Nearly 70 people were packed together in the back of the truck. It was hot. A year after India’s first lockdown was declared, Saif was recounting to me what had happened via a WhatsApp call.1 We had been exchanging texts in Hindi for six months, but when we spoke, he told his stories in Bengali, his mother tongue. (A beginner in the language, I asked a friend to sit in and translate.) Saif is in his early 30s, and when lockdown began — at 8 pm on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 — he was living with his wife and five-year-old son in a one-room flat in Delhi’s satellite city, Gurgaon. His employer immediately laid him off, with a promise of being rehired in three weeks, when restrictions lifted. However, with rent amounting to more than 50 percent of his monthly income, three weeks was too long. Like millions of domestic migrants in Indian cities, Saif had been dutifully sending his savings to relatives in his home village. He had built a two-room house there with that money. But he was in Gurgaon, and the house was in remote West Bengal, more than 800 miles away. He pooled some rupees with other Bengalis in the neighborhood and hired the truck they were sitting in that morning, sweating, waiting for the 30-hour drive home to begin.
When lockdown began, Saif’s employer laid him off immediately. But three weeks without income was too long.
On the same day in rural Uttar Pradesh, some 300 miles from Gurgaon, Pawan’s phone was blowing up with distress calls and WhatsApp messages. A week before, he too had left the city, taking the overnight train to his grandparents’ house, where he continued to work remotely for an NGO called Agrasar that supports migrants like Saif and his family. Pawan had once been in Saif’s position, moving to Gurgaon to work in a garment factory. His family is Dalit, also known as “scheduled caste,” formerly “untouchable,” and they own no land; Pawan’s options were limited to working in the fields of upper-caste villagers or taking the factory job. He chose the latter. But the discrimination he’d faced as a Dalit and his passion for social organizing led him into the nonprofit sector. He had been shuttling back and forth between the village and the city for the better part of a decade. Now, a call was coming in every few minutes, and the NGO’s work changed overnight. Instead of skills-development workshops, they were organizing emergency food relief. That first week, they supplied ration kits (wheat, rice, pulses, cooking oil, and spices) to nearly 8,000 families. 2
When Saif’s truck finally pulled away, they drove until late in the evening, crossing ad-hoc containment zones hastily set up to halt the spread of the virus. March temperatures in the northern state of Haryana can spike to 100 degrees, and the truck made slow progress. Then it hit the border of Uttar Pradesh, on the eastern side of Delhi, where the driver lacked permits to get through. There was no detour, and they turned back in the dark. The driver returned them to the vacant lot where they had boarded that morning. Now, though, their flats were off-limits. “You have come back with the illness,” their elderly Haryanvi landlords told them. 3 At that time, there were just a few cases of COVID-19 in Delhi, the national capital. 4 But even medical experts knew little about its communicability, or how quickly it might spread in India’s cities, which are some of the most densely populated in the world.
Gurgaon has a reputation more for sprawl than density, though it achieves both. A relatively young metropolis or “urban local body” in Indian parlance, it gained status as a municipal corporation (having reached an official population of one million) only in 2008. Connected to Delhi along an elevated metro line, as well as via highways typically packed with airport and commuter traffic, the city pulls in about 70 percent of Haryana’s state revenue. The name Gurgaon, a portmanteau of the words guru (teacher) and gaon (village), derives from the Mahabharata; the region is said to encompass land that the protagonist in the epic poem gifts to his archery teacher. This bit of Sanskritic lore and the image of a modest village are at odds with the actuality of the place. 5 Its miles of glass-sheathed office complexes, malls, hotels, high-rises, and gated communities house multinational companies and small retailers alike, along with their affluent employees and owner-entrepreneurs. 6 This economy relies on thousands of low-skilled workers like Saif to guard doors, fetch tea, run errands, clean, and cook. And these workers, in turn, rely on people like Pawan.
The sprawling city of Gurgaon relies on thousands of low-skilled workers like Saif to guard doors, fetch tea, run errands, clean and cook.
The slums and urban villages of Gurgaon, which tend to get far less attention than the malls and office parks, comprise a built environment constructed in large part by former farmers turned rentiers — the class to which the anxious landlords who rejected Saif and his fellow tenants belong.7 Having sold small agricultural holdings to real-estate developers, the landed members of these dominant-caste groups have often retained the rights to former village cores or abadi deh, separated from the rest of the growing city by a line on land-use maps known as the lal dora or red thread. Within these urban village zones, landlords build multistory concrete tenements like the one Saif and his family occupied, as well as rows of one-story brick-and-corrugated-metal hutments or jhuggies. Much of the wealth and power these urban-village landlords hold is therefore tied to the subsistence rents they collect. 8 At the same time, many are wary of their tenants as outsiders, and worry about the political threat they would pose should they become enfranchised in the city. Informal as this “vertical patronage” is, migrants have come to rely on it, working out oral arrangements with both landlords and employers for various kinds of support. 9 Such relationships are precarious at best; occasionally, they are outright hostile.
Gurgaon is the setting for Arvind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008), a dark comedy about an aspiring migrant driver who is drawn into the shady dealings of his wealthy employer. From a thirteenth story balcony, the protagonist observes, “the lights were shining from Gurgaon’s malls, even in broad daylight.” Migrants built those malls. Yet, as their landlords’ distrust indicates, they belong both socially and administratively to other places. Indian domestic migrants number in the hundreds of millions and comprise one of the largest mobile labor forces in the world. On paper, however, migrants have not moved at all. Officially, they still dwell in their villages. They cannot vote in local elections in the cities where they work. They cannot access publicly subsidized rations. They and their families live, sometimes for decades, without surfacing in city population statistics; while the 2011 census reported Gurgaon District’s population at roughly 1.5 million, the actual figure was close to double that, and according to data collected by Agrasar in 2015, census counts in 2011 and 2001 sometimes miscalculated populations in the city’s urban villages by a factor of ten. 10
In the decades since Gurgaon began to urbanize, migrants have come from Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan, with low levels of education and literacy. Despite limited access to banking services and healthcare, such rural arrivals can gain a measure of “economic acceptance” in the city. 11 Yet their simultaneous “social rejection” shapes interactions with local citizens and the local state. 12 To be a migrant of any economic class in India is to be trapped in a form of second-tier citizenship. As political scientist Rameez Abbas has argued, to be a migrant and poor is often to live without the benefits of citizenship at all. 13
Several days before the first lockdown was declared, India’s central government called for a voluntary “Janata curfew” or “curfew of the people.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to assemble on doorsteps and balconies at 9 pm, to bang pots in solidarity with healthcare providers and other essential workers. It was a practice run, a fellow urban planner told me. The virus was coming, and the invisible enemy would be fought by immobilizing the whole country — and so, the idea that “India can never be shut down” had to be dislodged. “Some people may have thought we beat the virus in that one day,” she said, only half-joking. 14
The Indian population had complied with the Janata curfew. But when Modi announced that the country would lock down completely for 21 days, the collective response was chaos. The National Disaster Management Act of 2005 was invoked, superseding local and state authorities. 15 The PM tweeted to assure millions of migrants that “there is absolutely no need to panic,” even as all means of leaving the city — railroad service, bus lines, and air travel — were shut down, with no word as to when they might reopen. 16 Public parks and plazas, schools, offices, restaurants, and malls were closed, triggering layoffs. Construction workers were suddenly unemployed. Women in Gurgaon’s garment industry — who were presumed to be the second earners in their households, and therefore expendable — were laid off to protect the jobs of male counterparts. 17 Commodity chains broke, causing food shortages.
Parks, schools, offices, restaurants, and malls closed, triggering layoffs. Commodity chains broke, causing food shortages. Harried messages to village kin followed.
Harried messages to village kin followed. Unable to make rent, many like Saif crowded into stadiums and makeshift camps with their belongings, waiting for transportation options to become available. Eventually, a government website came online where those who were stranded could apply for free train or bus tickets. By May 1st, India’s Railway Ministry was reserving special shramik or laborer trains, and for the next month or so, across India, thousands of “Shramik Specials” moved more than six million people, paradoxically undercutting the lockdown order and helping to spread the virus into rural districts. 18 Many other families, unable to obtain tickets, set out on foot. Groups walked together in caravans. Some died of hunger, fatigue, or heat exhaustion. While passenger rail service had stopped, freight was still shuttling supplies, and migrants often didn’t realize this. Some followed transit networks as routes home and were killed while sleeping on tracks or walking along roads; in two months, more than 1,400 accidents occurred. 19 A contributor to the Guardian wrote of “scenes that recall the partition photographs of Margaret Bourke-White” — photographs taken on the eve of Indian independence in 1947, when more than a million refugees rushed to cross the new border into or out of Pakistan. 20
All this time, my urban planner friend was in India. I was in the U.S., and we were talking over Zoom. Fieldwork seemed impossible for both of us. We were committed to “being there” as scholars, but we weren’t sure whether listening was enough, or if getting involved violated our responsibility as scholars to stay impartial. How does one simply observe subjects living in real time through a humanitarian crisis? It feels insufficient to merely bang our textual pots and pans or “raise awareness,” knowing that such awareness usually does not translate into direct benefit. I can only hope that telling these stories faithfully will help to particularize unwieldy demographic categories, and to shift the ways in which we as planners, policymakers, and academics talk about migrants. 21
When India locked down on that March evening, the movement of nearly a billion-and-a-half people was halted on four hours’ notice. This was a manufactured disaster for domestic migrants. At the same time, as a crisis in migration, transportation, and public health, it was the predictable outcome of India’s longstanding injustices in mobility — injustices that the lockdown itself deepened. The suffering of India’s urban migrants during the pandemic map onto geographies of uneven infrastructural and agricultural investment that have been decades in the making. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees: “All citizens shall have the right to move freely throughout the territory of India; to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India.” 22 Yet, for the most vulnerable, the process of crossing state and regional borders, not to mention cultural geographies, is burdened with impediments to permanent resettlement and civic belonging. 23 Central to these social and infrastructural barriers is the rhetoric of self-reliance — a potent mythos that, in contemporary India, encapsulates both historical visions of postcolonial independence, and neoliberal approaches to governing.
Groups walked together in caravans. Some died of hunger, fatigue, or heat exhaustion. In two months, more than 1,400 accidents occurred.
Since India’s economic liberalization in the 1990s, what critics call a neoliberal “market fundamentalism” — accompanied by a rejection of heavy-handed, state-sponsored development planning — has become conventional wisdom among politicians, policymakers, and entrepreneurs.24 It was in this context that, in May 2020, two months into the worldwide pandemic, Modi announced a Covid-relief package known as Aatmanirbhar Bharat, or Self-Reliant India. The PM noted that “self-reliance” in this case would not imply closing the country off, but rather building its capacity on the world stage, with an aim toward achieving self-sufficiency without isolationism. The skeptical, however, heard an ominous subtext: You are on your own. The phrase aatma (self) nirbhar (reliant or dependent) is as loaded in Hindi as in English. In India as in the United States, it calls to mind the transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson — but it also evokes the Gandhian language of swaraj or national self-rule, which was a rallying cry for independence. Gandhi’s swaraj was both a philosophy and a tactic, worked out in response to British imperialism and the exploitation of Indian labor and natural resources over centuries. Modi’s government has savvily appropriated this historical spirit of self-rule to emphasize strategic reliance on international trade and neoliberal models of “trickle-down” development.
For the rhetoric of self-reliance also trickles down. In India, domestic migration is often portrayed as a form of self-sacrifice, or even self-actualization; the myth of self-reliance touts “freedom to move” as sufficient to overcome obstacles to socioeconomic mobility. The pandemic’s immediate consequences demonstrated that, as Amartya Sen argued decades ago, no “freedom” to “choose” economic migration can be meaningful in the absence of social connections, political enfranchisement, and physical well-being. 25 An official emphasis on reducing administrative barriers to migration may appear to shore up the right to move as guaranteed in the Indian constitution. Yet that right cannot yield just outcomes if migrants are not protected and supported as members of an urban polity, regardless of their legal place of domicile.
When I began conducting interviews with migrant households in Gurgaon as a doctoral student in 2016, a common refrain was “we will go back, but not yet.” I heard stories of the villages to which workers sent regular remittances, and to which they journeyed back once or twice a year; despite the rarity of such trips, respondents often expressed a sense that Gurgaon would never be home. When they said, “I will go back, but not yet,” they were not speaking of the following year, or of annual visits at festivals. They had in mind the seasons of life: youth, middle age, retirement. Many admitted to saving face with families back home by downplaying the injustices inherent in moving to the city: high rents, social discrimination, political disenfranchisement, and polluted living conditions.
The Prime Minister announced a Covid-relief package, Aatmanirbhar Bharat or Self-Reliant India. The phrase is as loaded in Hindi as in English.
I have often heard middle-class professionals in Gurgaon self-identify as “migrants” too. But typically, the term has a negative connotation, reserved for the poor. Indeed, the migration of white-collar workers from one city to another unfolds in a markedly different manner than the movement of unskilled laborers. In Indian society, one’s identity and origin are often instantly legible through name and language, which signify socioeconomic status, education, and caste affiliation. A person with the requisite class markers can relocate and quickly take up new legitimacy as a quasi-permanent newcomer in the eyes of local government. 26 Not so for unskilled arrivals, who cannot shed the label “migrant” voluntarily.
This means that despite migrants’ strong desires for economic independence and their wish to spare their families distress, those without education, capital, or caste position need help to move from the village to the city, and to survive once there. At the same time, the mythos of self-reliance teaches Indians that migrant workers can expect little from governments in the cities that they build and keep functioning. Instead, they rely on connections back home, or on the representatives of NGOs and other social service providers whom they keep on speed-dial for times of crisis. Indeed, people are capable of extraordinary things, and extraordinary aid networks do exist. But the informal citizenship regimes that support poor migrants in Indian cities bespeak a crucial double deficit. Government lacks both the practical capacity and the political desire to acknowledge migrants as citizens. Citizenship, after all, is more than a legal designation. It is a civic institution that regulates cultural membership. 27
In Gurgaon, middle-class residents and the locally dominant caste groups who rent to migrants in urban villages help to define and to enforce the boundaries of this institution, intentionally or not. At the same time, in India as anywhere else, one’s place of origin is imbricated with identity; for migrants, connection to the village becomes a basis not only for the discrimination they suffer in the cities, but also for ongoing social and emotional attachments to the folks at home. These connections to the sending regions — the villages — took on intensified importance in March 2020, creating avenues for escape from the city for many migrants. Yet, in times of crisis, access to these connections depends on local support in cities.
In Saif’s case, a middle-class neighbor looked out her window, saw the would-be travelers still stranded in the vacant lot the morning after their abrupt return, and intervened. They had nothing to eat. She brought them rice and bananas. She called the police, helped to distribute masks and dupattas, and doused the group in enough hand sanitizer to convince their landlords to let them back into their flats. The same woman helped to organize funds and transportation for their second attempt to return home a few days later, and early in 2021 it was she who put me in touch with Saif. Without knowing the first thing about the woman who had come to their aid — she is an activist, planner, scholar, and public intellectual — Saif told me, “You need a certain kind of courage to help people.” He referred to my friend only as Madam: “Madam stayed with us the whole day in the sun, and she came twice or thrice to visit us.” New arrangements were made, and finally the group packed into a bus and readied, again, for the 1,400-kilometer journey home.
The pandemic revealed, among other things, how profound our sense of responsibility for one another can be. And I remain torn, now, between honoring the heroism of such individuals and decrying the vacuum of care in which such heroism was needed.
Migration and the Rhetoric of Self-Reliance
When the PM made his speech in May 2020, his rhetoric regarding self-reliance seemed intended to address two apparently unrelated issues — to lend coherence to a chaotic pandemic response, and to boost national morale in the face of tensions with China over a road-construction project at the Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas. 28 China was already serving as a strawman for global pandemic anxiety, and India’s ruling-party politicians refused to “let a crisis go to waste,” seeking to shift the focus of public opinion from pandemic ill-preparedness to anti-Chinese sentiments that predated the coronavirus.
The Self-Reliant India aid package amounted to nearly $420 billion, yet its rollout was uneven. Direct cash transfers were not allocated; instead, food grains were made available through rationing and distribution programs administered by each Indian state for its residents, which meant that migrants would be able to use ration cards only at designated locations. Cash transfers went mainly towards business loans, defense manufacturing, and the boosting of production of commodities like PPE. 29 While real distribution faltered, however, the rhetoric of Aatmanirbhar Bharat was quickly adopted among India’s government agencies and across their websites. The publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary even selected “aatmanirbhar” as the Hindi “word of the year.” 30
As Evan Easton-Calabria and Naohiko Omata point out in their work on refugee assistance, the “myth of self-reliance” is a pervasive neoliberal idea that hinges on a warped logic, since “juxtaposing self-reliance and dependency as opposites can create a simplistic ‘inverse’ relationship, whereby promoting refugees’ self-reliance is assumed to be achieved by reducing aid.” 31 In other words, even the international refugee assistance community has applied a rhetoric of “birds-pushed-from-the-nest”; if we do not let them fall, they will not learn to fly. Such rationales serve as pretexts for even more sinister beliefs, by which refugees and migrants are seen as parasites who cannot be allowed to form dependencies on host governments. One cannot be both a “parasite” and a citizen.
Self-reliance is a pervasive neoliberal idea that hinges on a warped logic: If we do not let them fall, they will not learn to fly.
This strategy — harnessing a fear of foreigners, and then converting the poor into “foreigners” in their own countries — did not materialize overnight. India’s treatment of domestic migrants connects to a much longer history of citizenship, mobility, and colonial governmentality, as well as to legacies of injustice under Partition. Early in the post-Partition era, Indian citizenship was granted to Hindu and Sikh refugees crossing the border from Pakistan, even as Muslims departed in the opposite direction. For the refugees entering India, such liberality was short-lived. The militant Assam movement of the early 1980s emerged from decades of tension between Bengalis living in the northeastern state of Assam, and Assamese nationalists who perceived the Bengalis as foreigners; the formation (in 1971) of modern Bangladesh, which effectively split the northeast states from the rest of India, had exacerbated the situation. The Assam Accord of 1985 hardened the border with Bangladesh, and a constitutional amendment passed in 1987 further restricted citizenship to those born to at least one citizen parent. 32
The longstanding political conflicts in the northeast of India that precipitated the Assam Accords have since fed a much broader political debate, foregrounding the Hindu-nationalist politics of Modi’s government. Discrimination toward Muslim Bengali-speaking Indians — like Saif — has risen dramatically and continues to shape the response to the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA of 2019, which omits Muslims. This has raised fears that Muslims who cannot provide other evidence of citizenship will be rendered effectively stateless. 33 In February 2020, violent protests over the CAA coincided with early news of Covid.
In academia as well as policymaking, “migrant” is a contested word. Nor are “the poor” a homogenous class. Efforts to formulate more accurate terms that might encompass the varied experiences of the migrant poor typically resort to modifiers such as “seasonal” and “cyclical.” However, such language tends to normalize or even naturalize the quest for short-term employment. 34 Of course, not all poor migrants lack assets. The largest sending regions for migrant labor in India happen to be some of the country’s poorest — Bihar, Orissa, and parts of West Bengal. Even so, many migrants do own or have access to land within their families. Traveling to cities is a well-documented “income diversification” strategy, and for many, the journey home is a biannual respite from their working lives. 35 Such commutes are long — but they are usually planned and undertaken willingly rather than under duress. Families wait on the other side, ready to celebrate festivals, weddings, births, or just months-long visits. Migration thus creates a life of straddling, where households reconfigure habitation and consumption practices in order “to remain located in both the urban and rural spheres,” keeping a foot as firmly as possible in each world. 36
Distress migration, which occurs during moments of acute agrarian failure, functions somewhat differently. Although agriculture now accounts for less than 20 percent of India’s GDP, the sector employs roughly 60 percent of the population. In places where farmers rely on monsoon rains to water their crops, droughts and changes in rainfall (more common with climate change) are weakening the ability to subsist on farming incomes. 37
The gendered dimensions of migration are crucial as well, although such issues receive inadequate attention.
The gendered dimensions of migration are crucial as well, although such issues receive inadequate attention. Women’s migrations in the past were generally prompted by marriage, or by a decision taken by a spouse. More recently, female laborers have joined the urban workforce as agricultural incomes decline. 38 With demand in the service sector exceeding that for industrial and construction workers in many urban locales, women are needed as cooks, maids, school helpers, and security personnel; many also find work in garment manufacturing. Others produce small-scale crafts at home, enlisting family members to meet deadlines. In contrast to the longstanding pattern of the solo male laborer in the Indian city, migrant households like Saif’s include children who live with both parents and attend urban schools. 39 The presence of nuclear families in migrant communities challenges assumptions that women and children have been left behind in the villages.
Transportable Identities and Immobile Bureaucracy
Before the pandemic, debates in India about the portability of rights and benefits centered on creating more rigorous forms of identification. These include Pan cards, IDs with ten-digit permanent account numbers, which are needed for filing income taxes, and Aadhar cards. Each Aadhar (“foundation” in Hindi) has a unique twelve-digit identification number, which is linked to demographic and biometric data. Using biometric data such as fingerprints is one way of catching or authenticating individuals whose administrative identities had been duplicated, in the past, through the mess created by generations of decentralized record-keeping. Ironically, certain kinds of migrant work — cigarette rolling, bricklaying, stone cutting, working with caustic chemicals — destroy one’s fingerprints over time. Basic infrastructural hurdles in remote locations, such as irregular electricity and broadband service, can also stand in the way of authenticating data to be linked to an Aadhar. Even incorrect data collection can make the number meaningless. 40 Furthermore, many migrants were not born in hospitals, which means that they often lack the primary documentation (a birth certificate) necessary to apply for Aadhar, let alone to demonstrate citizenship.
While national policies regulating rural-urban migration have never really taken off, programs have been adopted that aim to assist rural economies in developing beyond subsistence. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MGNREGA of 2005 assures at least 100 days of employment in a financial year to rural households willing to do unskilled labor. The scheme has sustained seasonal migration for landless migrants, who know they can earn for at least three months of the year back home. Nevertheless, NGOs that work with migrants have known for decades that measures aimed at keeping people in villages for a few months of the year are largely ineffective in preventing cyclical migration. The organizations have thus adopted a dual strategy, addressing place-based barriers by assisting migrants who want to pursue urban residency claims, while also providing more opportunities for upward mobility such as skills development, IT training, education for basic literacy and financial literacy, and legal aid. If the NGOs cannot keep people in place, they can give them something portable to rely on.
The multiple forms of proof required for establishing national citizenship (including access to Aadhar and voter ID) are difficult to gather. Their absence provides a simple reason for denying residency to migrants. Here again NGOs step in, brokering access for migrants who cannot navigate the bureaucracy on their own. 41 Still, infrastructural deficiencies in destination cities remain unaddressed at the level of official policy. Access to safe water and sanitation, freedom from evictions, fair working conditions: NGOs and development agencies raise awareness and capacity around all these issues. But such organizations can advocate for the urban poor only in piecemeal fashion. Governments alone have the policy instruments, resources, and authority to tackle such problems in integrated ways.
Many migrants were not born in hospitals, meaning they lack the primary documents necessary to demonstrate citizenship.
A Haryanvi NGO worker told me, “They used to just slap a migrant,” referring to the not-so-micro aggressions on the part of city locals that he witnessed as a child. “How did they know?” I asked. “In lots of ways,” he said. You can tell where someone is from by their surname, accent, skin tone, height, build, or dress; by the smell of the cooking fat they use. In 2016, when I interviewed property owners in Gurgaon’s urban villages about the process of leasing to migrants, a prominent landlord explained that they tried to verify the identities of all tenants coming from more distant states, like West Bengal.
When the lockdowns happened, these relationships, whether amicable or fraught, made a tremendous difference in the lives of migrant tenants. I heard reports of migrants selling their wedding jewelry, taking predatory loans with exorbitant interest rates to make rent, or returning to the village and leaving belongings in their city flats, only to have landlords demand back rent once they returned to claim their possessions. 42 More generous landlords offered to reduce or suspend rents. And sometimes, the cultural boundaries and citizenship regimes that seemed to keep people in their spheres became more pliable in the face of the pandemic.
The Voice of Gurgaon
Since 2009, the radio station Gurgaon ki Avaaz (“the voice of Gurgaon”) has played local folk music — as opposed to the usual Bollywood and pop fare — and hosted daily talk shows. The typical audience is spread across the city, but the callers, both migrant and local, have tended to be elderly and male. Under lockdown, these demographics changed. Young people began to join the radio’s WhatsApp chat, wanting to know where they could get help. Other first-time callers did not realize that they had reached a radio show; trapped at home, without computers, fiddling with the FM features on mobile phones, they found the broadcast by sheer luck. 43
Sharmila is one of two reporters at Gurgaon ki Avaaz. A mother of three and grandmother of one, she is 47 years old, and lives in a village roughly 20 kilometers from the city. She is also a health-worker, with more than a decade of experience in a rural hospital. In fact, she had been recruited to journalism to deliver public health programming. “I thought my voice wouldn’t suit the radio,” she tells me in Hindi, over Zoom. We are in a three-way conversation with her show’s producer, Arti Jaiman, who recruited Sharmila many years ago. As it happened, Sharmila became the voice of Gurgaon ki Avaaz in the pandemic. Unlike the other protagonists in this story, Sharmila is from Haryana, speaks the local dialect, and would not be identified as a migrant per se; her commute, while onerous, is “normal.” Yet it is also true that, like Saif and Pawan, she regularly leaves the village to work in a major city center. As a woman, moreover, she traverses a great distance by leaving her home with a press badge to read the news live on the air. Sharmila’s hours on the radio during the pandemic created a virtual space in which listeners could connect across the city and beyond. The radio became a vector for collective grieving and coping; Jaiman described it as an adda, Hindi for a communal space open to anyone.
When the station’s other reporter fell sick with Covid in late March 2020, Sharmila was the only one who could reach the studio, and she continued to broadcast from 10:30 am to 2 pm daily, disseminating live information about health updates, rations, and transportation. Without studio staff, she became a one-woman show, operating the controls, speaking, and fielding audience questions. Her confidence grew. Most callers were still male, and a few regulars attempted to flirt with her on-air. “Madam, your voice sounds so nice,” her husband would tease.
Sharmila’s hours on the radio during the pandemic created a virtual space in which listeners could connect across the city and beyond.
Her husband was listening to the callers’ come-ons from inside the radio studio itself. Sharmila’s pre-pandemic commute had been an hour or more by bus, auto-rickshaw, or whatever combination of transportation modes worked. Lockdown upended these patterns, and her husband began to drive her on their scooter, zipping through the mostly empty streets of Gurgaon. Her press card guaranteed passage through checkpoints, and their commute was cut to 20 minutes. He then stayed with her in the studio throughout the broadcast to ensure that they could both get home. As they passed through the containment zones, guards became familiar faces. They would ask Sharmila’s husband how he could sit there in the studio while his wife worked. He would say that this was her way of helping, and his way was simply to be with her. In our interviews, I asked Sharmila why she did not borrow the scooter and drive herself? But I already knew what she would say. She has never driven a vehicle, nor had she been encouraged to learn. Village women in this conservative part of northern India stay in the home if they can. (Her father-in-law, conversely, had taken to sneaking out to join his friends for cards. A neighbor would call to tell the family that he had been sighted, and her brother-in-law would retrieve him. The next day, he’d go out again. “So what if I die?” he told his relatives. “I have seen everything. How much longer should I live?”)
Sharmila used her daily commute to gather details about the geography of lockdown in the city, so that she could report up-to-date information. Where had cases been found? Where were rations being distributed? Which roads had been blocked? Gurgaon’s containment zones locked down streets where clusters of fifteen or more cases had been identified within a periphery of roughly one kilometer. Gated communities suddenly created de facto containment boundaries. Slums and urban villages were sometimes barricaded with debris to keep residents inside. Sharmila and her husband saw people crawling out from under the sticks and branches blocking the way, or worse, being accosted by police for escaping. On other days, she worked from home, editing interviews, creating playlists, and assembling her programs.
In addition to posting medical guidelines from the administration, Sharmila and the station’s other reporter also began to collate requests for rations. Callers sent images of their IDs through WhatsApp for them to forward to the Red Cross. People who only knew each other through the radio began to call in to check on each other. Requests for poems and stories to be read aloud on air came in from listeners who needed to pass the time in cramped quarters. Psychologists would join the live shows to coach listeners through the stress and shame of being seen in the queue for rations.
The emotional fatigue was intense. Eventually, like Pawan and his colleagues at Agrasar, Sharmila and her colleagues realized that the governmental ration program could not sustain people indefinitely, and they shifted the focus of their broadcasts to helping families leave Gurgaon for their home villages. The team at ki Avaaz began to coordinate with Agrasar, the local government, and their listeners to arrange the returns, sometimes securing bus and train tickets on their behalf through the government websites.
“My friends rode their bike 800 kilometers,” Pawan tells me on a WhatsApp call. “Their bike?” I ask. Yes. They cycled from the city of Jodhpur, in the semi-desert state of Rajasthan, to their village in Uttar Pradesh. Two guys, one bicycle, a little less than 500 miles.
Travel by train from Gurgaon to Pawan’s village takes eight hours overnight. A one-way ticket costs 200 rupees, about $2.75. His work for Agrasar has long allowed him the flexibility to make the trip every few weeks. But, he explains, factory workers have seven-day workweeks and can return only every six months, or after a year or two. Prior to the pandemic, he would often accompany such workers shopping for gifts to bring home to their families — factory-made clothes, bar soap, perfume, sweets — that wound up as heavy bundles to be dragged onto the train. Pawan merely window shopped on these sprees. He had stopped buying gifts long ago, after the women of his household rejected his taste; better to come home and take them to a market where they could pick out what they wanted. Normally, his family would ply him with food for the return journey. Others would bring wheat and pulses back to the city, but he tended to return as he came, nearly empty-handed.
Pawan’s friends cycled from a city in the semi-desert state of Rajasthan to their village in Uttar Pradesh. Two guys, one bicycle, a little less than 500 miles.
Since he returned home in March 2020, he had formed the idea of developing his own NGO, or possibly joining the Indian Administrative Service. “There are so many organizations working in cities. There are very few organizations working in the rural area,” he told me. Pawan spoke fluent English on our calls. He’s self-taught, with two degrees from a distance-learning program.
The NGO Pawan worked for, Agrasar, had already been serving migrants in Gurgaon for over a decade when the pandemic hit. Not surprisingly, they were among the first organizations contacted by the administration of Haryana to spearhead relief efforts. After all, the NGO had collected population data; they had sponsored studies and surveys; they had built relationships with migrant communities. They were ready to team up with local government during the first wave of the pandemic. Yet they found that government often stalled. Officials planned to use the Public Distribution System or PDS, which provides subsidized foodstuffs to Indians in poverty who hold a ration card. But instead of food, they distributed forms. They said they would give special ration tokens and distribute rations even to those without ration cards. That never happened. Working with the thousands of households that Agrasar assisted over the next four months, Pawan did not encounter a single person who reported having received government rations.
Instead, the Agrasar team arranged cooked food in a gurudwara or Sikh temple in the city. They called on their network of volunteers. “We tried our best to help the people,” Pawan sighs. But the national lockdowns extended several times, and Agrasar realized they could not keep pace with the escalating urban need. Like Sharmila and her colleagues at the radio station, they had to figure out a way to help people return to their villages. As summer arrived, Agrasar was assisting their beneficiaries in securing bus tickets.
Bureaucratic Minds and Urban Local Bodies
Indian municipalities generally have fewer powers and less autonomy than cities and towns in other parts of the world. Because India’s “urban local bodies” are rarely empowered to make and implement certain kinds of policy, central and state governments called the shots in the early Covid response. “We are at the pleasure of the governor,” officials told me. Still, many decisions, such as how to distribute state-allocated funds, enforce violations of the lockdown orders, or house and attend to homeless migrants, had fallen to unelected bureaucracies instead of elected members of parliament or other politicians. 44 District heads or deputy commissioners, part of the appointed cadre of civil servants or Indian Administrative Service Officers, do have the authority under the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 to make some ad-hoc decisions in their jurisdictions. 45 But, as I learned from Mukta Naik, an organizer, scholar, and urban planner at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, “some states are more centralized than others,” and this can make a massive difference in the ability of local authorities to respond to the nuances of a crisis that implicates both public health and mobility. 46
Indian municipalities generally have fewer powers and less autonomy than cities and towns in other parts of the world.
Naik has observed the containment practices and “spatial gaps” in administrative thinking over the past year — the kinds of bureaucratic barriers that halted Saif and his neighbors on the truck at the state line. These decisions seem sensible on paper, following the boundaries of cadastral surveys and legal jurisdictions. But they make little practical sense on the ground. “The bureaucratic mind has no map,” as Naik puts it. “Just lists — lists of wards, lists of containment zones.” 47 With each signed, stamped, and dated administrative order, a containment zone locked down for fourteen days. I tried to parse some of the lists, to envision my own map, and found it disorienting. (For instance, I came across a single containment zone comprising the “17th floor to 19th floor” and “2nd to 4th floor[s]” of what seemed to be two separate buildings).
Maps aside, I wanted to know what was on this bureaucratic mind. And, surprisingly, in March 2021 I learned that the former deputy commissioner of Gurgaon District was now living in the same time zone as I do. Amit Khatri was little more than an hour away, in New York City, working on a master’s degree in Public Administration. He had been in office when the first lockdowns happened and held the district and municipal commissioner’s positions simultaneously. The average posting for an officer in the Indian Administrative Service or IAS is only sixteen months, and his tenure did not last through the pandemic. 48 Another officer took over in January 2021.
Understanding that migrants would need help with the basics — rent and food — his office’s initial approach had been to enlist corporate and civil society groups to provide rations. “We received one-and-a-half crores (ten million rupees) and spent only 300 lakhs (100,000 rupees),” he explained of the donated funds distributed by state government. In his telling, this outsourcing of Covid response, and the parsimonious distribution of resulting donations, was simply efficient management on the part of the district. “All that [help] was coming through the private corporate social responsibility community. … Civil society always rises,” he told me optimistically. 49 I had heard the same words uttered pessimistically by members of those very civil-society groups.
Eventually, I spoke on the phone to Khatri’s successor, Yash Garg, the current deputy commissioner of Gurgaon. He was in his car. Garg is a doctor, which is unusual for an IAS officer, and is from Haryana originally. He had been posted to the position just as Modi declared victory over the virus in January 2021. The fact that he has medical training was a coincidence — though it had come in handy for communicating with experts on public health matters and devising quick-fix solutions to address emerging forms of the virus while preventing another full lockdown.
Mumbai and Delhi were on strict lockdown during the April 2021 wave of the virus. In Haryana, however, the migration crisis of the previous year had made administrators, including Garg, wary. “[The lockdown] precipitated a greater humanitarian crisis than the pandemic itself,” he said firmly. 50 Last year, at the peak in Gurgaon, there were 7,000 cases. The peak in April 2021 was considerably higher, at 38,000 cases, but the government opted for a night-and-weekend curfew rather than a full lockdown. Industries were allowed to stay open, although the number of workers was substantially reduced. The previous lockdown taught the administration that complete cessation of economic activity was not an option. In spring 2020, Gurgaon had 170 containment zones. When we spoke in April 2021, there were none. As Garg’s driver shuttled him to his next meeting, we discussed the added responsibility and pressure facing a top administrator during a public health crisis. “It doesn’t help to be a decision-maker in these sorts of circumstances, because you’re practically deciding who gets to live and who doesn’t,” he told me. As a medical doctor, he was intimately aware of the life-or-death choices that physicians were facing daily.
“But, in your current position, you also have influence over that?” I asked. I wanted him to speak to his role as a bureaucrat, who could make other kinds of decisions that would affect people’s well-being just as drastically.
“Sometimes, yes,” he said, before the line broke.
Back in the Village
When Saif first arrived in his home village from Gurgaon, he felt useless. He submitted forms to the local panchayat or village council to request rations and a single payment of 1,000 rupees, but nothing came of it. In late July 2020, Saif was rehired, and he brought his wife and son back to their apartment in Gurgaon. He returned to wearing his business-casual button-down and laminated badge, to cleaning offices, fetching tea, and running errands in corporate India. The cost of food had risen, but wages remained the same. Things seemed to settle in to a new normal. While migrants were returning, the city seemed de-densified by the threat of the virus. Still, even before “Delta variant” became a household name, fear of another lockdown was on everyone’s minds.
Fast-forward to January 2021. Modi declared victory over COVID-19. And, as if on cue, cases began to rise. Weeks passed, and I had regular check-ins with my interlocutors in Gurgaon and other parts of India. One aid worker told me he was emotionally spent; another came down with Covid and spent a few weeks offline. Everyone knew someone who was sick or hospitalized. Everyone had a different story. I didn’t know which ones to tell. When I finally spoke with Saif in April 2021, Gurgaon was under a night-time curfew, with lockdown in effect only in neighboring Delhi. There was fear among returned migrants that they could be trapped in the city once again. Saif’s wife had just given birth, and the infant was only two weeks old. The memory of the truck mishap was still sharp in his mind, and he didn’t want to risk such a scenario with a newborn. Hospital beds were filling up. Going home again to the village would at least mean that, should they catch the disease, and should it kill them, their families would have their remains and be able to perform funeral rites.
Families began to trickle back to their villages, this time without the mad rush of the previous year. But people still felt burned by the trauma.
Families began to trickle back to their villages, this time without the mad rush of the previous year, though people were still feeling burned by the trauma. Saif’s wife and newborn daughter had fevers (fortunately not Covid), and their apartment was on the roof terrace of their building; it was hot. There was less demand for transportation than the year before, though ticket prices were still high, and — again with the help of Madam and her friends — Saif managed to buy bus tickets. This time, there was air-conditioning, and they had proper berths for sleeping. He shot a video on his cell phone during the trip and sent it to me. His wife, cradling the newborn, sits on the top bunk, her eyes expressing the silent-but-universal please don’t as he films.
The trip went smoothly, and a few weeks later, he sent footage of the house he had built, brick by brick, with his remittances since 2013. His mango trees were beginning to ripen in a verdant walled yard. It was Eid, and the family made sawai (like rice pudding, but with vermicelli). He had stopped calling me Madam. I was Didi (big sister) now. Meanwhile, the monsoon was coming. He had decided that, when he goes back to Gurgaon this time, it would not be worth dragging his wife and children through the ordeal. At the same time, he did not want to be separated from them.
He talked of starting a new business, buying crops in bulk during the harvest, and selling them in the city in the off-season. “Right now, if I can just make do, then that will be fine,” he said. Government entitlements amounted to five kilograms of rice per person for households where an adult member had a BPL (below poverty card); plus two kilos each of wheat, sugar, and kerosene. With a ration card (known as a white card), one might get two kilos of rice once a month. Saif was immersed in navigating the red tape of changing his household’s status from migrant to full-time villager. We talked through the byzantine regulations of local bureaucracy, but the details began to blur: “Those who have six kantha will get six thousand rupees passed from the Gram Panchayat to the BDO, then to the Jila, then it is sanctioned and comes to your account through an Aadhar.”
When we first spoke, Saif was still debating whether he could put in another five years in Gurgaon. He did not want to go back, and in the winter of 2021–2022, he and his family were still in the village. His father had suffered an illness and was unable to work, and Saif had planted the fields with mustard and potatoes. He was waiting for what would ultimately be an unprofitable harvest before considering another run at the city for work. With Omicron, a third lockdown had come. His son was in a private school in West Bengal, and the state gave rations to schoolchildren, to incentivize households to keep their children enrolled, but he had no idea how he would continue to pay the school fees. I texted Saif around New Year’s Eve. “No Gurgaon,” he wrote, adding a play on words: “Main Gaon (my village).” He is enjoying the respite from city life. He knows he will have to go back eventually. But not yet.
By late 2020, Pawan had resigned his position at Agrasar and returned to his village indefinitely, adopting the role of local caregiver. One hospital served a cluster of 57 villages, and it had been understaffed, lacking ventilators; pop-up private hospitals had emerged, staffed by people who lacked adequate medical training. Villagers took their fevers to rural doctors, who couldn’t or wouldn’t test for Covid, and treated them for typhoid instead; at least ten people in the village had died due to misdiagnosis. Pawan did what he could for an uncle who could not afford the cost of a bed in a private hospital. Finally, the uncle was admitted, but he did not survive. Pawan purchased a thermometer, and a pulse oximeter — the only such device in his village of 10,000 people. During the first months of the Delta wave in 2021, before vaccines became available, he was constantly on call. If he heard that someone was feeling ill, he went into their homes, unvaccinated but masked, to check their oxygen levels and temperatures. If it seemed that medical attention was needed, he made the phone call. Nobody else in the village wore a mask, but he was trying to change this.
We spoke most recently in January 2022. India’s third wave had struck. Yet health outcomes and vaccination rates were stable in the village, and Pawan had returned to Gurgaon, hoping to be useful. “Apart from containment zones, the lockdown has been lifted,” he explained. “Shops are open. Things are normal. But the second lockdown … What should I say? It’s the worst. … Our health system killed people.” While he still hopes to take the Indian Administrative Service Exam near his home village in Uttar Pradesh, the pandemic has postponed the testing schedules. We debate the constitutionality of a new law coming online in Haryana. The law requires employers at private firms to hire 75 percent of their employees from “local” labor pools. Perhaps this law would be contested by manufacturers and other businesses in Gurgaon. 51 Nonetheless, as a ploy to promote local interests at the expense of migrant labor, the proposed law seems purely political, aimed at appeasing local voting blocs.
If it were to come into effect, it might spell the end of Gurgaon’s economic primacy and the state’s reputation for ease of doing business. Between the pandemic lockdowns and exclusionary labor laws, the city’s power to draw capital and migrants might decline. Would this slow down migration? Pawan thought not. Perhaps it would exacerbate the exploitation of workers in the informal sector, as employers would have even more leverage to threaten employees into clandestine arrangements. Perhaps labor would simply shift across the national capital region into Uttar Pradesh and the satellite city of Noida, Gurgaon’s lesser cousin, on the Eastern edge of Delhi. Or perhaps firms and homeowners would sit up and challenge the law’s constitutionality on economic grounds, and win. 52
A spurious politics of self-reliance drives debates about pandemic responses, not just in India but around the world; the climate of nationalism and nativism in which the pandemic has unfolded is hardly unique to the Indian subcontinent. Citizenship has always been a tool for moral posturing and civic exclusion. As a political identity, citizenship requires that certain rights be upheld and needs met, which governments often cannot guarantee. In periods of crisis, weaknesses in the system have provided cover for institutions unable to fulfill the needs of all citizens. It is much easier to peddle the fiction that actual citizens, in India or elsewhere, are not dependents but resourceful independents, intrepidly ready to undergo hardships in achieving their own goals — or better yet, suspect “foreigners” seeking handouts.
A spurious politics of self-reliance drives debates about responses to the pandemic, not just in India but around the world.
Over the years, I have encountered many explanations for migration. Some emphasize migrants’ agency, while others portray them as victims of systemic failure. In the media and popular imagination, there is a tendency to romanticize the poverty of migrants or to stigmatize it; to vilify or ennoble it. While the pandemic has shed light on the precarious employment and housing situations on which migrants depend — a precarity that forced millions out of cities, at least temporarily — the crisis has also exposed the collective dependencies of cities, professional classes, and industries at large upon these populations. Cities like Gurgaon immediately recognized the dangers of losing their working-class population and seem just as dependent on the rising civil society to pick up the slack. Through a neoliberal sleight of hand, this dependence has been recast as efficiency, a simple outsourcing. But such rationales may turn on a dime. The politics of a state like Haryana, and the fear of migrants, may for a time overshadow even these concerns.
Despite their efforts, NGOs, and civil society actors in India would like more from those in power, namely the support of a broader government platform in times of emergency. Even money and connections could not guarantee hospital beds to affluent families during the country’s second viral wave. Omicron led to another spike in cases, but its lower mortality rates have made it the mildest wave of the disease to hit the country. (A recent article in the Economist argues that there remain far more ways to die a premature death in India than from COVID-19; before the pandemic slowdown, an average of nine people died per day on Mumbai’s suburban rail network. 53)
As fear of the virus begins to recede — for now — the sense of urgency that surrounded India’s migrant crisis will fade from public awareness. Yet the greatest myth of self-reliance remains the idea that those of us with the privilege and the resources to shelter in place have achieved it; that we have carried ourselves through the crisis of the pandemic. If we step out of the binary that opposes dependent to self-reliant, what might we see about ourselves and others? What made self-reliance such a powerful myth, to begin with? The rhetoric of swaraj helped to build collective solidarities in periods of decolonization. But instrumentalized in the present moment, it functions to dissolve collective responsibility.