Ever since the Indian government abruptly imposed an unplanned countrywide lockdown as a containment strategy against the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented internal migrant labour crisis has hit the country.

As all means of transportation were shut down, labourers from several states embarked on a long, tiresome, and often deadly journey towards their home states on foot. 

In the last two month, we have come across images of men and women walking on highways holding their children in their arms and carrying their luggage on the head, of small kids and their arduous journeys back home, of migrant labourers crushed by train and trucks, of pregnant women giving birth on the road, and of people dying of starvation and exhaustion.

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The latest of such recorded instances of misery came in the form of a video showing a toddler attempting to wake his dead mother up on a railway station.

All of these has brought to fore, the precarious lives of a large section of the Indian working class. As of 20 May, according to a News18 analysis, more than 100 migrant labourers lost their lives since 24 March in accidents while walking back home. Many more have perished due to starvation and exhaustion.

It has been over two months now, and the crisis is not over yet. In fact, it has just begun. As these workers walk back to their native places in the scorching heat, they are going to confront those very conditions, which forced them to migrate thousands of kilometres away from their homes in the first place. The effects, this time, are only going to be exacerbated by the crisis.

The current migrant crisis must be understood as the consequence of the capitalist model of development and its neoliberal avatar, instead of just the Indian state’s apathy towards migrant workers. This is because the apathy and inhumanity of the Indian state directly flows from the logic of capitalism itself, which it has pursued relentlessly over the last thirty years. 

Why did these people have to migrate to distant places far from their homes in the first place?

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First, an obvious answer here is the lack of economic development in the northern states – the source of the bulk of the migrants. This lack of development, or uneven development, is a characteristic feature of the capitalist model of development, which runs on the logic of profit maximisation. The northern states have lack social, physical, and economic infrastructures, which are necessary to attract industries.

As David Harvey writes, “time is money for capital”.

Also read ‘India Should Treat the Migrant Workers Exodus as a Humanitarian Crisis, and Migrants As IDPs’

The lack of physical infrastructure, like better road, rail and air connectivity, and relatively long distances from import points (like seaports), increase the cost of the capitalist model of development, which in turn, hurts its net profit. 

Second, the continued negligence of the Indian state towards the agricultural sector has produced an agrarian crisis, which is now more than a decade old. This has led to a steady decline in income of rural populations, with farmers not getting remunerative prices for their crops. A vast majority of people in the northern states are dependent on agricultural activity, and with the decline of real wages and lack of industries in their states, they are left with no choice but to migrate to different states.

This movement of people from their home to other states and areas with relatively better industrial development and metropolitan cities contribute to increasing, what Marx called, “the industrial reserve army”. Its role is to further diminish both wages and organised working-class solidarity and resistance. This section of labour, as Marx said, are considered expendable.      

Labourers unloading a truck piled deep with coconuts, carting them basket by basket to vendors and middlemen inside the Koyambedu Market market in Chennai, Tamil Nadu | Photo: McKay Savage, Flickr

The neoliberal form of capitalism has further accentuated this precarity of the working classes. Withdrawal of the state from social welfare schemes and privatisation of education and healthcare have only increased the related expenditure of the workers in the unorganised sector, forcing many into indebtedness and pushing them into the vicious cycle of poverty.

Also read ‘COVID-19 in India: Agrarian and Informal Sectors Under Severe Stress’

Also, with the increase in the contractual form of employment, the working class has been robbed off from any kind of employment and income security, reducing many to daily wage labourers, which only increases their further exploitation at the hands of capitalists through labour contractors.  

This wretched life situation of the working classes in urban centres manifests itself in their social organisation, which is concerned with accumulating remittances to be sent back home. The social organisation of migrants in cities is built around the need to keep expenditures down and savings high by spending as little as possible on housing and consumption. This has led to the growth of many slums in urban areas, which seemingly has to be hidden behind walls.

Further, many male migrant labourers are forced to live in dormitories, like shacks, in densely populated squatter areas that are devoid of basic amenities like electricity, clean water, and sanitation. 


A slum in Mumbai, home to many daily wage workers | Photo: Sthitaprajna, Flickr

The unplanned and abrupt nature of the lockdown only aggravated the already-precarious life situation of migrant labourers – the majority of whom are daily wage labourers – as the total shutdown of the economy deprived them of any source of income. For a section of people who are barely able to meet their daily expenditure, living in a foreign place without any source of income and uncertain future only leaves but one option, that is moving back to the security of their homes – a psychological feeling common to all human beings. 

The response of the Indian state to the migrant crisis has been nothing but apathetic, and betrays its class character. One part of this apathy flows from the inherent anti-people and anti-poor nature of the present government, while the other part lows from the logic of state in capitalism, which is to serve the interests of the corporate houses.

Major efflux of labourers would only mean a shortage of labor for industries and other activities, which would harm profit generation for the capitalist classes. This was best exemplified in Karnataka where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government stopped a train carrying labourers on behalf of the state’s builder mafia.       

What has been referred to as “migrant crisis”, in reality, is a product of mechanics of the capitalist model of development, which produces uneven development and a massive industrial reserve army. Only an overhauling of the entire political-economic system could ensure that such humanitarian crises are avoided in the future.   

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Harshvardhan is a PhD scholar in Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Featured image: Migrant workers from Orissa carrying bags of rice collected from the Public Distribution System in Andhra Pradesh, India | Photo: ILO Asia-Pacific, Flickr