres long walk by foot. The choice they had made when they left their homes to the cities was triggered by economic distress and for better life chances. With that incentive gone, there was nothing for them to look back in urban.
Cities are known for their blasé attitude as German Sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) would argue so eloquently in his works. [iii] City people survive on certain insularity, with a particular sense of privacy and with a life-long mission to look different and distanced from others in the vicinity. This particular fetish for isolation that I would call 'quarantine mind set' in normal times is the core constitutive logic of the metropolitan mind that has inherent contempt for the strangers and the unprivileged. This is most on display if you ever travel in a luxury coach of a train. People will hardly ever talk to each other beyond usual primary- school parroted pleasantries. In contrast, an ordinary coach in the same train will be brimming with familiarity among the unfamiliar with full garrulousness on display.
If the urban India took to the idea of social distancing, as fish to water, one must not be surprised. It is wired like that, natural to its instincts of survival. There is no great effort here deserving any applause or badge of mature citizenship behavior. Equally, not paying heed to the official warnings by the poor migrants must not be construed as deliberate defiance. To paint the migrants as delinquents with low citizenship index and therefore worthy of being inked on their forehead as witnessed in Gurgaon or being fumigated, as we saw in Bareilly as cattle and criminals betrays our claim to civility.
'Homes' are still not 'apartments', an investment item with sale and exchange value, in the villages, it seems. They are still just homes, with a rich sense of emotional boding mediated by community history, kinship, religion, and memory. And even ponds, trees and cattle. In time of impending apocalyptic crisis, roots call back. Urban, sadly, despite being the extension of the 'temples of modern India', could not be 'homes' for many. Rural despite its colossal collapse in terms of physical and material infrastructure has somehow retained its communitarian solidarity within its various subgroups, if not the village level meta- solidarity.
The other afternoon, as I lazily sat in my house, trying to flip through the pages of an old book, in an attempt to adjust to the lockdown boredom when someone called from an unknown telephone number. The voice sounded faintly familiar and horribly shaken. This was Bholi, our village acquaintance and someone I have known since childhood. The story that he narrated was tragic. Bholi had been working as a daily wager on various construction sites in the neighbouring Gurgaon for many years. His family still stayed in the village. He told me that he had got my mobile number from someone in the village. Apparently he was one of the thousands who became jobless overnight because of corona lockdown. In a few days, he had lost all his savings and trust. The landlord took care of them for a few days but now turned his back asking Bholi and others like him who had rented a room for four people, to vacate the house as soon as possible. Bholi had not eaten for some time and was virtually on the street. He asked me if I could help him with some money so that he could buy a bus ticket to Bihar from Noida and reach his village to join his family. Slightly puzzled at the possibility of a bus ride in these times, I acceded to his request being fully aware of mysterious and unpredictable ways in which our world works in these times. His landlord came across as a benevolent person still as he received the money on Bholi’s behalf through online bank transfer. Bholi was still lucky he could connect to me. What about million others like him who has been left hopelessly helpless in this pandemic?
Corona quarantine wants everybody home. The villagers marching back are going homes. They are abiding by the official warnings. Respect that. Our sanitized hands will save us biologically; our sanitised minds will save the humanity. The ill- phrased term 'social distancing' must not be taken literally. It just means physical distancing from each other to arrest the spread of the virus infection. So let’s treat the less privileged in these times with some compassion, and not as law and order problem. Let’s not abandon and surrender all our traits of a compassionate civilization at the mere bite of a bug. Poor are not just bodies, possible hides of a virus; they are as much part of our world despite the non-detolled aroma around them.
The metropolitan response to the migrants has been largely shocking and smelt of apartheid. It is very clear that poor bodies do not emit any particular aroma that attracts Corona. One report suggests that of the 1.8 lakh migrants who returned to Bihar from states like Delhi, Punjab, Maharashtra, Kerala, Gujarat, Karnataka, none have been found COVID positive so far even after the expiry of the expected two weeks period.[iv] Perhaps a more durable and a better way to deal with this pandemic is to be more humane and compassionate towards each other in these quarantine times.
[i] For analysis highlighting the crisis of Indian villages see:
[ii] Dashrath Manjhi, also known as Mountain Man, was a laborer in Gehlaur village, near Gaya in Bihar, India, who carved a path 110 m long, 9.1 m wide and 7.7 m deep through a ridge of hills using only a hammer and chisel. A film was also made on him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manjhi_%E2%80%93_The_Mountain_Man
Santosh K Singh
Santosh K Singh is a sociologist with the Global Studies Programme, School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD).