Book Review: Ranabir Samaddar (Ed.), ‘Borders of an Epidemic: Covid-19 and Migrant Workers’

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By Anindita Chakrabarty

As the title suggests, Ranabir Samaddar’s edited book, Borders of an Epidemic: Covid-19 and Migrant Workers presents how the pandemic has created and recreated borders and boundaries of wealth, territory, resources, and knowledge. It culminates with the politics of counting and uncounting, and suggests how states can work together in addressing the fractured nature of statehood in the wake of the outbreak. Our age has witnessed a simultaneous interplay of epidemic, control measures, and geopolitics. The larger theme of the book concerns with the unprecedented tumult and anxiety that have been fostered by the sudden decision for a nation-wide lockdown in India (announced on 24 March at 8pm and implemented from 25 March, 2020) that turned out to be more severe for migrant labourers, at the peripheral locations of caste, class, and gender.

In the introductory chapter, Samaddar presents a historical account of how plagues transformed nations and society, when xenophobic politics and ideology shaped laws, making them more stringent and hostile towards non-citizens. The potential of a pandemic to impact borders matches that of a war, as it marks closure of liberal ideology, wherein the modes of fighting the pandemic come to represent a repressive state apparatus. It mirrors the failure of liberal democracies that prioritise the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation, undermining public welfare. The moment experiences, as Samaddar explains, meeting of the three crises: ecological crisis, a crisis of global capitalist order, and biological crisis.

The following twelve chapters are thematically arranged, that are connected through questions around economy, migrant labour, care and care economy, and fault lines of race, caste, and gender in light of the pandemic. The first two chapters address the impact on economy that the pandemic and the lockdown triggered. The first chapter titled, ‘Corona Virus and the World-Economy: The Old is Dead, the New Can’t be Born’ by Ravi Arvind Palat questions the existing institutional structures, and  calls for their transformation for sustainability because, according to him, the visibility of a precariat does not result from the pandemic, but the global wealth inequality that patronises privatisation. The second chapter titled, ‘Migrant Labour, Informal Economy, and Logistics Sector in a Covid-19 World’ by Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay, exposes the disparities between the migrant labourers and the locals, as well as the inhabitants of the ‘knowledge city’ of Mohali, and comprehensively explains the determinant role played by the informal economy for profit-oriented accumulation. While Palat’s chapter addresses a macro perspective, Bandhyopadhyay moves from the contextual field of Mohali to the broader linkages of capitalism, lockdown, and global economy.

The following five chapters revolve around the theme of migrant labourers, succinctly exhibiting the exploitative nature of the middle class and elite-dominated state apparatus that disenfranchises the agential role of the migrant labourers and reduces them to mere biological existences. The third chapter by Badri Narayan Tiwari titled, ‘The Body in Surveillance: What to do with the Migrants in the Corona Lockdown’ explores how capitalism and colonialism trigger epidemics, exposing people with higher economic capital to the chain of epidemics, while the rest become the ‘passive innocent recipient’ (p. 45) and ‘compelled carrier’ (Ibid.). It brings out the continuity of state’s perception and disciplining of migrant bodies from the colonial to the postcolonial era. The fourth chapter titled, ‘Hunger, Humiliation, and Death: Perils of the Migrant Workers in the Time of Covid-19’ by Utsa Sarmin draws from mainstream media representations of the condition and struggles of migrant workers. She traces the struggles faced at the onset, during the journey, and after reaching the destination, where they suffer stigma and social ostracising, in strict vigilantism of community members.

The fifth chapter titled, ‘Insecurity and Fear Travel as Labour Travels in the Time of Pandemic’ is co-authored by Manish K Jha and Ajeet Kumar Pankaj and it connects the state of migrant’s presence and absence, and transit, from departure to the destination, unravelling the challenges at both the urban spaces from where they depart and the rural, where they reach, the blame game of both the central and state governments at departure and destination, and the politics that shapes their visibility and invisibility. The sixth chapter, co-authored by Anamika Priyadarshini and Sonamani Chaudhury, ‘The Return of Bihari Migrants after the COVID-19 Lockdown’ demonstrates the unwillingness of the state as well as community to receive the returning migrants, the differential responses to marginalised groups, particularly focusing on women and the myriad ways in which the pandemic and the lockdown impact them.

The seventh chapter titled, ‘The Sudden Visibility of Returnee Labour’ by Rajat Roy tries to understand the dynamics between visibility and invisibility of migrant workers and their relative treatment by the state apparatus as well as the civil society. It stresses on the undocumentedness of migrant workers that hinders facilitating systematic return migration by the state in the wake of the pandemic. These chapters dissect the migrant identity around notions of privilege, location, legal, economic, and social status, and establish how politics and the migrant labourers’ potential to be economically productive shape their visibility and invisibility. The otherwise remittance-fetching migrant suddenly becomes the despised, and hence unwanted in the city as well as in their homelands with the emergence of newer exploitative forms at destination. The chapters by Sarmin and Roy, as well as a later one by Biswas, stress the role of civil society that leaves an optimistic note at a time when the state apparatus only presents hopelessness, aiding the brazen inequalities.

The eighth chapter, co-authored by Madhurilata Basu and Sibaji Pratim Basu, titled, ‘Glimpses of Life in the Time of Corona’ brings out how nativism shapes state policies, identifies the other, wherein the fear of the other, be it Pakistan, China, Muslims, migrant workers, even health workers with mongoloid features, assures a collective consciousness. The ninth chapter, titled, ‘Migrant Workers and the Ethics of Care during a Pandemic’, co-authored by Ambar Kumar Ghosh and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury grasps the inconsistency between the legal entitlements, and substantive and social belonging of the migrants. It questions the responsibility of the state for ensuring care of the migrant workers, as it benefits from the latter, but chooses to dispossess them as ‘outside people’ when they do not contribute anymore, rendering them as ‘nowhere people’ (p. 91). These two contributions connect the notion of care when racism, xenophobia, and nativist sentiments simultaneously qualify and exclude people according to ethnocentric delineations. While Madhurilata and Sibaji Pratim Basu’s chapter presents an uncritical appreciation of the West Bengal government, urging eighteen states to take care of migrant workers, Ghosh and Basu Ray Chaudhury move on to see the political, precautionary, and selective catering underpinnings of the apparent ‘care-giving’ approach and concern of the West Bengal government, and the subtle yet emphatic unwillingness to receive the perceived diseased bodies.

The last three thematic chapters address the fault lines of caste and gender by understanding how these structural inequalities contribute to the maintenance of privilege, through intimate labour involving touch. The tenth chapter by Ishita Dey, titled, ‘Social Distancing, “Touch-Me-Not” and the Migrant Worker’ builds on ethnographic account in the city of Delhi, and understands intimate labour, characterized by social distancing of caste, class, and gender in times of COVID. The eleventh chapter by Samata Biswas, ‘Bringing the Border Home: Indian Partition 2020’ draws reference from partition mobility and that of the mobility initiated by the lockdown, reflecting on the privilege maintained through persisting systemic inequalities. The twelfth chapter, ‘Nouvelle Corona Virus and Gender Transgressions’ by Paula Banerjee, questions the suppressed visibility of women in a pandemic, as a victim as well as a care-giver. All the chapters under this theme dwell on the structural inequality based on caste and gender that separates the labourer and the seeker of labour, and how in the process, the labouring body is alienated from the fruit it bears.

Though race is mentioned in the book as one of the fault lines, the chapters do not sufficiently dwell upon the race question. And it is here that I would like to explicate a visible limitation of the book. Though the book, in the introduction, touches on racism as a fault line, and briefly in Madhurilata and Sibaji Pratim Basu’s chapter, it does not explicitly note the racist constructions of the disease. This is particularly worth in light of the dominant orientalist gaze that perceives the yellow peril in the Chinese race, the popular mainstream right wing reference of the disease as China virus, and the consequent reported incidents of racist violence encountered by migrants from North East India residing in the mainland. Accounting for racism in the form of a rejuvenated ethnocentrism that migrants with mongoloid features have faced in mainland India in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown (that left meagre scope for seeking help from community, civil society, as well as the state apparatus) could help in addressing the larger theme of the book ‒ how pandemic has sustained and refurbished borders. A second limitation of the volume concerns with understanding how the closing of state borders and nativist policy initiatives by respective state governments impacts the populace who are subjected to questions of citizenship, the statist gaze of suspicion, and doubtful belonging. The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 situate residents’ legal belonging at stake as religion becomes a category to confer citizenship. The proposal for National Registers of Citizens (NRC) in every state in India, on the other hand, would by default exclude peripheral linguistic groups by intertwining language with territorial belonging, derived from the nativist logic of demarcating between insiders and outsiders. These approaches are motivated by a homogenous imagination of cultures that seeks to silence subaltern disruptions. The chapter by Ghosh and Basu Ray Chaudhury explores how the inter-state migrants become the ‘nowhere people’, hinting at the magnitude of the experiences of those, caught at the conundrum of citizenship.

The thirteenth chapter presents the epilogue, ‘Counting and Accounting for Those on the Long Walk Home’ by Sabir Ahamed, unveils an acute lack of accessibility of data that has created a ‘surveillance state’ (p. 126) hindering policy initiatives. The fourteenth and final chapter by Swati Bhattacharjee and Abhijnan Sarkar, ‘A Report: How One State can Learn from Another’, draws a comparison between the Kerala government and other state governments in catering to the needs of the migrant labourers, and how the West Bengal government has functioned within its capacity. Besides understanding state initiatives and legalities that qualify and/or disapproves one for entitlements, it moves on to explore people’s perception about government facilities, in the form of suspicion and distrust of state-run schemes, often leading to non-utilization of those.

The book is a major contribution and forms a foundation literature for further explorations on migration studies in times of the pandemic-induced lockdown. The chapters by Bandyopadhyay and the last two by Ahamed, and Bhattacharjee and Sarkar are particularly striking as these suggest a road ahead. While Bandyopadhyay concludes with a few recommendations to address the crisis, Ahamed suggests for learning from other socialist governments, which is also explicated by Bhattacharjee and Sarkar. Ahamed further urges for long-term plans for conducting data collection and timely release of data and its non-interfered accessibility.

While the book concludes with suggestions on how states can learn from each other, a further edition might be proposed for a global collaboration. While Palat’s chapter mentions the danger of implementing the policies of the wealthier North America and Europe in Global South, Samaddar explains in the introductory chapter, how the pandemic impacts borders. As readers, we may ask: What lesson does it leave for nations? It may become pertinent to ask if the global world order would unlearn, and move away from a neo-liberal regime that promotes privatisation to a more socialist one that emphasises wealth equality. The latter exhibits the potential to simultaneously reduce the disparities that the fault lines of class, caste, gender, and race have borne in the present regime.

Bio:
Anindita Chakrabarty is presently pursuing PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her areas of specialisation comprise of migration studies, governance, and identity. For her doctoral research, she is looking into migration and identity questions in contemporary Assam. E-mail: anindita.chakrabarty60@gmail.com

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