S01E12: Longing To Belong

Cover photo of our podcast episode with a truck with people filled to the brim and the words next to Episode 12: Longing to Belong.

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In a Ted talk in 2013, author Pico Iyer spoke lyrically on the topic – where is home? Having been born, raised, and then later, having worked across a number of countries and places, Pico Iyer in this talk expanded on the outcomes of the globally growing multi-cultural identity and spoke with humour and excitement on how its transforming the notion of identity and belonging.

The number of people living in countries not their own now comes to 220 million, and that’s an almost unimaginable number, but it means that if you took the whole population of Canada and the whole population of Australia and then the whole population of Australia again and the whole population of Canada again and doubled that number, you would still have fewer people than belong to this great floating tribe.

And the number of us who live outside the old nation-state categories is increasing so quickly, by 64 million just in the last 12 years, that soon there will be more of us than there are Americans. Already, we represent the fifth-largest nation on Earth. And in fact, in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, the average resident today is what used to be called a foreigner, somebody born in a very different country.”

When I was listening to it I thought of how this represented the dream of globalisation. This idea of the world getting smaller and smaller – tighter, so mobile and interconnected that national boundaries would be transcended, they wouldn’t matter any more and being of a certain place would no longer be a qualifier for belonging.

Certainly when I’m traveling, especially to the major cities of the world, the typical person I meet today will be, let’s say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany. So they become friends. They fall in love. They move to New York City.”

I remember the audience laughing with an almost secret thrill at this. It’s such a seductive idea that immediately catches one’s imagination. To be able to choose to belong nowhere and yet to belong everywhere. To literally have the world as your oyster. To fluidly own and disown, glide across the world, boundless. Yet as we all know – belonging is complicated. The idea of home is complicated. The dream of home and the realisation of it are for most people, concepts that fall very far from each other.

In our previous episode, Deepika spoke of how the lockdown has put a strobe light on our homes. Home was to be the retreat and refuge from the dangers of the world, of the novel coronavirus in particular. Within its realms, for a few hours atleast – one could feel safe, breathe easy, rest and be refreshed. Yet even as the realm of women’s work during the lockdown lay bare the workings of an age-old system of inequality within the bounds of our homes, another devastating narrative unfolded on the streets of India.

Indian Express report: Ever since the national lockdown was announced on March 24 to tackle the coronovirus pandemic leaving all the economic activity to a halt, migrant workers are forced to hit the roads to return home. Most of these people are daily wage earners who depend on their daily income to feed families and cannot survive unless they earn.

After the initial announcement and undertaking of the Janta curfew on the 22nd of March this year, there was only speculation in terms of whether a longer lockdown would be put in place in the days ahead. On 24th March though with a margin of just four hours the announcement for an absolute lockdown of 21 days was made by the Prime Minister of India. A country of 1.3 billion people, came to a sudden grinding halt. Almost all economic activities were stopped at once – factories, shops, restaurants; borders were sealed; movement of vehicles was prohibited. Only essential services were functional. People were asked to stay at home, noone was to venture out. The announcement was so sudden that post the 8 pm speech by the Prime Minister there was a spurt of panic buying. I remember venturing out around 9 pm and seeing how lines of people in tshirts, pajamas, and chappals snaked around the block for buying essentials before the local supermarket and vegetable shops were shuttered. I peeped into one vegetable shop and found almost everything already sold out. What remained were some limp and inedible beans and cabbages that the desperate eyed with concern. Noone was certain if essential items would indeed be available in the coming days. Fear and speculation were rife for everyone.

In the days to come though, the panic amongst the well-heeled middle class in big cities began to subside as they settled into a form of hibernation – shuttered within their homes with food stocked up for weeks. Yet for the poorest and the most marginalised within Indian cities – the ordeal had just begun. Come as it did with no warning, the absolute implementation of the lockdown meant that those whose subsistence was tied to daily wages found themselves suddenly bereft of a vital income. And this equaled to an almost immediate inability to access basic needs such as shelter and food and water alongside the added stress of the uncertainty regarding their ability to earn in days to come and of course the mounting anxiety of becoming infected and ill by the virus.

This collectively meant that big cities began to see an exodus, a large number of the extremely poor migrant labour population, who in sheer desperation began to try and make their way back to their villages on foot.

Indian Express report: Many of the migrant workers who set off by foot from Delhi are walking in a group 15 and 20 people, mostly helped by handouts from good samaritans on their way back.

Ashok (migrant worker): I have to walk 100 kms further.
Reporter: And how do you plan to go?
Ashok: Walking mostly and if we get some vehicle in between then that.
Reporter: What time did you begin walking?
Ashok: Morning 4 am we began walking.
Reporter: How many people are with you right now?
Ashok: 15-16 people
Reporter: 15-16 people. The man who you used to work for, did he give you anything?
Ashok: No sir, he gave us a 1000 rupees and it’s been 8 days. How will it last for 8 days?

After watching 100s leaving on foot from the city of Delhi, the Uttar Pradesh government organised 1000 buses to ferry the migrants which led to this scenario at the Delhi Anand Vihar Bus Terminal up till 28th March:

Times Now report: This is what is unfortunately happening, at what is one of Delhi’s busiest interchange point, this is the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal where people are thronging in not dozens, in not hundreds, in not thousands but perhaps tens of thousands. These are pictures and reports that our reporters are bringing our viewers for the past several days now, the crowds just don’t seem to be ending because Delhi is not just the people working in the national capital region but also those who are coming in from neighbouring states and transiting through Delhi to their native places.

As thousands upon thousands began making their way out of cities, the Ministry of Home Affairs pre-occupied with tightening the lockdown and staving the spread of the virus, on 29th March issued an order that restricted any inter-state movement of migrants with immediate effect. It showcased a strangely dismal attitude to the poor of the country which came in stark contrast to the efforts made by the government to rescue and bring back citizens stranded in countries across the world including from the heavily infected regions of China and Italy.

In the words of the the Stranded Workers Action Network, SWAN: With thousands who had started walking towards their homes soon after the lockdown was announced, many were stopped in their tracks and redirected to hastily set up shelters. Some were forced to walk back to where they started. For almost a month, the only way the workers could return home was by walking, cycling, or hitching rides. Many were stranded in makeshift shelters, many others fighting to keep any shelter over their heads at all, having their endurance and desperation tested. It was only much later that some states began organising buses for their movement. Shramik trains only began on May 1, which was the International Workers’ Day.

As the lockdown extended into a period of two months, stories of herculean journey’s of more than 100s and 1000s of kms made on foot, cycles or hitchhiking began making it to the news. One 20 year old migrant boy cycled 1700 kms in 7 days from Maharashtra in the west of India to reach his home state of Odisha in the east! On the road were not only labourers from the cities, but also those who were out of work from other regions where factories and farms had come to a standstill. Undertaken in moments of deep duress with little or no access to food, water or shelter through the length of their journey in the height of Indian summer with temperatures soaring to 40 plus degrees in many parts of the country, these stories of gargantuan physical undertakings were also stories of distress, abuse, starvation, exhaustion and suffering. In their Report, Jan Sahas noted how ‘Anguish, helplessness and desperation – largely defined the distress calls they received’, about 12,000 in just a span of ten days. And these walkers included children:

India Today Report: Jeeta Madkami walked a 100 kms in 3 days, a trek that started from a chilli farm in Telangana to her home in Chattisgarh’s Bijapur. The 12 year old however did not make it, falling short by 11 kms. So near, yet so far.

(translated from Hindi below)
Reporter: How many days had you been walking?
Father: 3 days
Reporter: Where did she die?
Father: (not clear)
Reporter: How did you get her body from there to here?
Father: In a vehicle.
It was exhaustion that possibly led to Jeeta’s death.
Medical officer (translated from Hindi): As far as we can tell, it’s summer season and they are walking day and night. It might be because of that, that exertion might have happened or it might have been electrolyte imbalance or dehydration.
Jeeta was accompanied by other women workers who decided to start walking after getting no work due to the extended lockdown. But the long trek and heat were too much for the young legs.

Somehow this incident brought to my mind a friend’s experience of a marathon 50 km walk that she undertook a few months back for a fund-raising event. She told me how she prepared for that walk for almost a month beforehand, building stamina for it slowly through cross-training, buying the right shoes and clothing for it. On the day of the walk, there was music to enthuse the walkers and service stations were placed every ten kilometers where one could access food, water, energy drinks, even physiotherapists who would massage cramped muscles back to life. Bikers would keep an eye out for those who might have needed a lift or support through the route of the walk. At the end of their walk, there was a cheering squad and a medal to celebrate their completion. Even then, she said, it had been one of the hardest most exhausting things she had done. The next two days she just rested her aching slightly blistered feet.

The migrant workers and their family, many times with toddlers, young children and elders in tow – found nothing of this sort waiting for them on the long routes through the country. A public database which tracked the reported deaths as a result of the lockdown from the period of March to May reported 742 deaths in the country. Of these ‘accidents due to walking or during migration’ accounted for 209 deaths, the highest among the categories. It was also reported that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) ‘recorded over 2582 cases of human rights violation in the month of April, when the country was under a strict lockdown (…) and had sought explanations from respective state authorities in most inhumane cases pertaining to starvation and death of migrant workers. Even now, as I am recording this in early June, the humanitarian crisis continues to unfold. Friends who have been volunteers within informal civil society networks to support migrants in distress, have shared how the numbers seem unending. On May 28, the government told the Supreme Court of India that 9.1 million migrant workers have been ferried to their hometowns by trains and buses since the Shramik Special trains started on May 1. This would be the population equivalent of the entire country of Austria suddenly deciding to move in a month. And of course, this number does not account for those who have been walking before, during and since then.

Civil society organisations which have been fire fighting to provide support and build a larger picture of what has been taking place, have been releasing reports that give us a glimpse of the extremes the poor have been pushed to by the lockdown. Azim Premji University, in collaboration with several NGOs, conducted a phone survey of 4000 workers across 12 states of India, to gauge the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on employment, livelihoods, and access to government relief schemes and made this conclusion based on their data:

Abbas reads: COVID19 and its associated safety measures, such as the lockdown since March 24th have taken a heavy toll on the economy, and particularly on vulnerable informal and migrant workers and their families. (…) the disruption in the economy and labor markets is enormous. Livelihoods have been devastated at unprecedented levels during the lockdown. The recovery from this could be slow and very painful. The immediate relief measures do not appear to be in proportion to the severity of the situation on the ground.

Their survey found that two-thirds (67%) of workers reported having lost their employment. It also pointed out that, urban India was more severely affected; 8 in 10 workers in urban areas (80%) and almost 6 in 10 workers in rural areas (57%) lost their employment’ and ‘Half (49%) of households reported that they did not have enough money to buy even a weeks worth of essential items’. A Report on a rapid assessment on the impact of lockdown on migrant workers undertaken by the organisation Jan Sahas, shared similar numbers, it said: ‘Our survey indicates that a majority of the workers do not have sufficient ration to sustain this week. They have already lost between 1 to 3 weeks of work and will further be out of jobs for the next three weeks’. In ‘32 days and Counting’, SWAN or the Stranded Workers Action Network, reported based on the 16,863 people they interacted with during relief efforts that: Food distress is still high, and 50% of workers had rations left for less than 1 day. With no cash-relief for migrants, 64% have less than Rs.100 left with them. More than 97 percent (out of 10,383), they said, have not received any cash relief from the government. Precarity continues, with 46% of calls received being “SOS” calls (out of 1,385 groups of workers) with no money or rations left or had skipped the previous meal. Seen in the light of such dire circumstances, the decision to leave seems self-evident.

The focus now is slowly shifting from sending states to the one’s receiving the migrants back into their folds – the place the migrants associate with the word ‘home’. As people are reaching their home states and villages, other issues have begun to crop up. Fearful of the virus traveling on the backs of the weary travelers, stories have started trickling in from receiving states like Bihar and Odisha of the problems faced on arrival. For example, it was reported by the Indian Express that ‘the Bihar government had decided to accommodate all the returning migrants in quarantine centres. More than 4,700 quarantine centres were opened at block levels to accommodate about 4.75 lakh people’. Yet as people began returning, there were centres appointed for those returning from red zones and none for orange and green ones – those people returned to their houses without undergoing quarantine. There were added issues of centres having inadequate space, infrastructure and resources to service those who were returning, leading to tensions and conflicts in villages. Among other issues it was reported that doctor visits were irregular, social distancing practices poor and the new fear of illness and the old stigmas of caste and class just waiting on return.

As I read through these heart-breaking narratives, I was reminded of a poem by the Somali-English poet Warsan Shire about the plight of Somalians leaving their country due to civil unrest, this bit in particular:

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

I thought of this poem not because cities are the ‘homes’ that the migrant labourers are getting pushed out of – though for some it might be. The reason I thought of it was because migrant labourers came to cities to escape the difficulties at home – the same homes they are now wearily forced to return to. For years now, P.Sainath, respected journalist and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) has written and spoken extensively of the deepening agrarian crisis that has been taking hold of rural India and how it is tied to the state of our cities. In one of his recent articles he narrates a telling experience which without using big numbers, still showcases powerfully the situation in villages:

Abbas reads: “In 1993, there was one bus service a week from Mahbubnagar, in what is now Telangana state, to Mumbai. In May 2003, when I boarded that overcrowded bus, there were 34 weekly on that route, rising to 45 by the month-end. My fellow travellers were driven by the collapse of the agrarian economy. Among them, a 15-acre landowner, who told me his farm was finished and he needed to work in Mumbai. Sitting beside him was his former bonded labourer, making the same journey.

(…) an agrarian crisis is not only about farming. When millions of livelihoods of non-cultivators in allied occupations – weavers, potters, carpenters, inland fishermen, scores of others, tied to the farm economy – also collapsed, all of agrarian society entered crisis.”

In many ways, the lockdown has visiblised what has been happening in cities for a long time. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a group of children of migrant labourers I was working with in 2014. They were a mixed group spanning the ages of 8-17. This was in Bangalore and we had just finished a mapping exercise where we had pinned the places each child had come from on a map of Karnataka. Most of the threads and pins connected dots in northern Karnataka, in districts like Raichur, Koppal and Yadgir, districts which have been experiencing severe agrarian crisis. Some children had come from similarly stressed villages in Andhra that bordered Karnataka. After our mapping exercise, the kids were given art material and they made two pictures – one of their ‘uru’, their ‘village’, and the second of their home here in Bangalore. After a busy half hour, they giggled shyly as they held up their artwork to share with others. The pictures of the villages were replete with rivers, trees, cows, goats and even wild monkeys and elephants; whereas their city homes, located in construction sites often in the form of temporary blue tenements stood in stark contrast. The second set of pictures were bare and sobering, there were garbage piles and nullahs with small triangular tenements in between. Yet one of the older teenagers told me rather straight forwardly, “akka (sister) we come here for the wages, where we get about Rs.150 per day back home, here atleast we get Rs.400 per day.” He was helping his parents in a construction site then.

Yet while economic gains were the obvious pull factor to the cities, very obvious to me were also the profound socio-cultural-environmental loss that an economic metric like GDP cannot capture or begin to understand but is deeply relevant to one’s holistic well-being. What was evident from our conversations and their stories was that it was this socio-cultural-environmental value that they attached to their villages, that made them feel more like that was ‘home’. There the children had often lived in joint families that watched over them, they went to school, participated in festivals, had a chance to play without fear, had access to sanitary clean green spaces, had a proper roof over their heads. Here, they lived in nuclear families in plastic tents with no proper access to clean water or bathrooms, often midst piles of garbage dumped from middle class neighbourhoods. Children who came with their parents had to often discontinue school, they had to join in hard domestic labour or sometimes even construction labour to help their beleaguered parents, they were also often left unattended by adults, hence often unsafe, as both their parents would have to go to work. Travelling to alien cities might get them work but it effectively pushes them out of systems which have a settler bias.

Aajeevika Bureau’s pre-covid survey of migrant workers in Surat and Ahmedabad*, titled ‘Unlocking the Urban’, outlines a similar story of precarity, of how migrant labourers have been neglected and have fallen outside most systems of welfare and care. It showcases how before the lockdown the lives of migrant labourers was already fraught with extreme poverty, uncertainty and exploitation.

Abbas reads:“To fully understand their current predicament, it needs to be stressed that the pandemic did not fully cause this, but aggravated long-standing, existing vulnerabilities. India’s urban-led economic growth model relies on the labour of rural-urban migrants, who often receive less than minimum wages for long hours of dangerous, manual work. They are unaccounted for by national statistics and unseen by city level administrations. As a result they resort to living in unrecognised spaces, which further removes them from the purview of state provisions of water and sanitation, food and fuel, and healthcare. A chain of vulnerabilities sets in: one exacerbating the next. The pandemic having completely destroyed livelihoods, the situation has reached a breaking point.”

See it from the perspective of the migrant labourers. You are forced to leave what you recognise as home due to the crisis being experienced there and then enter a cityscape where you are treated as an outsider almost invisible and left to the mercy of extractive and exploitative workforces that abandon or adopt you as per their requirement. We saw this cruel game play out in the state of Karnataka where builders lobbied to cancel the shramik trains so that their desperate labour force would not be able to leave, even as they did little to alleviate their distress and suffering through the period of the lockdown. In contrast, most recently news trickled in on how desperate labourers who had left Ludhiana by a Shramik express back to Patna were flown back in by the company as lockdowns have eased and there was urgent need for labour again.

Shuttling from one place to the other in a desperate bid for day to day survival is a far cry from that seductive dream that globalisation had wrought, the one where you can choose to belong nowhere yet belong everywhere. In the case of millions of poor there is no choice and they only seem to have gotten the ‘belong nowhere’ part of the deal. At a time when things already seem to be at their worst, many states have chosen to revive economic activity and attract investment by extending hours of works from 8 to 12 and further diluting labour laws. In Uttar Pradesh for example it was reported that: “The Uttar Pradesh government has cleared an ordinance that suspends almost all labour laws in the state for three years, including those that guarantee minimum wage, equal remuneration for women and men, fair practices of hiring and firing, and worker safety and sanitation”.

Not only do these measures push an already deeply marginalised and exploited population into further strife by removing basic protections, but it also throws up some important questions as Gunjan Singh, a labour lawyer and the head of litigation at the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) in an interview with HuffPost said:

Deepika reads: “If today, the government is planning to relax labour laws in order to focus on business, the first question that arises is ‘can any healthy democracy or any industrial relation exist only focusing on the business relation and not the labour aspects?’ It is going to be a huge crisis even in terms of capital management. No industrial relation can be healthy if the labour concerned is not being taken care of.”

In an article in the Economic & Political Weekly, Ravi Duggal, a public health researcher shared how there was much to learn from history. Giving the example of when the 1896-97 bubonic plague hit Mumbai, he tells us how mill workers who constituted a population of 80,000 during that time too were ‘forced to face harassment under plague control measures, which involved sanitisation, quarantine, and separation of sick family members in poor conditions and even destruction of their dwellings’. Within a few months 4 lakh people, including mill workers fled the city. When importing labour from the North of the country did not work in enticing the workers back, ‘Many mill owners thus adopted the strategy suggested by Nowrosjee Wadia of building a bond between the employer and the employed through provision of housing, and better working and living conditions’, which ultimately did succeed in bringing back the workforce.

This is neither new nor surprising. The recommendations of the 2017 Report of the Working Group on Migration setup by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, move along in this direction of improving social protections, provision of housing and basic services, improved access to the Public Distribution System – amongst others. It recommends putting in a system and approach of care and inclusion versus one of inequality, violence and oppression. These recommendations unfortunately, till date, remain unimplemented.

As the lockdown was first announced, we here at The Curio-city Collective, decided to move out of our usual format for the podcast and instead look at how we could begin to understand connection and care in these times of the Covid-19 because the one thing that the virus brought to the centre stage with deep emergency was how interconnected our lives were and how dependent the physical well-being of our fragile bodies is on each others actions and consideration.

The terrible humanitarian crisis that has filled up our empty streets through the lockdown is telling us something about how we are faring in this matter of care and connection. It’s telling us something about our possibly misplaced euphoria of being obsessed with a model of growth that works only for a few. As per Oxfam, the top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth as millions live in anguishing poverty. As Sainath said angrily of the middle class in one of his interviews: 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 think of them as human beings with equal rights.” The long chain of intertwined events from environmental exploitation and degradation to the agrarian crisis to this pandemic and the current humanitarian crisis shows us exactly how the suffering of every creature is indeed interlinked and snakes up to affect each of us.

It’s not only in our hearts and souls that we must search and take a hard look but also the systems we have created that allow such inequality and injustice to exist and be perpetrated with such impunity. While compassion is paramount in such times, and it has been the overwhelming actions of volunteers and good samaritans which has given us sprinklings of hope, this is a call for the well-heeled and sheltered to dig deeper, ask themselves more difficult questions of privilege and wealth and how it is serviced on the backs of the poor and the deeply marginalised.

I leave you with this haunting poem read by Taapsee Pannu which maybe summarises the questions on home and belonging we are left to ponder:

Hum toh bas pravasi hain, kya is desh ke vasi hain?
Agar hum nahin hain insan,
toh maar do humain, de do farman
khane ko toh kuch na mil paya
bhook lagi toh danda khaya
fassle taye kiye hazaroon mile ke
kuch cycle par, kuch pair nange
hum toh bas pravasi hain kya is desh ke wasi hain.

(We are just migrants, are we this country’s citizens?
If we are not human, then kill us, bring out the decree.
We could find no food to eat,
when we got hungry, we only got beaten.
We walked thousands of miles
Some on cycle, some bare feet.
We are just migrants, are we this country’s citizens?)

Outro: For English translations of the sections in Hindi in this episode, you can look up the transcript of our podcast on our website. If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends and family. Also, more importantly if you agree with it, join our newsletter and our social media spaces to explore further readings and actions, big and small, we can take to change the tide and build a more equitable society. Also, we would always love to hear from you at www.thecuriocitycollective.org

In the upcoming month of July, do join us as we explore the theme of ‘Frugal Cities’ and look at how we can think of cities in ways which can make them sustainable, equitable and just.

Credits: Special thanks to Abbas Raza Khan for lending us his voice for this episode. This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and Deepika Khatri and was produced by The Bangalore Recording Company.

*Corrected in text: In our recording we mention 150 workers were surveyed in Surat; AB also surveyed 285 workers in Ahmedabad.