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Coronavirus Exposes India’s Apathy Toward Its 100m Migrant Workers

The acuteness of their plight today is a result of the fact that India ignored them during normal times

DESPARDES — The Coronavirus pandemic is exposing once again India’s deep economic divide, and the BJP-led government’s apathy toward the workers who power the country’s growth.

The country’s prime minister Narendra Modi ordered the lockdown with less than four hours’ notice. “Forget what it is like stepping out of the house for 21 days. Stay at home and only stay at home,” he said. He mentioned nothing specific about the daily-wage earners—mostly migrant workers—whose income, in an instant, disappeared.

On Tuesday, daily wage earners, assembled at suburban Bandra (West) bus depot near the railway station in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, and squatted on road. They originally hail from states like West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Migrant laborers are among the most vulnerable parts of the “informal sector,” which make up 80 percent of India’s workforce. The country’s infrastructure is built on the backs of these workers.

They often come to cities to look for work, because they cannot make a living in their village. They are rarely part of a trade union and typically work without any contract or benefits. Most earn cash, and do not leave a paper trail. They are also disproportionately from historically marginalized groups, referred to, in the country’s official lexicon, as “scheduled castes” (those at the bottom of Hinduism’s hierarchy of castes) and tribal groups. Nationally, these two groups make up about 25 percent of the population.

Migrant workers never seem to be much of a consideration for politicians. These workers, despite their numbers, have no political clout.

Statistically, they are almost invisible. Because they consistently move between villages and cities, and among work sites, capturing their number is difficult. The federal government’s 2017 economic survey said, “If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20 percent, the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be over 100 million.” That’s nearly three times the population of Afghanistan.

A lockdown is unbearably becoming difficult for those without a social and economic cushion. This crisis will only worsen as these migrant workers alternate between the fear of catching the virus and the fear of zero income.

Jan Sahas, an Indian nonprofit, recently conducted a survey, “Voices of the Invisible Citizens,” about the impact of the lockdown on migrant workers. They interviewed 3,196 migrant construction workers from northern and central India. The results paint a dismal picture: “62 percent of workers did not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government and 37 percent did not know how to access the existing schemes.”

India has extended the lockdown to May 3 due to spike in Coronavirus cases and millions are at risk of death from hunger, poverty and joblessness, and that includes migrant workers, an observer says.

Brokerages have warned the pandemic will deal a huge blow to the Indian economy and the country’s April-June GDP may drop to negative 5 percent year-on-year or even more.

The extension of the 21 days lockdown could push its GDP to severe contraction phase, the observer says.

“The Dalit, Muslims and Tribals, who make up roughly half of India’s 1.35bln population (including migrant workers) and economically weak, are likely to suffer the most.”

The new coronavirus has given migrants a sudden visibility in the national discourse. But the acuteness of their plight today is a result of the fact that India ignored them during normal times, according to The Atlantic.

The original article appeared on April 12, 2020 in The Atlantic