Aii Analysis: COVID-19 and India
In the midst of a national panic and fear, reports of racist attacks on migrants from Northeast India have escalated, including physical abuses captured on social media. As supply chains are disrupted and essential commodities dwindle, the struggles to survive during this pandemic are exacerbated for migrants from Northeast India. Accused of spreading Coronavirus, food stores have turned them away, while in some cities they have been forced to vacate their rented accommodation. States authorities and police forces have intervened to protect vulnerable migrants from the onslaught of racist attacks.
The Modi government announced a 21-day national lock down on 24 March, 2020. Today, 1.3 billion people in India have been prevented from leaving home except to buy food and medicine to slow the spread of COVID-19. The hardest hit are the migrant population across the country. As construction sites, hospitality sector, and factories closed down overnight, millions became unemployed and homeless. As public transportation suspended operations, thousands were struck in railway stations and bus terminals, while many more trapped in cities without money, shelter, or food. Soon, millions of migrants began to make the journey back home on foot.
National and international reports have focused on the experiences of migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Jharkhand amidst the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in the India.
The impact of this lockdown on the Adivasi and tribal population in the country has been staggering. In Northeast India, as thousands of migrants return to their homes in states like Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Meghalaya, a crisis of another magnitude is unfolding. In the last two decades, this region has witnessed a surge of outmigration to metropolitan cities and towns across India. With the exception of a small number of skilled professionals, the majority of them are youth working in the hospitality and retail sector, including the plantations in South India.
A growing number of migrants from the region are also joining cruise liners as servers and housekeepers. For northeast migrants returning home during the pandemic, authorities and local localities have played a significant role in setting up a quarantine program, but there is a bigger challenge.
“We are trying to enforce the lockdown” an official from Mon district in Nagaland said. So far the administration has recorded 198 migrants across the district.” The official admitted that the state administration was working closely with the village councils and the local ward committees to monitor the situation on the ground. All returning migrants had been ordered to self-quarantine at home. “They have been given separate bed and there have been no recorded cases of COVID-19” the officer from Mon town explained. Schools, colleges and government guest houses were requisitioned by the government as emergency arrangements.
The works of community organizations during the lockdown in states like Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram, and Meghalaya were highlighted in the media.
But the reality is dire. “Nothing is there”, the officer from Mon district in Nagaland hesitatingly noted and continued, “Emergency arrangement cannot be an empty room and a toilet.” The sole government district hospital does not have an isolation ward or an ICU. It has 53 beds and 50 oxygen cylinders and a strength of 13 doctors and 27 nurses for a population of 250,260. Without any laboratory facilities, if anyone is suspected of having the virus, a swab sample will be taken from the patient with a medical profession wearing a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The sample will be put in medical box and an ambulance will carry it to a government laboratory in Dibrugarh, a town 115 kilometers away in the neighboring state of Assam. The estimated travel time is approximately 6 hours. During my conversation with the Officer, PPE was not available in the district as yet.
In Meghalaya as well, the state administration was working closely with the traditional body, (the Rangbah Shnong) to monitor the COVID-19 lockdown. Strict directives were given to all returning migrants to self-isolate for 14 days. Lapdiang Syiem who was in her 10th day of self-isolation in Shillong said mechanisms were in place and directives were followed but there was a fear of infecting the virus on vulnerable groups like taxi drivers and people who were working to bring essential amenities to the public. Like in Nagaland, the state organs in Meghalaya had also established a strong network with traditional bodies to monitor the COVID-19 lockdown. Most households were following directives and staying indoors, but many migrants also faced stigma and invoked fear among the community.
Lapdiang said that there was uncertainty and fear. She explained that the fear was, “…about infecting the other person and not yourself.” So far, enforcing a lockdown and quarantining people did not address the absence of medical facilities on the ground in a pre-pandemic time, but only focused on emergency set ups that were put in place. Similar to Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, there are no testing laboratories in many rural areas and the state of government health care systems are in shambles. “It is a different reality here,” Lapdiang said worried about the uncertainty across communities in the region. For urban centers in the region, citizens in these cities have been left to carry out relief work and take care of out of state migrants.
Guwahati is the largest city in Northeast India and draws in several thousands of migrants from within and outside the region on a daily, weekly and seasonal basis. The daily migrants are often vendors who bring vegetables, rice, fish, meat and other locally sourced food for a city where even the economically well off do their shopping locally in open bazaars. Seasonal migrants are also important for the construction industry, as there are several building projects that have been initiated by private builders and the government alike.
For instance, Kharguli a suburb in Eastern Guwahati is home to many people who work as daily wage earners. Their livelihoods have stalled abruptly. Resident committees, church groups, and local municipal ward members have collected money to ensure that seasonal workers and the poor – around 300 of them in the area have dry rations — rice, lentils, oil, potato, tea and sugar – for the remaining days of the lockdown and one week after, so that there is some security for them.
However, it is a challenge to obtain permission to move around and distribute relief. The lockdown has been enforced with coercive means by the police, as they have tried to keep people indoors. Local police have not differentiated between irresponsible people moving around and those who are simply unable to find places to return to. “One of the problems with the permission process (also) seems to be finding the persons and offices in charge,” says sociologist Sanjay Barbora has worked with relief operations during Assam’s annual floods in the past. He explains that earlier efforts at relief work were fairly streamlined. NGOs that were involved in relief activities had always worked in tandem with the administration. For instance, the Assam State Disaster Management Authority, the various district commissioners’ offices, as well as the police departments had clearly laid down procedures to support and encourage civil society to get involved in relief work.
However, with the national lockdown it has been difficult to find the point of authority in the local administrative system.
Barbora says that this sort of ambiguity is typical of institutions who decision making capacity and powers have been taken away from local bodies including traditional councils. The lockdown shows us how power is centralized in remote political lobbies that have very little connections to the ground. Hence, he reiterates, offering relief to the migrants unable to return home in Guwahati is an example of “well organized people doing welfare work out of practice and goodwill, and definitely not because of organized planning.” As increasing number of migrants across India remains stuck without jobs, food, and security, for migrants from Northeast India, this is a harrowing time.
They have become targets of racist attacks and are heckled as “Coronavirus” and refused essential services across stores.
For some like Aldrin Lyngdoh, a migrant from Meghalaya working in Agra, this nightmare is just too much. “I don’t know where to go and the only way I see is to commit suicide…please take my body to my town so that I can relax,” he wrote these lines on his Facebook page before hanging himself and taking his life on 31 March, 2020.