Lockdown India – A Look at the Plight of Locked-Out Labor

Juliette DuaraThe COVID-19 pandemic is global; so are the social and economic rifts it is revealing.   Here in the United States stark divisions have emerged between those who can work at home and those who cannot and between those who are financially secure and those who live month-to-month. Similarly, in India the Coronavirus lockdown with its imposition of “social distancing” has amplified the rifts between those who have securely reached the middle class (or more) with homes to retreat to and those who work day to day whose homes are far from the urban centers where they work, are crowded into congested slums, or are nonexistent.

While India’s first Coronavirus case was confirmed on January 30, 2020, the battle against COVID-19 began in earnest only in mid-March.  First, there was the “Janata Curfew” (People’s Curfew) on Sunday, 22 March during which everyone except those providing essential services were required to stay home from 7 am – 9 pm.  With people in their doorways ringing bells and clapping hands on cue at 5 pm that day, there was a festive element to this brief confinement.  Then, on March 24, with scant notice, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that a nation-wide lockdown lasting until April 14 would begin at midnight that night to curb the spreading virus.  This 21-day lockdown has now been extended twice, with some sort of reopening now scheduled for May 17.  Meanwhile, despite these efforts, the trajectory of viral spread has continued upward.  As of May 6, India had registered 52,987 cases of Coronavirus; 1,785 people had died of the disease.

Thus, under lockdown the onslaught of travails for migrant laborers, domestic workers and others at the margins of Indian society is two-fold – the loss of livelihood from their low-wage employment in “non-essential” sectors of the economy like construction, hospitality and domestic help, and the health threat presented by their vulnerability to the virus, whether due to congested living conditions in which “social distancing” is a classist dream, or due to physical susceptibility to the virus caused by malnutrition.  The Modi government has responded to the economics of this crisis with a relief package worth $22.6 billion, yet critics charge that many of those most in need lack the registration with the federal food welfare scheme or other necessary documentation to secure the benefits on offer.  As in the US, those feeding off governmental largesse may be those with the networks, not the need.

Famed novelist, Arundhati Roy, has written about how “[h]istorically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”   As we pass through the portal, have we the will to create a more equitable, ethical world?

Juliette Duara is a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Duara’s research interests include investigating the viability of human rights as an ethical system for the 21st century, comparing U.S. federal and state governmental responses to perceived conflicts between religious freedom and women’s and LGBTQ persons’ rights to equality, as well as probing gendered implications of human rights violations.

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