India's 100 million internal migrant workers are now stranded under COVID-19 lockdown measures and cannot return home. Faculty Associate Sai Balakrishnan maps the pathways of migrant laborers and describes the policies that created an east-west divide.

India’s lockdown, a policy move to control COVID-19, is now well past six weeks. On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a televised speech broadcast at 8 p.m., announced a nationwide lockdown for twenty-one days that would start at midnight that night—four hours away (the lockdown has since been extended, as of now, until May 17). The state governments sealed district and state borders, and suspended all public transport.

Worst hit by this sudden and surprise announcement is the country’s poorest temporary internal migrants, estimated at over a hundred million, and who are engaged in complex circular and seasonal routes of migration. Within days of the lockdown announcement, harrowing accounts began pouring in of migrants dying of starvation, fatigue, and road accidents as they started their long treacherous journeys—of more than five hundred kilometers on foot—from cities back to their villages. The heavily policed bus terminals within cities and at state boundaries became the sites of violent migrant-police encounters, as police resorted to beating migrants with lathis (batons) for having violated the lockdown orders.

The gravity and the cruelty of the migrant crisis has come under intense public scrutiny. Some scholars have pointed to accounting sleights-of-hand that prevent the Food Corporation of India from releasing its vast buffer stocks of grain to the poor during this severe hunger crisis. Others have pointed to the “natural experiment” posed by the federal system to compare the varying responses of state governments to the migrant crisis. Certain states, like Kerala, have effectively mobilized public resources to set up relief camps and community kitchens that provide housing and food for stranded migrants; other states, like Uttar Pradesh, made migrants who had managed to cross state boundaries squat on their haunches and be sprayed with chemical disinfectants. Here, however, I focus on the longer histories of development politics that are today becoming visible as the migrant crisis.

In the 1950s, development economists like Arthur Lewis were searching for ways in which newly independent countries could break their economic dependencies on the West and achieve economic growth through state-led industrialization. Lewis saw labor as a key resource for postcolonial societies, and his economic theories focused on how “cheap labor” from the countryside could be incentivized to migrate and work in urban industries.

Postliberalization India is witnessing such large-scale internal labor migration. These migration routes, often from the east to the west of the country, rely on kinship networks of place and caste. Take, for instance, the Kendrapada district in Orissa—which earns the epithet of being India’s plumbing capital, as migrants from this region dominate the plumbing labor force in large metropolises, including Delhi. Or the large migrant labor force from the drought-prone Mehbubnagar (earlier called Palamuru) district in Telangana, who works on construction sites in Mumbai and other far-flung cities; “Palamuru labor” has now become a familiar stand-in term that attests to the skill and reliability of construction labor.

But for many of these migrant journeys, it is not the anticipation of higher wages in the city that drives labor movement. Instead, what we are seeing in lockdown India are journeys of economic coercion where the abject lack of livelihoods in their home villages expels migrants to other parts of the country where work is available. If we map the spatial journeys of long-distance migration within India, the largest wave of internal migration is from the poorest districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is agrarian distress in these regions that forces labor to migrate.

In a recent article in the New Left Review, a writer under the pseudonym of N. R. Musahar documented the travails of “India’s starvation measures” under the lockdown; the pseudonym is apt as “Musahar” is one of the most impoverished Dalit subgroups from north Bihar. As Musahar writes, “for anyone who doubts that the possibility of starvation is real, it’s worth noting that the Chief Minister of Kerala, widely praised for his response to the pandemic, felt the need to explicitly reassure people that he would not allow anyone in the state to starve to death as a consequence of the lockdown." The specter of starvation looms large because social welfare measures, like the public-distribution system for subsidized food-grains, is linked to place of residence, and urban migrants find themselves unable to make use of these welfare schemes in their place of work.

These long-distance journeys of distress migration reveal a spatial rift. The regions that expel distress labor form a swath along the eastern side of the country, stretching from the poor districts of north Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which border Nepal, down to the southern state of Orissa. These caste- and ethnic-labor groups from the east migrate to the more prosperous regions of the country, which form an arc that stretches from the northwest of the country to the southeast. It is within this western arc that one finds an explosion of new urban enclaves such as Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and container terminals. It is worth noting that these logistics enclaves are categorized as essential services during the current lockdown, and migrant labor makes up the bulk of the informal casual work within them.

On May 1, the central government responded to rising public and political opposition to the migrant crisis by belatedly introducing special Shramik (the Hindi word for labor) trains to take urban migrants back to their villages. It is striking to see their west-to-east routes: all of these trains originate in cities located in the western part of India and their destination is eastern regions. The Shramik trains were introduced with fanfare, but between train cancellations and exorbitant fares, these special trains have done little to bring relief to urban migrants, many of whom continue to embark on long journeys back home on foot. In short, in a twisted reverse Arthur Lewis strategy, the lockdown traps labor within urban enclaves in the western regions, preventing them from going back to their villages in the east.

To understand the deeper roots of the migrant crisis, it is these uneven spatial divides that we need to focus on, so as grasp why over a hundred million internal migrants are caught in a liminal state between agrarian distress in their villages in the east and urban informal work in the new enclaves in the west. From 1991 onward, the postliberalization Indian state launched ambitious new logistics infrastructures of SEZs and other urban enclaves strung along a series of economic corridors, which provide high-speed and world-class highways, water, power, and internet networks to these enclaves. Herein lies a locational surprise. The most economically active corridors, including the ambitious Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, and the Vishakapatnam-Chennai Industrial Corridor almost neatly overlap onto former Green Revolution regions.

Image of a quote from Sai Balakrishnan

During the Green Revolution in the 1960s, the state both subsidized and selectively routed the technology package of seeds-water-fertilizer to certain regions of the country at the expense of others. This agricultural modernization program, which coalesced around other considerations of the Cold War and of food security, produced a geography of uneven development that arced from the northwest to the southeast of the country. It is within this arc of Green Revolution prosperity that we see economic corridors, clusters of SEZs, and other urban enclaves. It is within this arc, for instance, that we find the peasant-to-capitalist trajectory of the specific caste of the Marathas in western Maharashtra.

This peasant caste, which started off with modest local power during late colonialism, became one of the formidable electoral constituencies in the country by the 1980s. The economic-electoral power of the Marathas was consolidated during the Green Revolution: the Marathas exerted political power to draw the Green Revolution technology package of seeds-water-fertilizer to their region, and the state-subsidized economic prosperity enabled them to exert further electoral control over the agrarian countryside. By the 1980s, the western Maharashtra region became the second largest exporter of sugar in the world (after Brazil), and the region’s Maratha sugar elites had risen to power not just in state, but also in national politics. The country’s first economic corridor, the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, completed in 2001, is located within this western Maharashtra region.

Enabled by the new logistics infrastructure of economic corridors, the sugar elites have diversified into urban real estate and export-oriented industrial agriculture, and Maratha elites of sugar origins are now forming transnational capital alliances in Brazil and other parts of the world. The Maratha experience is part of a wider trajectory of the formation of caste-based agrarian capitalists in the prosperous western arc—including, inter alia, Jats, Patidars, Marathas, Vokkaligas, Gounders, Kammas, Reddys—who are now leveraging the gains of a postliberalization economy. It is to these thriving western regions that the distress labor from the east is migrating.

It is crucial to note that historically marginalized groups—Dalits and Adivasis [tribals]—disproportionately make up the distress migrant labor force (cases in point being the Musahar and Palamuru laborers). It is not only the caste-based form of inequality that I want to highlight here, but also the regional inequality. If the Green Revolution enabled certain agrarian castes to accumulate capital in place, the lack of massive state intervention in the form of subsidized seeds-water-fertilizer deprived equivalent castes from the bypassed eastern regions from urbanizing in-situ. For the Dalits and Adivasis in the eastern regions, their spatial journeys of distress migration necessarily span the breadth of the country.

Furthermore, following the agrarian trends of uneven spatial development, the land in the eastern regions that was bypassed for the development of agrarian capitalism in the west is now the essential safety net for the precarious urban labor that fuels the economic corridors in the west. The migrant crisis is only the most visible and brutal form of more enduring relations of dependency, where individuals in caste-based groups migrate but leave their family members back in their eastern villages.

The wages in SEZs, the new urban enclaves, and in the urban informal economy more generally, are not enough to support the migration of the entire family to urban areas. These workers are hired on a casual, short-term basis, so that their labor matches the needs of a “just-in-time” and “lean” economy. More importantly, the irregular and flexible labor arrangements of the informal economy leave workers unprotected and bereft of any social welfare or support. For informal migrant workers, in the absence of any social protection either on the part of their employers or the state, it is the marginal plots of land in their villages which provide them with the basic safety net of secure housing and subsistence food. If they fall ill, if they have an accident, if they lose their job, their marginal village land is their only form of insurance. In other words, the full social cost of urban informal work is outsourced onto the very villages that were bypassed by prior agrarian development politics.

India’s internal migrant labor is trapped in this spatial rift. Caught on the one hand between agrarian expulsion from villages / regions in the eastern swath of the country and between urban informal work in the thriving capitalist regions in the western arc, the migrant crisis exposes the spatial fault-lines of India’s development. As the new economic corridors and urban enclaves capitulate to footloose capital, left untethered is the vast majority of footloose labor that is left to fend for itself with no social obligations either in the urban enclaves where they work or in the villages that they call home. The sudden and surprise lockdown made visible the suspension of migrant lives and livelihoods across this spatial rift. The lockdown and the ensuing migrant crisis brings to the fore the urgent realities of “the return of the social question” in the early twenty-first century, and of the unfulfilled obligations of the Indian state to restore dignified work in an era of economic liberalization to its most vulnerable citizens.

—Sai Balakrishnan, Faculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Reprinted here with permission of the author. 

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