‘Public sphere’, as German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues, is a part of the political realm, and one of the biggest transformations that took place in social media was the creation of ‘social movements’ through the mode of online yet non-economic actions of the public.

In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic in India, social media has evolved as a powerful tool to determine accountability and the effectiveness of the state. The support groups that emerged in the wake of the recent distress movement of migrant workers from cities to the hinterlands after the government announced a countrywide lockdown on 24 March created a ‘political society’, which became a non-economic and non-government entity in support of the distressed migrant population.

Social action in the public sphere is now seen in the ‘virtual space’. Social media activism is becoming popular, and has the potential to influence public opinion. When there was severe hostility towards migrant workforce from industrial employers and state authorities, there was an outpouring of support from citizens on social media.

This virtual space has become that realm of our social life in which people have the space to state apparatuses and private owners.  With little efforts made by the employers to retain their employees, lakhs of them were laid off and forced to come to the streets. But netizens quickly mobilised support on various virtual platforms, which in fact, compensated for the lack of state interventions.

Movements like ‘Loving the Migrant Workers’, which helped rescue migrant workers during the pandemic by providing relief funds, are a new hope for the working classes. On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES), which was set up by the Narendra Modi-led government on 28 March, was questioned for its lack of transparency. It also had severe problems in reaching out to migrant workers in time.

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Pandemics and displacement through the years

It is not the first time that India witnessed such an efflux of workers on account of a public health emergency. Even during the colonial times, pandemics have hit the working classes the hardest, and colonial policies exacerbated their condition.

In 1897, during the Bombay Plague, 400,000 migrant workers fled the city and around four million were not even allowed to enter their source of origin or were detained.

Historian Prashant Kidambi has written that since the beginning of the Bombay Plague, the colonial government’s health policies only targeted the working class neighborhoods and poor migrants in the port city of Bombay. He critically argued that a ‘class bias’ influenced the colonial policies. 

Rajnarayan Chandavarkar has emphasised that the British realised the plague may affect their social and economic rule in India, if it spread across the subcontinent. However, Punjab, which had a high mortality rate, turned out to be lethal, and caused the ‘plague riot’.

A Hindu cremation ceremony during the Bombay Plague, 1896/7 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Bombay Plague of 1897 and the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919 had two things in common: food insecurity and distressed migrant workers. Both were intertwined with colonial policies, which could also be seen in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But back in those times, common citizens hardly took any initiative to curb the migrant crisis during pandemics. After globalisation, however, communications have transformed and with the help of social media now, citizens can voice their dissent against government policies and influence public opinion through platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. 

Over the decades, internet penetration has deepened in India. This has allowed citizens to use smartphones for media activism and networking. Moreover, the virtual world has made it easier to run campaigns and emergency relief programmes. Some civil society organisations, like Jan Sahas, have also established call centres to help migrant workers, where they can place calls free of charge. 

Unprecedented crisis, unprecedented response

On 24 March, following the Indian government’s sudden and ill-planned move to shut a country of 1.3 billion within a span of four hours, thousands of migrant workers took the decision to travel back to their towns and villages on foot due to unavoidable circumstances in the absence of wage, ration, and shelter.

In the months to follow, India witnessed its biggest migrant crisis. Several factory owners and employers laid off their workforce, leading to mass unemployment. They were left to deal with a heightened health risk, with practically no help from the state.

With no money to fend for themselves and their families and at a time when the scare of the pandemic was spreading like wildfire, workers also faced eviction from their rental homes. Tragedies struck one after the other. While returning home from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, sixteen migrant workers, were crushed to death by a freight train when they were resting their fatigued bodies on the train tracks.

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

In another incident, twenty migrant workers traveling from Hyderabad to Uttar Pradesh were injured and one killed when their vehicle collided with a truck in Telangana. News of such tragedies came from all over the country and the death toll of migrant workers increased with each passing day. 

These incidents clearly affected many social media users and forced them to use the virtual media as a ‘democratic’ pathway to help distressed migrant workers. Rumbling with angst, anger and grief, the social media space soon became a site for public campaigns, crowdsourcing and donation drives for migrant workers.

Networks like Working People’s Charter and Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN 2020) made several statements and reports to address the issue of migrant crisis in India during the lockdown. These reports were circulated on social media, invoking even sharper emotions and pushing social entrepreneurs to promote greater media activism.

Social media activism has also promoted social consensus among the public. The countrywide lockdown was one of the most undemocratic decisions taken by the current government, but it brought concerned citizens together in a virtual sphere. They came together to mediate public opinion through participatory democracy and form collective consensus against a despotic regime.

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Social media as a crisis response tool

As migrant workers embarked on their long journeys home, and the scale of the crisis soon became clear, netizens began to use their virtual connectivity to help the displaced. Social media was riddled with hashtags like #HelpMigrants, #SaveMigrants, #LetsFeedThePoor, #MeTooMigrants as anger grew against the government’s callous policies.

Citizens who were able to provide helpline numbers to distressed workers during the pandemic were seen as active mobilizers. They not only advocated campaigns, but also provided a ‘domain of inclusivity’, in which thousands of workers shared similar concerns to return back home and expressed their concerns.

These internet mobilisers, unlike the social mobilisers, helped migrant workers virtually to connect them with different groups who were traveling back to the same source of origins. It is fair to say that social media emerged as a powerful mediator between the government and the stranded migrant workers to make their voices heard. In other words, social media has visibilised the subaltern population, which was never heard earlier.  

Also read ‘India’s Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 Needs Urgent Overhaul

As argued by Peter Dahlgren, Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), with the support of the internet, has created a ‘virtual public space’ that is highly deliberative for contemporary political communications. In other words, internet has impacted these public spaces, which after the rise of public execution by mob, have transferred communications into the virtual space.

Further, when migrant workers were desperate to go back home to meet their families, WhatsApp groups, like ‘Loving The Migrant Worker’, became shining examples of meaningful citizen action, which tried to fill in the gaps caused by the State’s indolence.

Many activists, journalists, and NGO workers, also raised concerns over the recent amendments made to labour policies, which were actually seen as regression from status quo. Thus, while private action cannot compensate for the limitations and failures of the State, such instances of mobilisation were seldom seen in modern Indian history. 

One Whatsapp group, many helping hands

On 14 May, a group of strangers from Bengaluru came together virtually to help migrant workers, and formed a WhatsApp group called ‘Loving The Migrant Worker.’ It has received a lot of attention during the migrant crisis in India. 

With its increased popularity across 50 cities in the peak of the virus, Rahul George, a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, founder of the group, harks back to how the group grew into a social network across other cities. The speed of internet usage is extraordinary, as in just one week after the group was formed, many other Christians across 50 cities joined in to help distressed migrant workers and formed different relief camps.

He and some other volunteers supported 147 workers from Bengaluru who were set to travel back to Odisha in four buses. These volunteers from Life Bible College contributed, raised funds, and arranged transport to help them reach home.

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Concomitantly, a set of different volunteers from various cities also started to form a network on WhatsApp. In no time, multiple WhatsApp groups of the said title were formed to accommodate more migrant workers in the group. Within a month, these groups of volunteers and student activists coordinated with interstate migrant workers for their transportation and reached out to them at different intervals (stops) to provide them with essentials. 

‘Loving The Migrant Worker’ evolved because of entrepreneurs like Rahul George who took swift action on the sufferings of daily wage laborers and interstate migrant workers. He helped a group of Saura tribal migrant workers from Odisha who were stranded in Bengaluru without any food and income. Accompanied by his friend, Mark Raja, they provided dry ration kits, perishable food, and water to these families.

Both Raja and George were overwhelmed by the state’s apathy and therefore, initiated this project to reduce the severity of the incidents that took place across the country during the lockdown. 

Another example of social media mobilisation was seen in Chennai. Daniel and Preethi, who run a non-profit organisation called ‘You Are Loved‘, approached and provided ration to 15,000 migrant workers. One migrant worker who works as a cook at a restaurant in Chennai had moved to the city with his wife and 4-month old baby from Assam. But during the lockdown, they were distressed and in despair.

After losing his source of income following the shutdown of many restaurants, he soon lost the means to provide shelter to his family. Along with his wife and their baby, he was left stranded in the streets of Chennai, hoping to get a train back to Assam.

Preethi and Daniel found hundreds of Assamese migrant workers like him who were waiting outside the Assam Bhavan in Chennai to get themselves registered for a train to go back to their home state. With the fear of getting infected by the virus, these migrant families were desperate and determined to go back home with whatever little money in their hands.

Thanks to the quick interventions of Preethi and Daniel, many of them received emergency relief that helped them get by till things got better.

A domain of inclusivity

Movements like ‘Loving the Migrant Worker’ and ‘You are Loved’ inspired many other networks on social media. In order to reach out to migrant workers, mobile internet services consumed by these networks can be seen as a platform for digital inclusion.

As argued by Habermas, the use of the internet does help form public opinions and legitimise the government. It is a domain of inclusivity, in which electronic media raises the possibilities of increased participation of a subaltern population (like migrant workers) in a virtual public sphere. 

Media activism has already created to form a virtual public space, where common citizens can question State power and problematic policies, such as the recent labour code tweaks. In the absence of ‘sabka vikas’ (development for everyone), social media has emerged as an effective mediator between the day’s government and the disadvantaged segments of the society, who have experienced maximum indignation, material losses and psychological distress in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image: Migrant workers walk back home during the COVID-19 lockdown in India | Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay