Beyond body and nation: Household in times of ‘lockdown’
When the lockdown was imposed across India, migrants fled the cities they had flocked to for work, often walking great distances, often with children, so that they could go back home. This was met with contempt and derision across India, even though these migrants could not support themselves without a job, and were, quite literally, just going home. Nitin Sinha elaborates.
The threat of pathogen is global as every nation-state is trying hard to control the spread of the virus through various measures, including a partial or a complete lockdown. The early travel ban, which countries put in place, signifies how the movement of bodies across the boundaries of nation-states needed to be curtailed and suspended to contain the spread. This was further strengthened by the measure of ‘lockdown’ within national boundaries, carried at the levels of regions and cities, that made human bodies immobile.
This was, of course, the desired intention. In a country like India, given the nature of the economy and social life, along with the leaky and faulty institutional apparatus of welfare, health, and governance, the desired immobility was ‘breached’. At the level of any social collective, this is largely, and most prominently, manifest in migrants fleeing the cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and many others – to go back to their rural bases. In essence, they are, quite literally, going back home; in some cases, knowing full well that their reunions with family members might not be immediately possible. For instance, the migrants returning to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been housed in schools, village councils, and other buildings that have been turned into places of shelter for a quarantine of 14 days, during which they couldn’t meet their families.
However, multiple reports emerging from these two states report that migrants slip away, usually at nights, to meet and join their families, only to come back to the shelter to receive their mid-day meal. Indeed, poor facilities, lack of food and beds, overcrowding, and not least, swarms of mosquitoes, are making the idea of sleeping at home attractive.
This shows that even within village premises, the forced and monitored immobility is proving difficult to implement. Home, under these conditions, emerges as the most preferable place to resort to. In fact, migrants in the second phase of the lockdown are claiming to support the lockdown and yet wanting to go home, promising that they would undergo the mandatory quarantine. The lure of home and the logic of the lockdown are merged in their way of reasoning. But while we dwell on numbers and debate on work and employment, pondering what the pandemic will do to governance and polity, do we understand enough of what the household, the migrant one, in particular, may look like, and what historical trajectory it has come through, the lineages of which are still heavily present in the current times?
The emptied category of worker-migrant
The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare three long-term structural problems of Indian society and economy: first, the peril of urbanisation and growth that is driven by informal labour, which comprises about 90 per cent of the total workforce, but which drudges along deplorably without social and job security; second, the exclusionary violence of the public discourse on ‘national duty’ that normalises privilege but condemns poverty; and third, the misplaced priorities in the use of the technological apparatus of the state, in which preparing a nationwide register of citizens is deemed important and achievable, but the quick and efficient distribution of welfare benefit is apologetically covered by the use of time-tested (and of course partly true) clichés: India is a big country, the institutional capacity is not well developed, people’s ignorance adds to the problem, and so on. While the direct cash transfer technology is being used to reach out to the needy, experts feel that the volume, nature, and organisation of help is still inadequate.
A lot has been written about the plight of migrants over the past few days so in moving away from it, it is worth abstracting the core of the changes that have happened to the figure of the worker-migrant. These changes are an outcome of a series of reactions and interventions ranging from police brutality to that of the mediatised rage on the migrants’ desire to move back to their homes in search of security. Here, it would be pertinent to remind ourselves of the atrocities embedded in our own choice of words. Coming from old English, fleon or flion, which means “take flight, fly from, avoid, and escape”, fleeing and words of similar expressions are wrong to explain the current scenario. While the act literally may be of ‘leaving’ or ‘avoiding’, the weight of force behind migrants preferring to go home, despite massive hardships, is purely institutional.
The continued mainstream response to migrants’ exodus, either portrayed as a communal ploy as was recently done for the Bandra case by a leading journalist, Rajat Sharma, or a show of irresponsibility as was claimed by some ex-politicians and sympathisers of the ruling party on the Delhi exodus, has at once done two things. First, it has extracted the figure of the worker-migrant from the larger category of the social and turned it into the bearer of aberration. He has been (and it is usually a ‘he’ as we see below) made into an emptied-out object that then remains available only for control and discipline. A contrasting comparison with two other categories that comprise the space of the ‘social’, for which the government acted swiftly, is revealing: first, the ‘citizens’ who lived abroad and were ‘evacuated’ by flying them in on special planes, and second, the ‘stranded pilgrims’ who were brought to Gujarat from Himachal Pradesh by arranging special busses, reportedly overnight. In comparison, one must ask: Is ‘migrant’, both ethically and politically, treated as a citizen at par?
The second, and simultaneous to the process of turning the worker-migrant into an empty container, is the re-filling of this category with the prescriptive potion of ‘citizenry duty’. Endurance of hardship for a national cause, as was asked for by PM Modi, quickly translated into viral messages on social media such as these: Why are they moving? Have they not earned and saved enough to live for a month? The memes that circulated in middle-class households’ WhatsApp groups asked, what was the point of migrating to a megacity for work if they couldn’t even manage a few days’ meals on their own? These are indeed imaginary questions but something which is imaginary these days, when it enters into the realm of pervasive social media ‘forwards’, quickly acquires the magical power of truthful facts.
The facts of imminent hunger
For those who are indeed asking these questions with the belief that migrants simply indulged in jaywalking, certain figures are worth presenting. They will provide an idea of how the migrant household is run on meagre amounts of money. Reportedly, the monthly household income of 22 per cent daily and weekly wagers is up to Rs 2,000; of 32 per cent between Rs 2,000 and 5,000, and only 8 per cent of them have more than Rs 20,000. According to a conservative estimate, 200 million people could be migrant workers out of the total informal workforce of around 400 million, which includes among others casual and self-employed people, usually our quintessential mohalla figures of fruit vendors, vegetable sellers, and chaiwallahs.
As a recent World Bank paper shows, different enumeration bodies – Census, NSSO, and India Human Development Survey (IHDS) – use varying definitions of the migrant, and therefore, the exactness of the number is best indicative of the larger social and economic pattern than being perfectly absolute. For instance, for 2011, while IHDS calculated 60 million labour migrants (defined as ‘non-resident household members who are identified through household responses to the question: ‘Does any woman in the household have a husband who lives outside the household?”), it did not capture the phenomenon of circular migration; the number of circular migrants in 201112 was estimated at an additional 200 million.
In these figures, one trend points toward a constant feature of this massive scale of internal migration: around 80 per cent of the migrants are male. Coming to work in big cities, another study shows that in 2019, 29 per cent of the population in India’s big cities is of daily wagers. About half of the internal migration for economic reasons follows the flow from the rural to the urban, with movement across states going up to three-fourths. In a survey conducted by CSDS during the recent Delhi Assembly elections, 20 per cent of the respondents were reported to have less than Rs. 10,000 as their monthly household income. Among migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the share was higher: 33 and 27 respectively. As Reetika Khera points out, in light of the biometric identification based public distribution system, the urban poor is neither covered by MNREGA or the PDS.
So, anyone raising questions from their comfortable balconies, on which they might have banged plates and lighted candles, as to why worker-migrants couldn’t stay put wherever they were/are to observe the lockdown, simply needs to stop asking this. By being indifferent to the meagre household income of these worker-migrants, they are naturalising privilege to enforce a uniform ideal of national duty, while the humanitarian concerns related to hunger have been politicised as an aberration; in fact, even worse, as a crime. An FIR was filed against 8001000 workers who had assembled in Bandra on the charge of defying the government order.
Household and migration
Lockdown obviously throws up the image of immobility, and that of home and household resurrects itself as the space of comfort amidst this ‘temporary’ period of immobility. In the increasing debate on balancing the control of the virus with arresting the fall in the economy, in debates over food availability and impending hunger, and in the macro-picture of income and employment using statistical determinants and variants, the site of social reproduction, the household, has been relatively forgotten. Amidst vigilant mechanisms of control over the movement of bodies across spaces, the household has relatively remained omitted in these debates. When we turn to it we must make sure that we do not reduce this entity of lived relationships inhabited and expressed through anxious ties, affect, conflicts, sense of belonging, and shared space of caring to numbers alone.
To continue with the figure of the worker-migrant, in usual times, quite historically, a movement away from home (village) to work (city) has been the common way of sustaining the home, family, and dependents. In the recent past, the political implication of migration has been often noticed in public discourses of migrants being branded as outsiders and job stealers. Away from politics, it, however, also crucially shapes not only relationships within households but also strategies related to work, care, education, and health which households adopt, particularly, in times of distress.
It must be remembered that the major pattern of this migration – historically as well as in contemporary times – has not been of a permanent movement from one point to the other but of a circular nature. In the nineteenth century, ‘railway gangs’ moved from one site to the other as new work opportunities opened up. In industries, village labour forces migrated to work in them but circulated between the city and the village, remaining closely tied to the cycles of agriculture, rituals, and social reproduction taking place in the villages. As succinctly explained by historian Prabhu Mohapatra in his interview, the reason why such a nature of migration emerged is generally to do with the apathy of the capitalist/industrialist class who did not intend to provide the full cost of ‘labour’ in which he could socially reproduce and maintain his family in the city. This remains the case even in the present. The scale of linkage between migration and household is discernible through the practice of remittances. In Bihar, the level of migrant remittances has gone up from 11.6 per cent of the GDP in 2004-05 to 35.6 per cent in 2011-12, thus showing the high dependence of household sustenance on the practice of informal, circular migration.
The fallacy of ‘reverse’ migration
In times of pandemic, the order seems to have reversed, which is not the case. Once again, the choice of phrase is the first give away to comprehend this misunderstanding: this ‘flight’ of migrants back to village homes is described by many as ‘reverse migration’. Given the historical nature of this workforce, there is hardly anything ‘reverse’ in this. It is natural that in times of crisis (loss of a job, eviction by landlords, dried up ration of food), the home would become the site of sustenance, which it has been traditionally. But the disciplining and the vilification that followed when the worker-migrant embarked on this ‘reverse journey’, individuated him in such a way that his family, and he being part of the family which depends on his wage-earning capacity, were completely delinked. This can potentially bring some long-term changes in household strategies of worker-migrants, depending of course, on how soon they manage to get back into work but, more importantly, what kind of work. This will depend on how fast the government restores the broken chain of the economy across sectors.
But so far, the overarching reaction to the migrant problem has not only dissociated the question of labour from the issue of human dignity but has also eclipsed the issue of the household – both as an economic unit as well as a space of social ties in which people seek comfort in times of distress. The worker-migrants have been treated mainly as defiant bodies breaching the nation’s rule of maintaining physical and social distancing; they have been thrashed and collectively sanitised as potential carriers of the pathogen, but they have hardly been seen as social beings in terms of their own social relations and as economic agents crucial for running their households.
Apart from exposing the nature of urbanisation, workforce composition, and administrative short-sightedness, COVID-19 has also brought to the fore the unique nature of the worker-migrant households, which, for the lack of any better word, can be described as a divided one, or alternatively, as an extended one –– between a tenement in the city and the ‘ideal’ home in the village. Therefore, when we appraise the migrants’ ‘choice’ for going back to their homes, as workers of the diamond industry in Surat are demanding, we should not romanticise the idea of ‘home’. As one of the workers, Ram Hari said, on being asked why he wants to leave despite the lockdown in his state of Orissa: ‘At home, at least we will get one roti’.
Home, work, and abuse
The pattern of work has changed in the last month or so. Naturally, the nature of home would also change accordingly. A focus on the household also bares the invisible ‘politics’ of work at home. Globally, the lockdown induced ‘work from home’ for formal sector workers has exposed the fissures, particularly, along gender lines. As Alessandra Minello points out, humour has been widely used by women to unmask the irreconcilable ‘duties’ of work and child caring at home.
On a more serious note, as Minello points out, households are facing reorganization of care and work time, which might leave more than a temporary impact in the post-pandemic period when parents with kids in sectors such as academia could become disadvantaged in comparison to those without. In any job evaluation based on the criteria of publication, productivity, fixed target and output, and accompanying ‘success’, those who are currently ‘burdened’ with more than the normal quantum of care work (for child, elderlies) might suffer hindrance in future career advancement.
The Indian middle class has also turned to humour to talk about the household but of what nature?
Turning to the most vivid archive of contemporary social life, the group ‘forwards’ provide a great index to map this concern. One joke says, the corona has brought about a minor change in a majority of men’s lives: instead of bar and scotch, vim bar (a dishwashing detergent soap) and scotch brite (the accompanying scrubber) have come into their hands. In another, the wife endearingly tells her husband that she won’t allow him to go to work after the lockdown is over. On curiously inquiring the reason, the wife replies, because she likes his way of doing household work more than the maid’s. In a similar vein, when a married man is asked when he goes online at night, he replies, after doing the dishes. There are many, many such ‘jokes’ that sketch the image of the Indian man doing the undoable – the household work –, and through that, naturalising the everyday domestic inequality in the share of work and care.
In reality, the lockdown has seen a rise in the trend of domestic abuse globally. This is despite the fact that in all likelihood the cases will be heavily under-reported in this period. Between February 27 and March 22, the National Commission of Women in India received 123 cases related to domestic violence; in the next 25 days (March 23 to April 16) it received 239 cases. Seeing this, a dedicated helpline number on WhatsApp has been launched on which women can register complaints; a special team has also been constituted to look into these complaints on a fast-track basis.
The rosy picture of the middle-class husband’s hands filled with dishwashing detergent and scrubber belies a certain reality of the household, which due to the pandemic, has become more secluded and enclosed. Once again, the contrast between households of different classes has become obvious. As worker-migrants, by their act of ‘fleeing’ have inscribed their visibility over the space of the nation-state, their household, extending over the two sites of the urban and the rural, has also become exposed to the public gaze. The half-filled or empty containers of food with a few bundles thrown over the shoulder were essentially the belongings of their households that the nation saw in images capturing them ‘flee’. Both sites of their households are temporarily plagued with crises, evictions, and impending hunger, with a serious uncertainty about the future. The middle-class household, following the motto ‘stay home, and stay safe’ is possibly busy inventing a new reality of gender role reversal with increased domestic abuse that might remain under-reported.
Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin. He researches and teaches on the history of South Asia. He also writes frequently on contemporary politics, society, and culture.