This essay chronicles the immense disruption in the lives of migrants such as Prakash Mallik (pictured above) as a result of the COVID19 pandemic. If you want to help people like him, please go to Ek Aur Ek and make a donation. Ek aur Ek is a citizen driven initiative to provide long term assistance to other citizens in need.
The Janta ka Faisla Series on Migration & Citizenship
Citizenship is closely associated with legal and political rights within the nation state. Especially in liberal democracies, citizenship is seen as a uniform field, placing equal weight upon all the citizens of a nation. In practice, liberal democracies invariably fail to uphold such equality and are susceptible to sustained discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, race and other characteristics.
Flows of capital and labour within and across national boundaries have placed enormous strain on the concept of citizenship across the world. The various border crises and the ongoing pandemic have shown that citizenship is a point of contention, with vast differences between communities and classes impacted by new developments.
“Janta ka Faisla” (People’s verdict) is a space in which a jury comprised of regular people sit in judgment on policies that impact their lives. Experts present their policies to an audience of representatives of various people’s groups – as a way of enacting participatory citizenship.
With the virus acting as a mirror to our fractured society, we believe this is a good time to investigate citizenship as it’s enacted on the ground through:
- Interviews with migrants affected by the COVID crisis and their biographical reports.
- Engagement with the academic literature on citizenship.
- Projects that use design, media and technology to address the challenges of citizenship, including Ek aur Ek and Janta ka Faisla.
This essay is the first in a series of three articles:
- “Migration and Citizenship,’ i.e., the article you’re reading now. This essay sets the frame and introduces the key themes in how migration impacts the experience of citizenship.
- ‘The Optics of Citizenship’ – how citizenship is seen by migrants and in turn, how they are seen (or not) by the state.
- ‘The State of Exception’ – how migration makes it possible for formal citizens to be thrown into limbo where formal protections are removed and they become ‘subjects.’
In combination, we want to paint a picture of citizenship as it’s experienced by the vast majority of Indians: what they value, how they see themselves in relationship to the state and their aspirations for the future. It’s a rich tapestry that goes beyond the formal guarantees written into the constitution and offers the possibility of engaging simultaneously with media, technology and politics.
Migration is one of the fundamental facts of globalization. Labour isn’t as mobile as capital, but both the volume and the velocity of migration is orders of magnitude greater than what humanity experienced in past eras. The migrant as a pravasi is marked as a person who doesn’t belong to the place where she or he works. In contrast, our ideas of belonging, of being a vasi, are tied to intuitions about place, of who has historical, legal and institutional legitimacy attached to their residence.
Prakash Mallick told us that the tag of being called a ‘migrant’ in his native land is humiliating. His testimony makes clear that workers migrate for work when they don’t have enough resources back home. Prakash works in Andhra Pradesh for a few months and then comes back back home to harvest crops .
Which is why migration comes into conflict with formal ideas of citizenship because there’s a marked difference between our experience of belonging and ‘full citizenship’ and the formal guarantees provided by the state. Unsurprisingly, there’s a difference in the experience of different classes of migrant – say, between the airline class and the railway class and the walking class.
Unsurprisingly, the politics of migration and citizenship has become central to many countries; Trump’s ‘walling’ of America is perhaps the best known across the world, but India’s CAA is not that far behind. COVID19 has accelerated all the social and political fault lines that underlie the migrant experience. This article explores some of those fissures, with a focus on the gap between the lived experience of migration and the formal guarantees of citizenship.
The days since March 24, 2020 after the Government of India announced country-wide lockdown to contain the spread of Coronavirus infection, the country’s citizens found themselves split into neat categories. The most privileged were those who could easily access the online economy for supplies. Those who couldn’t or didn’t want to go through the online economy had access to supplies on the phone or through influential networks and relationships with power holders. They were also the kind of people who weren’t struggling to live. They had ample time to watch the plight of those not-so-fortunate on TV. They were citizens who weren’t dependent on daily wages and had cash reserves to ride through the lockdown days.
The second category of citizens were those who might have been able to watch the plight of others on TV, but still were compelled to access, whenever they could, food rations. These citizens, mostly the urban poor, live on very thin monthly operating budgets and hardly any savings to see through extended no-work periods.
The third group of citizens are the poor living in rural India who already live in a world far removed from urban Indians, found themselves stranded when their village economies ground to a halt. There’s hardly any in depth reportage or contemporary documentation on their suffering. This group of Citizens were displayed in news photographs, when their crushed bodies stacked in kilometres long queues became newsworthy. They lined up for hours outside banks across rural India to withdraw Rs 500 monetary support transferred by the Government. This was another harrowing replug of their trauma days after demonetisation.
The fourth and fifth group of citizens found themselves in a kind of a macabre live theatre. The fourth group – daily wage workers – found themselves helpless as they confronted hunger, loss of livelihood and a complex set of interconnected deprivations. Across cities in India they struggled to access food distribution points because of the stringent lockdowns. Hundreds of video clips transmitted through social media and television coverage by TV news channels showcased their trauma as drama. Hungry children, women and men were brutally herded into queues for food.
Chilling footage of police caning citizens lined up at food distribution points became impersonalised talking points, as if it was happening in some other country where there were no living rooms. These were hungry citizens of some other country of queued people living on the streets. There isn’t any estimates of how many daily wage workers were thrown out of their tenements by the landlords because of their inability to pay rents. There was, of course, hardly any imagery of gender minorities – LGBTQ and sex workers. How were they doing? How are they surviving?
However, it was the fifth group of citizens that captured various levels of imagination across various levels of citizens across India. If there is any description that can be borrowed to describe this group of citizens to the privileged India citizens who simply sat and watched the spectacle on TV, then it has to be in P. Sainath’s words:
Till 26 March, we never knew about the migrant labourer. Suddenly, we see millions of them in the streets. And we feel the pinch because we have lost our services. We didn’t give a damn until March 26. We didn’t think of them as human beings with equal rights.
Prakash Mallik’s Story
As retold by Kavitha Kuruganti
On the 29th of March 2020, an informal effort of trying to help stranded migrant workers started in Andhra Pradesh, led by Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV), a platform working for sustainable and dignified farm livelihoods. By April 1st, we moved the work into a formal helpline (9985833725) where migrants could call and seek support for various immediate problems they were facing.
Prakash Mallik and his group of Odia workers however came onto our radar not by a call to the helpline phone number, but through a WhatsApp message forwarded by a civil society activist. It was one of the first ‘cases’ that we picked up. The fact that a group of workers reached out to a civil society network in Odisha and that we, in turn, got alerted through them speaks about the relatively resourceful nature of someone like Prakash Mallik who was not going to just keep quiet when confronted with a problem.
Prakash Mallik’s group of workers were all from Odisha, and were in Ganapavaram, a hub of spinning mills in Chilakaluripeta block of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh.
Subsequent to the first call with Prakash Mallik on April 1st 2020, there were 4 other calls within a day. He was one of the most frequent callers in the initial days of the helpline.
Part of it was because we were slow to move on any group that represented more than 25-30 persons. Here, long distance phone payment-based purchases of rations would not work out easily (and we were a group of 200 volunteers spread out all over the country!). Our first intervention would be activate the local nodal officer to lend support either from the government or through the employer. We would think about purchase and supply of rations from the helpline, only after figuring out who can be approached for help with distribution of rations on the ground, and whether we had resources to support a large group in such instances. In this case, the local official appeared to speak to the employer, a spinning mill in this instance, and some small quantity of rice and potatos were distributed to the workers subsequently.
However, one group of workers were left out, because Prakash Mallik’s initial list did not contain their names. To address this problem, multiple calls were made to my phone on one day with new lists written and sent over WhatsApp by Prakash Mallik. They were supported too, subsequently. How long will small quantities of food rations last between a large group of working men during a prolonged period of lockdown? The rations got over soon enough, and hunger was staring them in their face yet again. More calls on 10th of April. There was no work and no income. And there was no end in sight for a harsh lockdown that began somewhat insidiously as a Janta Curfew.
Prakash Mallik was expectably anxious and impatient. It was as though he also felt the need to stay in touch and not let go of the possibilities of the helpline at a time when there was no support forthcoming from the local communities or government, and when the migrants were going hungry. He kept calling as frequently he could. Occasionally just to ask how the work was coming along. I had however reached a stage where the phone was getting used incessantly and there was no time to have any normal conversations.
On the suggestion of a local organisation in Guntur, I reached out to a health department official who was willing to volunteer for us. With the help of Shaik Baji, we arranged for rations to be distributed to everyone. He did a meticulous job with the help of Prakash Mallik and local block level officials. We gave a complete kit of rations including cooking oil, dal and some spices.
After a while, calls from Prakash Mallik stopped. I also did not have time to find out what was happening other than arranging for a second round of rations to everyone around the 23rdof April. I coordinated with Shaik Baji and did not try and connect with Prakash Mallik even then.
It was around the 4th of May 2020, when Prakash Mallik called up to seek our help for a fellow worker in Ganapavaram (who was being evicted by the house owner for non-payment of house rent) that I got to know that Prakash Mallik and 75 others were in a quarantine in Annavaram, near Rajahmundry. It is another story that the house owner would quieten down for a while whenever we called him and had a conversation with him, and would again threaten to evict the worker who also had a pregnant wife a few days later!
Impatient with the government unilaterally extending the lockdown without putting into place any support measures for people like him, Prakash Mallik decided to walk back to Odisha, to Kendrapara. And walk they did. For 3 days and 4 nights, the group of 75 men from Odisha, badly stuck in Andhra Pradesh without food and without any kinship networks locally, walked towards home desperately and resolutely. Unfortunately for them however, AP police stopped them and quarantined them. And the quarantine lasted 24 days, for no rhyme or reason. 4 days of hospital followed by staying in the Annavaram temple trust guest house, as described by Prakash.
During the stay there, Prakash became anxious about all the pending farming-related work at home. After lobbying with their local Odisha political leaders, they managed to get buses arranged for themselves and reached home to Cuttack and then to Kendrapara. However, they had to undergo one more quarantine in their home district too.
When we got in touch with Prakash Mallik in the first week of June, around the time the helpline was being wound down by us, we found him in a desolate and depressed mood. The phone line was reverberating with a certain sadness emanating from him, when he expressed that may be he will lose this agricultural season because he could not get it ploughed in time and it was run over by bushes and the fields were also inundated under water. We immediately transferred a small sum of personal support to him and requested that he engage labour and machines as needed and get the farming work started. It was only in this conversation that I realised for the first time that he owns six acres of land, but still cannot fulfill all the needs of his family, especially the private education of one child. I also realised that he has not accessed crop loans and has not received benefits of the special package announced by the government too. He did not get support of Odisha government’s special scheme for migrant workers either.
“Madam, I feel very bad about accepting help from you. I was telling my wife this morning that we are going on getting indebted to Kavitha madam and I don’t know how we will repay her”, he said, in a dignified small voice, unable to bear the thought of having to take help from others. I could only tell him, “well, why do you look at it that you are indebted to me. May be it is because I am somehow indebted to you for some reason that I am repaying you now and allow me this little help that is insignificant in any case”. He accepted. Prakash Mallik, a 44-year old man with 6 acres of farm land from relatively-well-off Kendrapara district of Odisha. The man who travels around 900 kilometres every year from December/January to March/April to Andhra’s spinning mills in search of work, who puts in “OT” (‘overtime’ work) to earn a little more by giving up his rest time about two days a week, who had to go back empty handed this year.
Kavitha Kuruganti coordinated the work of the RSV Helpline for migrant workers in Andhra Pradesh during the extended covid-19 lockdown between March-June 2020. Not all details put in here might be fully accurate in terms of dates etc. since this is being penned from memory of an intense time filled with unending tasks.
Loss of Economic Citizenship
Migrancy has always sat uncomfortably with citizenship, which is tied to notions of place even as it offers formal guarantees to those moving within national boundaries. We can distinguish between several kinds of citizenship here – legal, economic, cultural and psychological. Migrancy is typically associated with economic distress or desire so we concentrate on economic citizenship, but we note that an upper caste Indian who moves abroad and becomes a naturalized citizen of the US still feels like a cultural and psychological Indian, is treated as such and feels free to offer negative opinions about legal citizens of India of a different caste or religion. If they are not naturalized and are formal citizens of India, the Indian state spends money and resources to evacuate and fly them back in times of crisis.
Almost all the other people in India, lost their claim to economic citizenship on March 26, 2020. In a span of 4 hours they journeyed from a notional idea of being a Citizen to a full Supplicant unsure of their lives, livelihoods and immediate future. Millions of the fifth category Citizens – the Migrant Workers – were forced onto the highways, desperately walking hundreds of kilometres to get to their “desh” – their homelands. Several migrant workers perished – killed in highway accidents and runovers, felled by fatigue and dehydration under the harsh summer sun.
Prakash Mallik lost his economic citizenship at multiple levels. The reason he migrates seasonally is to find jobs that give him enough earning (50k to 60k) over three months, ahead of the Kharif season (when crops are sown with the advent of monsoon in May/June and harvested when it ends October/November). Usually he returns to his village by early/mid April to prepare for the sowing season. But when he finally returned home empty-handed his agriculture field was already in disarray and then Cyclone Amphan left it flooded. On top of it he and his family faced social stigma with village talk of migrant-workers being “Corona Carriers” – the tension between ‘wasi’ and ‘prawasi’ shows the intricate relationship between economic and psychological citizenship.
There are multiple ways in which Migrant Workers experienced a loss of Citizenship. First, they say “hum 50% ke nagrik hain” (we are only 50% Citzens). What is this concept of ‘Half Citizens’ in their minds? This concept stems from the active discrimination they experience during their interactions with society at large and how they perceive their actions to earn a living.
The act of leaving their desh (homeland) to look for job opportunities creates in their minds the thought of being alienated from their homeland. In this case the homeland is their place of birth, their village with which they have an umbilical connect. The thought and the act of leaving their desh for a job makes them avasi (a migrant). They experience this as discrimination. “Why would I leave my family, home and the place where I was born and go to an unknown place, if I could get jobs that paid well nearby?” This is what every migrant worker we spoke to said.
Prakash Mallick’s biggest grouse is being called a Dadan Avasi – Migrant outsider by his neighbours and community, fuelled by media narratives.
Migrant workers feel they are half-citizens because they are helpless at home. They took huge risks, suffered immensely in a desperate bid to get back home. But they were greeted with unsympathetic neighbours. They knew there were no jobs back home and that once they had reunited with their families at some point they would have to look for jobs to look after their families and to survive. “We are helpless because we are on our own. What’s the point of Citizenship if our neighbourhoods aren’t willing to wake up to our plight?”
The ‘we-feeling’ of well knit communities at the village level seems to have dissipated. A network of care and empathy that kept rural communities unified along various social categories seems to have disintegrated because of media narratives of migrant workers as “Covid-19 Carriers”. The role played by the Government – first holding them back from going back, the police and administrative actions against them, followed by herding them into buses and trains accompanied by visuals of “decontamination” – set a prejudiced narrative against the migrant workers.
Finally, a helpless migrant worker doesn’t experience the idea of citizenship in the same way as as a privileged Indian citizen who has the societal leverage to ensure the delivery of public, social and private goods.
Citizenship is meaningless because it doesn’t solve any problem of mine.
There are large numbers of Citizens who have the ability to harness their Citizenship to access the system to their advantage. In this full Citizenship distributes security. Half Citizens are those who either can’t access the system to resolve their problems or find security of life, liberty and property.
In the next essay in this series, we report on how citizenship is seen by migrants and how they are seen in return by the state.