Living as a subaltern in India amid Corona pandemic

Image courtesy: Al Jazeera

By Chand Mahal Ruby and Ruhail Andrabi 

On 25th March the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced a 21 days countrywide lockdown, millions of subaltern communities got pushed into what can be hailed as a long anticipated financial and social apocalypse. With the unprecedented threat of Coronavirus entering the Indian subcontinent, social distancing had already become a new neoliberal term in the discourse of capitalism and by imposing these European strategies within the Indian context in restricting the global pandemic, the state has miserably failed to understand the internal dynamics of the country – home to millions of people who are daily wage laborers. As the noted Cambridge professor David Runciman argues, Coronavirus has revealed the nature of power. It has given free hand to the state to use coercive measures in “foucauldian language’’ to discipline the bodies of the country.

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It will take no rocket science to understand that the subalterns are the most marginalized people at a time of a global pandemic having the highest chances of taking over a country struggling with an alarmingly inadequate doctor-patient ratio. The supposed lockdown on 1.3 billion Indians has although cleaned the air, made animals reclaim their natural habitats and some even, roaming around cities while birds chirp merrily from dawn till evening but it has pushed subalterns in the country into the black hole of vulnerability. With about 80% of Indians employed in the informal sector the question is necessary. Are they ready to fight the virus with empty stomachs?

TV news in the past few days have been filled with thousands of migrant laborers and their families walking home on foot up to 700 km. These labourers, stranded in alien provinces far away from home in UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, amid nationwide lockdown and no rail services, have walked to the Anand Vihar bus terminus and stood in a queue as long as 3 kilometers, carrying children as young as 3 months old on their shoulders. They have absolutely no way to live in rented accommodations nor can they afford private vehicles for their journeys. The government needs to answer the question that why these migrant laborers’ capability of reaching home timely and safely has been compromised when the urban elite had been given enough warning and time to reach their homes with regular announcements of flight closures and so on?

These people who are already at the bottom line for survival, for whom basic necessities in the “common days” are a struggle, how will they make do in the harsh days of a virus outbreak? The uncontrollable nature of this disease and our ‘would be’ inability to control it as a developing nation, has, surprisingly been admitted even by the jingoistic national media. So the questions that constantly perturb us are, Why the state did not take any steps in the month of February when we were witnessing lessons in process across China and Italy?

Even now when the state has taken steps to include precautionary measures although too late, Why are there no tangible strategies for this population who have only two options in their hands, either die of starvation or become the host of deadly virus that’s hovering over our heads? Not only it reveals the incompetence of the state, but gives a glimpse that there are incumbent members at the forefront of policy planning.

With no prior planning, now the state and central government must address the problem of these migrant workers. Although the state governments have started to provide food and buses to the stranded migrant laborers on their way to home, is that sufficient? What happens when this mass of daily wage laborers reach back to their villages? The subaltern women who go out to work in the field, in the construction streets, to homes to clean – What about them? They will not be able to sit inside the sanctity of their homes with hunger looming around for long. The notion of space is different for the subaltern working women, who are not bound to the confines of their kitchens. They are doubly pressured to work inside the house and outside, with bypassing the dominant notions of gendered spaces both inside and outside their homes. Their intersectionality of oppression demands them to work both inside and outside. As Bama has talked about the Dalit women working both inside and outside their homes in ‘Sangati’, similarly bell hooks has talked in the context of black women, who cannot afford the luxury to stay at home and do only housework.

With the laborers out of work now and back to confines of their mud houses, landless laborers would be left with no option but to work in the fields with no stockpiles of food waiting for them in the cash crop economy of our villages, which are not self-sufficient to sustain all. All these migrant laborers of various skills now back in their villages will create an amplified workforce leading to a fall in labor prices. Will the villages be able to provide so much work to both their people and the migrants who fled cities in the Corona outbreak? Will the landless laborers be able to sustain themselves in villages? This is the harvest season of mustard and sugarcane followed by wheat harvest in April. Work for men and women would be there in the fields in the harvest seasons but how they will work is a question amid fear of being perceived as carriers of the virus. Also, would they be able to move to the field if community transmissions reach villages? How would the farmers be able to sell their produce easily with no policy measures taken for it? These are the issues that we are going to face in the upcoming days. Is the state ready to tackle it?

Let us imagine, the prime minister, like always makes a magical appearance at night on televisions introducing new relief packages or policies for them, then what are the chances of its success? The chances of cent percent success of any government policy are miniscule especially with a policy getting implemented on an urgent basis in the highly bureaucratic country which is insensitive to deal with the public especially the police who use their power to “control” the supposedly “unruly” and subjugate them as mere objects. This global emergency is also a litmus test for the developing countries to prove their competency against the deadly pandemic. This current Coronavirus pandemic is more than a medical crisis rather it also reflects the contours of the political crisis that have emanated because of the negligence of the neo-liberal governments that denied the emergence of public health institutions. This emergency acts as an experiment which could help us to ‘relearn’ and ‘re-strategize’ our approaches that we continue to adopt in the economy, healthcare, sustainable development and education. The government should realize that instead of investing on statues, warfare technology and advertisements they must make the public its priority and focusing on sophisticated healthcare technology.

When there are 1.3 million people roaming around the streets and dying due to poverty, the task of the state should be their household management rather than framing the laws that have created disharmony in the country. The state should take the necessary steps before the country would plunge deeper into the looming catastrophe that’s slowly consuming the country in its claws.

(Chand Mahal Ruby and Ruhail Andrabi are both Research Scholars in Jamia Millia Islamia)