The pandemic is sending India's poor into the abyss

Already rife with inequality, the pandemic has distributed suffering unequally among India's underclass

By Moushumi Roy - Tirth Bhatta
May 24, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)
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Homeless women wearing masks sit on a hand cart in Mumbai, India (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

The pandemic has brought misery and suffering to thousands around the world, much of which has nothing to do with disease and everything to do with the social aftermath of the pandemic. To wit: an expansive human tragedy unfolded in India on May 5th, when thousands of migrant workers across metropolises staged a national highway blockage. These protesters — migrant workers and day-wage laborers — were detained from going back to their villages during the government lockdown. The protest was the outcome of desperation and despair, as many state governments did not meet their promises to provide free transportation to reach poor workers in their villages, nor provide rations for taking out their allocated share of food. The despair has led to several tragic deaths of migrants who were looking to find a way back home.

Risk of hunger, uncertainty of future employment, and poverty-related suicide are imminent threats for many Indians. It seems that post-pandemic India has brought massive pain and suffering among people living in extreme poverty, particularly disadvantaged caste and religious groups, transgender people, women, and rural residents.

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On March 24, the Modi government in India imposed a strict and stringent lockdown to avert the coronavirus's spread. The 21 days of lockdown (which was set to end on April 14, but has been extended to May 3) was imposed with only a few hours of notice, and has aggravated and compounded the existing divides across caste, class, gender, religion and location in India. Given the looming possibility of further increases in the cases of coronavirus (currently over 100,000) in India, the pandemic is likely to intensify the pain and suffering experienced by the most disadvantaged groups.

The people that have experienced immense pain and suffering — expected to be in the millions — are poor migrant workers, daily wage laborers, women, lower caste individuals, sexual, and religious minorities in India.

The case of India's migrant workers

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Migrant workers in India disproportionately hail from historically marginalized and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Migrant workers move in numbers from rural areas to metropolises, eking a living out of daily wages. The extreme suffering of the underprivileged groups proves that people who have been assigned low caste status; living in dreadful poverty; self-identify as transgender or women; and permanently live in rural areas bear the utmost brunt of COVID-19 exposure and effect.

With a population of over 1.3 billion people, a significant proportion of India's population is either working poor or living in poverty. The data released by the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) (a project of the United Nations Development Program) indicate that 46.7% of those employed earn below $3.20 a day and 27.9% are living in poverty. Marginalized groups, such as lower castes (or Dalits), scheduled tribes (or Adivasis), Muslims, and transgender people fare the worst in terms of socioeconomic status. COVID-19 threatens the recent reductions in MPI, creating even more dire living social and economic conditions for the working poor, including migrant workers, in slums.

Migrant workers are mostly employed as wage laborers in industries like construction, housekeeping, cleaning, and laundry. Most of them have their extended family, friend or in-group connections rooted in villages and migrate to the cities. Some are also likely to leave their immediate family members behind at the time of migration and send money back to their families left behind in villages. Many also bring their families along with them in the hopes to gain multiple sources of income that eases their poverty. Likely to comprise a large proportion of daily wage migrant workers, Dalits (or the untouchables) migrate to urban areas to escape economic and cultural oppression in rural areas.

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Considered filthy by higher castes, Dalits are forced to work in jobs such as cleaning and manual scavenging. Among 5 million people employed in sanitation and cleaning work, 90% come from lower castes (including a significant number of Dalit women). Higher caste women in urban areas also likely to hire Dalit women for household work. The loss of daily wage jobs puts lower castes in economically precarious situation. Their employment in essential service jobs such as sanitation leaves them vulnerable to coronavirus exposure.

The caste system in India, which began around 2000 years ago, has its origins in vernacular ideology embodied by the Sanskrit word Varna. As described by D.L Sills in 1968, "Varna" means type, order, color or classes – the characteristics used to classify people into different social groups. Under the Indian caste system, people are divided into four varnas: Brahmins (priestly class), the Kshatriyas (rulers, administrators or warriors), Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesmen, and farmers), Shudras (laboring people) and Untouchables (cleaners and tribes).

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Constitutionally abolished in 1950, the caste system and cultural practice of untouchability is still very much part of India. Albeit more overt and brutal in rural areas, the untouchability is also practiced in urban areas. People who were considered untouchables are still forced to live segregated and socially isolated from higher caste. They face an increased likelihood of contracting the coronavirus due to their disproportionate employment in essential services — a situation that may lead to further marginalization.

Neoliberal class segregation

India's nostalgia with the caste based geographic divide of the past has lingered into today's neoliberalized cosmopolitanism of urban spaces. The drivers of neoliberal reforms in making of this policy claim the mantle of "rational thinking" derived from technologically advanced global societies. Such reforms have brought many poor class and low caste people from villages to live closer to the potential high caste-class people without reservation.

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Yet said neoliberal reforms, which call for deregulatory fiscal policies and privatization, have remade Indian society to favor a small portion of the wealthy class. This small proportion of affluent Indians, who have chosen to live in gated communities, are in constant need of service work from the lower class-caste poor, who generally live in shanty slums.

Usually, these burgeoning shanty slums are found in the rising upscale suburbs, albeit next to affluent gated high-rise buildings, in the large metropolis of Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi, and Chennai. An example of high-rise buildings meeting the poverty-ridden dilapidated slums is clearly seen in Mumbai – the high-rises standing next to slums of Dharavi – the spatial inequality as captured by Johnny Miller's camera. Dharavi is now inhabited by second-generation migrant workers, while many other slums are inhabited with first-generation migrant workers and their families. These resident low-wage and migrant workers make ends meet through their daily earnings — though since the COVID-19 lockdown, tens and millions of migrant workers have been left unemployed. 

The lockdown has also commenced a nonessential travel ban that includes trains, buses and modes of public transportation. Meanwhile, the slums are ideal conditions to spread diseases like COVID-19: defined by small quarters, close contact, shared bathrooms and narrow alleys, constructed slums are not a safe place to be in a pandemic. Often these slums lack basic amenities, such as running water, toilets, and food, which makes living there impossible for social distancing and isolating for amid COVID-19. The dismal living conditions of the slums forbids migrants to continue with living there during lockdown that expects people to maintain safe distance. Closing of businesses and construction works has displaced the migrant workers out of their wages. Lockdown-created job losses compelled migrant workers like Chandra Mohan — a 24-year-old plumber worked in Delhi suburb — and his group to return to their village, 680 miles away, for survival. Amid agony, fear, and hunger, these repatriates — protesters and non-protesters — set out to walk tens or hundreds of miles back to these home villages. They are not alone in this journey.

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Women and children are also part of this risky walk, carrying all their belongings, some barefoot, braving the COVID-19 threat. They do so with the hope that the end will justify the pain. The obligation to follow social distancing directives carried a valuable meaning for them, a promise of safety.

Indeed, when it comes to social distancing orders, the primary political issue is not whether one acquiesces (or doesn't) to the rules. The call to follow orders has given us the space to ponder the social condition of the people for whom it is difficult to follow the directive of safe distancing — namely, India's vast underclass.

Women and gender minorities face a greater burden

Much of India's migrant population consists of women and children who live in shanty towns, generally built next to high rise buildings. These women and children work as maids, cooks, nannies, cleaners, and in other housekeeping roles for affluent urbanite households living in said high rises. Indian households don't have equal sharing of housework even when both men and women are working from home, as many are during the pandemic. Domestic workers share some of the workload of wealthy women. For many upper-middle class and upper-class Indian women, their husbands may be working from home during the pandemic, but the women are still expected to manage the household — perhaps with the help of maids. 

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Following social isolation orders, many migrant workers and low-wage laborers (including women and children) returned to their villages. The sudden disappearance of maids and house care workers has exhausted the more independent, well-to-do, middle-class women, many of whom have reverted to traditional gender roles — becoming disempowered without the extra hands of maids and care workers.

Likewise, the COVID-19 situation has further aggravated the condition of victims of domestic violence, most of whom are women. Many women, like a 45-year old from the Indian city of Chennai who has lost her cooking job and has to contend with an unemployed husband, have seen their abusive relationships exacerbate. Restrictions due to physical distancing and vanished economic opportunities have spatially confined these couples in their homes. Hence, a significant surge in the number of domestic violence cases against women has been documented. Recent report from India's National Commission for Women (NCW) suggested 48% increase in reported cases of domestic violence against women. The economic insecurity and uncertainty due to job loss, coupled with an existing patriarchal mindset, is fueling the rise in domestic violence against women.

Sexual and religious minorities, too, face unprecedented economic difficulties, overt harassment and physical violence, also exacerbated by the pandemic. The erosion of economic opportunities to earn a daily living has pushed many transgender individuals to the brink of poverty. The housing discrimination they experience forces many them to live in areas such as slums where social distancing is not feasible. That leaves them at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus, further intensifying the stigma attached to their identity.

Amid the pandemic, the right pushes an Islamophobic agenda

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Likewise, the pandemic has further intensified anti-Muslim sentiment in India. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing paramilitary volunteer group that is ideologically allied with the Modi government, maintains Islamophobic rhetoric to deepen anti-Muslim sentiments. Generally, such rhetoric is a tool to divert people's attention from the Modi government's own administrative failures. RSS saw a groundswell of support after a Muslim religious movement called Tablighi Jamaat held a gathering that was determined to be responsible for a large number of cases in India. Though an unintentional accident, the public at large, social media, and word-of-mouth directed their communal rage against Muslims, fingering them for the coronavirus's spread. The spear of the word was not limited to media exposure, as The Intercept's Mehdi Hasan notes. "It isn't just Hindu nationalist politicians or mobs" blaming Muslims for COVID-19, he writes. "The country's respectable press have joined in too." 

COVID-19 has shined a light on the plights of India's ultra-disadvantaged who lie at the nexus of class, caste, gender, religion, and space. An increasingly polarized India faces challenges within and across class (rich and poor), caste (low and high), gender identity, and location (rural and urban), all of which intersect — leaving some experiencing cumulative vulnerabilities. At this juncture, Indian democracy has an opportunity to ask itself if it will mirror America's shrinking economy, defined by overarching privatization; or if it will choose to reform into a socially and economically equitable post-pandemic society.


Moushumi Roy

Moushumi Roy received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA. She currently teaches Sociology at Delta College, University Center, Michigan. Broadly, her research interests lie at the intersection of structural inequality, social condition, and population health among different groups of people in the US and India. She studies the way structure and systems of different societies change the experiences of different groups of people –i.e., immigrants, migrants, race/caste, ethnicity, gender, older people – to produce inequality (e.g., advantaged, disadvantaged, and ultra-disadvantaged) and health disparity among populations.  

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Tirth Bhatta

Tirth Bhatta is an Assistant Professor in the department of Sociology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Dr. Bhatta is interested in issues of social and economic justice in the Global North and the Global South. His research seeks to understand how cumulative life course socioeconomic status intersects with other forms of stratification (especially race and gender) to shape later-life health disparities in the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Bhatta is conducting a study, "Coping With Coronavirus Pandemic," to understand how older adults are affected by and coping with the pandemic. 

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