Migrant Workers: The Nameless Faces, the Many Insignificant Lives

By Mahvish Shahab 

Seene mein jalan aankhon mein toofan sa kyun hain,
Iss sheher mein har shakhs pareshan sa kyun hain.

Why is there a heartburn, a storm in the eyes,
Why is every man in this city worried? (Gaman, 1978)

These lines somewhat define the present situation that the COVID-19 has exposed us to. While the entire country and the whole world has been brought to a halt, there are many who are on the move. These are the migrant workers/labourers, presently the most vulnerable of the Indian society. Vulnerable because they have been exposed to the harsh brutalities of not only the pandemic but to the other systemic and economic inequalities that are ensuing from the nationwide response to it. These faces are not new. We are familiar with them. Their pain is also not new. The tears in their eyes, the thirst and hunger are what every migrant has lived through. What is disturbing is the measure for their lives that weigh less on the balance of who needs immediate saving. Here I make reference to the several ‘stranded’ Indians who have been flown in from overseas. The message is clear. The migrants can wait. Perhaps they are being counted as among the ‘non-essential’ services for a long time.

The tale of many Ghulams

Gaman which means departure or migration depicts the story of a rural youth, Ghulam Husain (Farooq Sheikh), who in a bid to earn a livelihood moves to the metropolitan city of Mumbai. Husain represents the millions of migrants who leave their humble, impoverished homes, their families, and perhaps their identities, only to get lost in the devouring and ruthless urban spaces that promise work opportunities, a stable income, and hence a brighter future. Migrant workers are among the informal sector’s most vulnerable sections, which make up 80 percent of India’s workforce. Existing all around us and forming part of our daily lives, they are considered ‘invisible beings’. For those who deny their services and most importantly their existence now, the pandemic has affirmed the former notion to be true. Commenting on the conflict in the movement from the rural to the urban spaces, Madhava M. Prasad writes, “The spaces of the city are a site where struggles between opposing forces and desires, hopes and projections, are played out – confrontations between a governing will and a resistant population or between classes, rulers and ruled” (Prasad: 2007:83).

By whatever means necessary

Every extension of the lockdown has proved catastrophic for India’s millions of migrant and daily wage workers. Since 24 March, the media has reported on these labourers and workers attempting to head back to their villages in a bid to survive the largest migration ever witnessed after the Partition. Nerve-wrenching images of men, women and children walking on foot, travelling thousands of kilometers and even more have exposed us to the costs of being poor. These emaciated beings are simply on their own. Many have taken autos and taxis, while many of them are walking on highways only to find truck drivers willing to assuage their agonies.  Not  only  this,  many  have  decided  to  cycle  all  the  way  to  their  hometowns. But this is no ultra-marathon that they are running. This is but a desperate hustle to make the perilous journey home which may neither be rewarded nor celebrated. Evidently, the worst-hit from the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown are the semi-skilled and unskilled labourers. There are cuts and blisters on their feet caused by walking impossibly long distances spanning more than 1000 kilometers. With the burden of their meagre belongings on their heads and the desperation to get back to their native places, these migrants, in lakhs, have been forced to cover huge distances. Caravans of migrants are seen travelling from Mumbai to Bihar, to UP, Jharkhand, MP, where the migrant labour mostly come from. Hunger-stricken with no respite in sight, these young men and women, also accompanied by children, are moving in trails towards their ‘homes’ that would offer them the comfort that they had to once leave in search of employment.

Of betrayals and false promises

When the nationwide lockdown was announced on the 24 March for the first time, it was followed by reports in the media how thousands of migrants had thronged railway stations and bus depots to make their journey back home. This rush was motivated by uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. These emotions coupled with helplessness and agony led to an exodus which continues till today, till this very moment. When landlords and owners abandoned them, without paying their wages and in some cases even ripping them off of their possessions, these hapless and disheartened migrants had no other options but to reach their ‘homes’. As Ashish Nandy wrote, “the Indian city has re-emerged in public consciousness not as a new home, from within the boundaries of which one has the privilege of surveying the ruins of one’s other abandoned homes. It has re-emerged as the location of a homelessness forever trying to reconcile non-communitarian individualism and associated forms of freedom with communitarian, freely or involuntarily borne responsibilities. Apparently, the city of the mind does not fear homelessness; it even celebrates homelessness” (Nandy: 2001:25). For these migrant workers, ‘home’ is the place where they will survive because they will get food. These migrants had turned towards the shining urban cities to find better avenues and secure a decent lifestyle. Those magnanimous cities, unfortunately, have failed miserably to provide them two square meals. The glamour and the glitz have diffused as testimonies of the migrants screaming in the face of the apathetic government, the capitalist society, and the elite that reside therein luxuriously with callous disregard.

A Bitter Concoction

The tales are harrowing. They shock us, make us numb with disbelief and cause a certain discomfort depending on how long one is willing to contemplate over them. What we are witnessing is not out of a movie or an unknown location that we are completely detached from. These migrants are people who have surrounded us, who have been part of our daily transactions and everyday affairs of the ritual called living. The only difference is that while the upper-class live, these migrants struggle for the most part of their lives to survive. While the pandemic has pushed all of us to the question of survival in diverse ways, these migrants are braving the adversities that have been compounded by the pandemic. One is perplexed to understand what is more intense: the fear of dying nameless and unidentified in temporary shelters or the desperation to reach home safely. For the majority of the migrants, the family still resides in their native places, and hence the longing to reach home. Ranjani Mazumdar has rightly said that “in imaginative terms, the ‘village’ is never absent from everyday life in the city. The narrative of migration and departure from home is a key part of urban life. The street in the city is a site for the flow of both rural and urban imagination” (Mazumdar: 2007: 4).

The Return to the Loved Ones

Gaman depicts the tumultuous and deplorable life of the protagonist, a ‘no one’ in the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai. Ghulam is the face of these wretched beings, who are trying hard to adjust with the complex and advanced ‘City of Dreams’, matching their pace with urban settings sucking the life out of them. Ghulam’s wife writes to him in the hope that he would return to the tranquil familial space that is a forgotten luxury now. The examples of harsh realities of city life are highlighted when a dead taxi driver is referred to by his taxi number and not his name. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has reduced humans to insignificant numbers. An analysis of news reports in national media shows that more than 100 migrant workers have been killed in accidents since March 24, while hundreds of others have sustained injuries. Some were run over by a train resting on railway tracks; some others have been dying of hunger. The most recent and unnerving case is of a migrant woman found dead with her young toddlers trying to wake her up.

Such is the state of affairs that has reduced migrant lives to nothing. Many Ghulams are now risking their lives only to save it in the first place. But what is their identity? They are certainly not mad to cover miles and miles marked with exhaustion and despair. They also cannot vanish into thin air to make things seem normal. Every migrant worker or laborer on the road is navigating his/her way through this passivity and negation of their existence that held some meaning until before the lockdown. Scorching heat and frugal means only add to the mirage of a safe ride back home. Those who have been fuel to the economy are now struggling to keep their stomachs from growling. Water and biscuits, for some of them, keep them going. For many others, the day keeps on expanding and the stretch becomes wider.

Tanhai ki ye kaun si manzil hai rafeeqo
Taa-hadde-nazar ek bayaabaan saa kyun hai.

Tell me friends, what secluded place have I come to?
As far as the eye can see, why is there nothing but an uninhabited desert?

Works Cited

Mazumdar, Ranjani. Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City. Oxford UP, 2007.

Nandy, Ashish. An Ambiguous Journey to the City: The Village and Other Odd Ruins of the Self in the Indian Imagination. Oxford UP, 2001.

Prasad, Madhava. M. “Realism and Fantasy in Representations of Metropolitan Life in Indian Cinema.” In City Flicks: Indian Cinema and Urban Experience, by Preben Kaarsholm, 82-98. Seagull Books, 2010.

Mahvish Shahab studies Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has completed B.A. LLB (Hons.) at the Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She is interested in Human Rights and civil liberties issues.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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