A soul unknowingly born in a world
So broken and so inhuman
Crushing his innocence with structural inequality
That we create and endorse every day
Their pandemic is not COVID
It’s a fragmented society, failed governance, fake capitalist dream
And heartlessness of people like you and me
Residing in the top slots of the pyramid
Unaware of the collapse at the bottom
(Lines from the poem A Long Road of Inhumanity)
This article explores the deeper layers of the current migrant crisis and proposes areas for collective action. These insights have emerged from the Dignity of Labour Action-Learning Dialogues, initiated by citizens and changemakers to provide immediate relief support and co-create long-term systemic solutions.
PART 1: Beginning of a societal collapse
Why is the current migrant crisis a trigger of the systemic collapse that has been brewing for a long time?
In 2014, Nasa funded a study that brought natural and social scientists together to study— What made the greatest civilisations like Roman, Han Dynasty, Mauryan, Guptas, Mesopotamian and Mayans enter into a cycle of irreversible collapse?
They found a common pattern that’s repeating itself right now. Highlighting the prospect that “global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to… unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution“. This happens when few elites exploit all resources and remain oblivious to the catastrophe brewing at the bottom. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, barely survives on subsistence. This eventually creates inequality-induced famine (or similar disasters) leading to the collapse of society.
In January 2020, Oxfam reported this pattern by highlighting that “Wealth of India’s richest 1% is more than 4-times of the total for 70% poorest”
On 24th March 2020, we experienced that first major blow of this extreme inequality when the Indian government announced total lockdown. While city elites and the middle-class resorted to their reserves, 139 million migrant labourers suddenly had no job or means to survive in the cities that they built and took care of.
They account for ~35% of urban India, who travel 1000s of kilometres across the country to earn livelihood in the industrial cities. They work as cheap labourers on construction sites, sewage cleaners, and on other poorly paid hazardous jobs. They come to cities with dreams but end up living in abject poverty in urban slums with almost no welfare. Many of them face problems of non-payment of wages, physical abuse, accidents and even death.
Most of us living in cities are aware of the plight of the migrant workers, yet we take it for granted as collateral damage for our development. However, the pandemic has ruptured our illusionary dream and activated a collective trauma that we can’t deny any longer.
Collective trauma and denial
Within weeks of lockdown, 23 million migrant labourers had no option but to walk thousands of kilometres back to their villages on foot without food, water, shelter or transport.
It’s difficult to be a human and not have your heart broken by looking at the images of millions of working-class men, women and children stranded on highways. Inhuman pesticide cleansing of returning migrant labourers. A father breaking down, unable to reach his sick son. A toddler waking with his dead mother on a railway platform. Children walking barefoot on concrete roads. Innocent eyes with tears that were never wiped. Some died of hunger. Others survived to encounter a lifetime of misery.
These heartbreaking images reflect intense trauma of the poor and blatant apathy of the affluent, just like the way Nasa study had predicted.
The Indian government enforced the lockdown at 4 hours notice with no consideration for 139 million migrants. Many businesses refused to pay wages and triggered the crisis. The Supreme Court let down migrant workers for more than two months before it recognised their inhuman misery.
Amid the crisis, the state government, of the most populated state, suspended the labour laws to support industrialists while pushing labourers into the vicious cycle of bondage labour. The urban middle-class either remained silent or blamed the migrant labourers as “irresponsible” for walking on the road and putting the rest of us to risk.
These reactions made me wonder— Why can’t a large part of the affluent class see and feel the misery of working poor at the bottom?
As we read this article, the survivors among the 23 million are reaching their villages carrying fatigue, shame and anger for what they have been through. Their impoverished villages have quarantined them and have no resources to support their livelihood. Rest of the 139 million poor are still in cities and are running out of their savings. Covid-19 is on the rise among the overcrowded and unsafe slums where most of the migrant workers live.
The pandemic has exposed a crack that runs deep to the foundation of our socio-economic system. It calls for courage to surface the deeper truths and compassionate action to transform the system that creates inequality and suffering for millions of people on our planet.
PART 2: Uncovering the deeper structures and agreements of violence:
What is our collective role in co-creating this crisis?
Dayna L Cunningham, Executive Director, MIT CoLab, recently shared at the Presencing Institute’s Global Forum that societal divides are the result of “structural violence“. These are “series of human agreement” that lead to the misery of a group of people. It’s an invitation for us to reflect— What are the structures and unconscious agreements that lead to the misery of 139 million migrant labourers in India?
While the current migration crisis is a complex societal challenge with multiple dimensions, let me explore two underlying meta socio-economic structures:
- The economic class structure that treats labour as a commodity
- The social caste system that locks millions into intergenerational suffering
These two structures leverage each other to create a sophisticated web of misery. Each of these structural arrangements has unconscious agreements made by us individually and collectively. As I wrote this essay, I got in touch with how I am part of these agreements and the role I play in creating structural violence every day. It’s a painful self-realisation and a necessary one if we wish to transform the current crisis.
For many of us it’s difficult to stay with the collective pain. We long for immediate solutions. However, unless we stay long enough to examine the underlying root causes, today’s well intentioned quick-fixes can become tomorrow’s new problems. I therefore invite readers to join me in exploring the root causes before we reflect on solutions (in part 3 of this article).
Economic class structure: treating labour as a commodity
Post-colonial governments adapted the dual-economy model that fuelled urban industry through cheap labour migrating from poor villages. Industrialists leveraged it by exploiting the temporary, just-in-time, low-cost migrant workforce. Lawmakers managed any potential unrest by amending the labour laws in favour of enterprises which in turn funded the elections. Urban middle class thrived as white-collar instruments as well as mindless consumers of this dualistic, exploitation-based economic system. We turned a blind eye to the poor workers living in unimaginable conditions in our cities, sidewalks, slums, construction sites. We sanitised our hearts by calling them “migrants” (does not belong here). In exchange, we got cheap, unorganised maid-servants, sewage cleaners and drivers.
While supporting relief work for stranded migrants, we came across the story of more than 1000 construction workers from Nagpur. Their employers gave them Rs 3000/- (~40 USD) and fired them. When asked, business contractors justified that it was enough for labourers to survive 2 months of lockdown if they eat rice every day. The recent documentary “Saboot Evidence” made by People Archives of Rural India, demonstrates that the employers of migrant workers have violated most of the labour laws by firing them without notice or settling any of their dues.
Some business contractors even assaulted their workers when they expressed their desire to return home. Contractors feared losing low-cost labour from their construction projects. Once the lockdown was loosened, the same contractors who led to the exodus of millions of workers, started wooing them back with flight tickets and extra salary.
This whole human drama makes us wonder— Why do we treat a fellow human like a commodity that can be exploited as per market conditions? What are our collective agreements that allow this inhuman treatment of the poor working class?
As I introspect, I came across some collective agreements that result in the current economic paradigm and are internalised by us in our daily life.
“Poor people do not deserve equal rights or equal access.”
This assumption is visible in double standards of the middle class. When it comes to our own job, we want salaries that cover not just our needs but also our future, insurance, welfare, holidays and more. But when it comes to domestic workers, we negotiate the minimal possible wages with no conversation about their health insurance, welfare, future aspirations, housing etc. Most of them work for more than 12 hours with minimal or no off-day.
I recall driving past a slum area in Mumbai with some guests who lived in gated-townships in Delhi. They peeped into a 3 by 6 feet shanty on the footpath and were shocked to see television and quipped “Look they are so well-off, and we think of them as poor!”. When I pointed out that these slum dwellers have no access to toilets, water or healthcare, I got a reply that I was being too idealistic. It seems, as a privileged upper class, we have normalised the inequality to the level that a poor possessing a TV is disrupting. However it is normal if they do not have access to basic human rights and needs of water, education, health and sanitation.
Many businesses have institutionalised this agreement. They proudly announce their employee’s welfare programs. But they outsource the responsibility of blue-collar workers to the third-party contractors, who generally do not care for labour welfare. Thanks to the few generous industrialists like Ratan Tata who called this out in an interview “the way these labourers were left to fend for themselves with no work, food or place to stay speaks volumes on lack of business ethics”.
We saw another glimpse of this assumption when the government provided free air rescue for Indians stranded internationally but made the poor migrants pay for train tickets. It seems our collective minds are obsessed with the needs of the affluent while the poor remain in the complete blindspot.
“It’s okay to exploit another human for our convenience”
When I was buying my flat in a township, I did cross the slums at the construction site where Migrant Labourers lived. A part of me did notice their extreme poverty, lack of safety and innocence of their children. A part of me knew that it’s not fair, not human and perhaps not even legal. I still signed the cheque. I became part of the system that legitimised enslaving and exploitation of the poor.
Whether we build our house or buy it, we pay for the bricks that make our walls and foundation. We get the good quality ones at best rates. These bricks are made by men working in brick kilns, who are given fraudulently manipulated loans (as low as $100) to keep them and their families in bondage for years, “costing the slaveholder little more than subsistence food and lodging each year. All of which maximizes the slaveholders’ profits — estimated at an average of $1000 per year per bonded laborer — at the cost of human misery.”
How many such bricks are there in our living rooms, offices and foundations? What then is the real cost of our houses? Who has paid for the rest? How many times a day do we legitimize exploitation and modern slavery— from houses to coffee to the electronics that we are holding right now?
How different are we from the colonialists? They used military power to push poor into slavery. We use sophisticated economic class systems that create similar results. If we are not actively engaged in uplifting fellow human beings from the historical systemic slavery, we are part of it. Whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not. It’s happening!
We may wonder why does law permit such exploitation? Why government colluded with business in midst of crisis to suspend labour laws and expose labourers to slavery? Perhaps our economic and legal structures are built on deeper societal agreements that make it okay to lock fellow humans in intergenerational misery.
Social Caste System: Justifying intergenerational suffering
Sai Balakrishnan, Faculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, has published research that maps this flow and analyses the migrant crisis and its roots in regional and caste politics. He writes, “It is crucial to note that historically marginalised groups—Dalits and Adivasis [tribals]—disproportionately make up the distressed migrant labour force”. Few higher and privileged castes like “Jats, Patidars, Marathas, Vokkaligas, Gounders, Kammas, Reddys” etc. took advantage of the green revolution and built infrastructure for growth. However, they needed cheap labour that came from poor castes residing in poor states.
A report from The Guardian accounts that most sewage cleaners come from “…Valmiki community, regarded among the lowest in the intricate caste system. When they migrate to cities, they are excluded from any jobs but cleaning. At least one Indian worker has died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks every five days since the beginning of 2017, according to the first official government statistics on the work, considered one of the country’s deadliest jobs and most insidious form of caste discrimination”.
Whether as industrialists or city householders, we live in comfort because of an old exploitation system that we institutionalised through our scriptures.
This is the privilege blindspot of our society that higher caste takes for granted and lower caste accept it as fate. “Studies provide evidence on the barriers faced by workers belonging to historically disadvantaged caste groups in the Labour Market”.
Most of the educated upper and middle class in India must have written an essay on “evils of caste system” in their schools. Yet it persists. Why? What are unconscious agreements that we fail to acknowledge?
Our collective agreements related to the caste system are more inaccessible and unspeakable. Perhaps each one of us needs to examine on our own: how are we playing into the caste and race discrimination?
“Caste and race privileges (or lack of it) are divinely justified.”
Many of my colleagues coming from higher caste outrightly reject the above statement, but those coming from lower castes feel acknowledged in it. So many times, we come across brahmins or thakurs or sindhis asserting their racial identity to justify their status. Likewise, we name the communities of potters, cobblers, sweepers, plumbers to justify their misery. They even have separate Gods and place in the divine order.
Last summer I visited an old roadside cobbler to get the sole of my shoe fixed. He sat on the footpath in front of a mega-shoe-mart. I was perplexed by the irony of the societal divide. I asked him about his well being. He shared with me about his financial struggles and societal discrimination as a matter of fact. Then he pointed out the little poster of Sant Ruidas who is a divine spirit, a saint and a cobbler. He told me that his professional suffering is his destiny and that Sant Ruidas will protect him and his caste from any evil. On that very evening, I had a meeting with the Dean of a corporate learning centre. As I was explaining the research basis of my work, he suddenly stopped me and said that I don’t have to give all that research validation cause he is a Saraswat Brahmin and well-deserving of his role as the Dean. I was surprised by his sudden introjection and emotional charge. I had said nothing about his role or status. Later I realised that just like the Cobbler who is justifying his misery through his caste destiny, the Dean is defending his privilege through his caste status.
This is a deep unspoken belief that gives unconscious permission for higher castes/races to claim their power, and it makes lower ones to internalise oppression.
“Manual is menial” or “cleaning my shit is not my job”.
An extension of the internalised caste system can be seen in the way Indian affluent, and middle class engage with manual work like cleaning toilets. Parents train children saying if you don’t study, you may become a cleaner or labourer one day. Hidden in this insult is an assumption that manual work is menial work, and it’s only meant for underprivileged people. Most adults living in upper-middle-class households have rarely cleaned their own toilets. We may champion the cause of women empowerment but rather hire a woman coming from marginalised communities to clean our toilets. We justify her low wages as “generous enough” for the unskilled labour. When the lockdown made it risky to have maid-servants, we were confronted with our own lack of skills. Desperately trying to get our cheap low skill labour back or invest in expensive cleaning gadgets. It’s not just a “skill” issue. It’s a “will” issue that comes from a belief that “cleaning shit is not my job”. Often the unconscious and unspoken belief is that shit cleaning or all other menial work is the job of shit cleaners or Dalits– the lower caste of India.
As long as we look down on a part of our own work and life as menial or lowly, we can’t think of eradicating the caste system. What’s disowned within us is projected on underprivileged sections of society and creates casteism.
My teacher, Systems Thinking pioneer, Peter Senge, often says, “You can’t change a system unless you see your handprint in creating it”. What he meant is that unless we see our role in creating the current crisis, we remain outsiders or victims. And victims don’t have any agency within them to transform the system. Structural violence exists because of our collective agreements. Each one of us needs to introspect and examine:
- How am I promoting, ignoring, endorsing or not-challenging the current agreements?
- What were the moments when I could have spoken but didn’t?
- What is my privilege or power that I may be taking for granted?
Reflecting on how we create structural violence is a pre-work before we could transform the system and develop new agreements for structural love.
PART 3: Recreating new structures and agreements based on dignity and love
What is our role in transforming the current system?
One of my friends who was helping migrant labourers in Nagpur (in central India) met a group of construction workers who had already walked ~400 kilometres on foot and had another 500 kilometres journey ahead of them. They were exhausted lying half-dead on the roadside. He offered them food and asked them how they will manage the rest of the walk?
One of them replied— “We have no option, no job, no money, no food here. Back in the village at least we can die with dignity.”
This one statement broke my heart.
These are the men and women who build our cities. We turned our back on them. They have the courage and capacity to walk 1000 miles. What they long for is not money, work or food. They long for dignity!
Moved by the collective pain, some of us initiated “Dignity of Labour (DoL) Dialogues” — an action-learning platform to bring citizens and changemakers together, to co-create solutions for relief and long-term systems change. Over the last 2 months, we did several online dialogues engaging up to 900 changemakers worldwide, supported over a dozen initiatives in India and co-created new prototypes.
Dayna Cunningham motioned in her video that antidote to structural violence is structural love. That may emerge as new agreements based on empathy, dignity and love for every human being.
There are major structural reforms urgently needed at policy level to create inclusion and dignity for all. Here are some of our insights on how we can individually initiate the transformation from structural violence to structural love:
1. Release the default pattern of shame and blame. Listen with an open heart.
When we started DoL Dialogues, many of us were feeling extremely pained and sympathetic to the migrant labourers, angry with policymakers and helpless and stuck as middle-class. We got stuck in a reactive pattern of either shaming oneself (introjecting) or blaming the system (projecting). Creating a stuck drama of guilt-ridden privileged or angry activists. Either way, we were robbing the whole system of its agency to create change.
However, after listening to stories of migrant labourers from the field and embodying various roles using Social Presencing Theatre, we started seeing and sensing the struggles and agency with each role. We learnt that:
- The migrant labourer has most agency in the system. They are the ones who build the cities. They are walking 1000 miles, and when they find their ground, they can recreate a new grassroots economy. Our paradigm shifted from seeing them as helpless victims to co-creators of a new economy.
- Policy Makers needed the most help. We realised that they are overwhelmed by the crisis and stuck in their old privilege paradigm. They need support to be vulnerable and open.
- The middle-class has the most leverage. It has equal access to the migrant and policymakers. But they are stuck in their fear-based ego bubble. They long to join migrants and return to earth and their home.
- We found another subtle role that mirrors the longing of humanity. The “Consciousness” that lives within each of us and is manifested as artists, storytellers and conscious media. It has the power to empower all other roles.
All these insights became available to us only when we dropped our shame and blame pattern and started listening to the whole system with an open heart.
2. Reframe Relief work as introspective atonement/ praayashchit (shadow work)
Manasi Saxena, Founder of enCOMPASSion, shared her inspiring story of leading relief work for migrant labourers on DoL platform. She reflected that “charity is not enough”. It can create dependence and divides if we become judgemental and not mindful of our privilege as volunteers.
Sometimes the one providing relief or support may operate from their ego-self (“I have more and so I can help or solve or fix their issue”). This results in a victim-rescuer dynamic, where the rescuer fails to acknowledge the agency in the one they are helping.
This conversation made me reflect on the meaning of “dana” (donation) from Vipassana practice. Dana is an expression of loving-kindness and gratitude where we give we thank others for allowing us to serve and let-go of our own ego-attachments. Thus it’s done without any self-identification, conditions or control.
Many of us city dwellers extended our generosity by continuing to pay full salary/ wages to the maids, cleaners, workers even if they could not come for work due to lockdown. It is a great opportunity to practice “dana”. Unfortunately, some of us started operating from the ego. We began cutting wages and demanding our servants to come back.
In doing so, we are missing an essential spiritual dimension of this crisis. If we reframe this as an opportunity to provide relief to those who have served us, our unconscious arrogance will give way to gratitude. The same giving or donation will become a spiritual act of atonement. Each floor we sweep, each dish we wash and each toilet we clean will become an expression of thanksgiving to all those who took care of us.
The current migrant crisis is offering an opportunity to attend our collective shadow.
From that lens, I sincerely appreciate all the communities that came forward to serve migrant labourers with pure love— cleaning their feet, feeding them with love, providing personal transport etc. My wise friend Samata Vashisht shared— “when we give unconditional love, we can heal our collective past in an instant”.
3. Recreate structures of love through the web of micro-actions
Once we see our role in co-creating the structural violence, we can also make choices to recreate structural love. How do we do that as ordinary citizens?
First, we need to notice the agreements that we consciously or unconsciously make to create structural violence: How we might be perpetuating the caste and class system in our home or at work?
Then, we could think of one micro-action that would shift the whole paradigm. And slowly practice it in spite of the status quo on either end of the divide.
Finally, encourage others to join us in that micro-action and create a web of goodness.
Vinay Kumar, a scientist, working in Bangalore, role-modelled the process as mentioned above for us. When the migrant çrisis hit Bangalore, he was appalled by the citizen’s apathy towards the poor. Vinay’s first micro-action was to provide food and bike-transport to migrants on the way to his office. He then used his phone to create a short video to make visible the reality of the crisis. The video went viral and initiated the #migrantlifematters campaign and a network of hundreds of citizens organising relief and influencing government for immediate action.
The same process of micro-actions and wave-of-goodness apply to businesses that employ migrant labourers. Irrespective of our role, power, position in a system, we can take a moment to reflect how we actively or inactively support the agreements that keep workers locked in poverty. And then take one micro-action today. And invite others to join tomorrow. One of the changemakers from our network, Vikram Sood, is a passionate Social Entrepreneur who hired carpenters from West Bengal to work in Bangalore. Amid lockdown, he helped them go back to their villages. On reflection, he decided to shift the machinery and tools to their villages so that they can work from home and break the pattern that forces them to migrate in search of livelihood. His action and story inspired many participants from the business world.
It’s time that we all create new agreements for the wellbeing of all. Imagine a million acts of love transforming the massive structures of violence. Imagine that you and I are part of that story!
4. Regenerate rural economy to heal the urban-rural divide
While doing Social Presencing Theatre to understand the deeper dynamics of this crisis, I chose the role of a Migrant Labourer. The process allowed me to embody their current reality and to let it move to wherever it longs to go. Initially, my back of bend with immense invisible load and head was low with a sense of shame and failure. As I moved to the edges of the system where I felt the presence of my village, my spine became straight. My shoulder broadened, and my heart opened. Now, I could see the whole system. Standing in my village, rooting in my dignity, I could not only support myself but also the policymakers and the entire nation.
This embodied insight was validated by a village woman farmer from Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) grassroots women network, who messaged me “we don’t want anyone going back to cities and sacrifice their dignity again”.
Later I learnt that she, along with other village women, raised Rs 90,000 through their Self Help Group (SHG) and helped 5 migrant youth to start a new agri-based enterprise.
While the pandemic has broken the capitalist economy, these grassroots women are presenting an alternate rural, organic model that is regenerating the local economy and integrating the returning migrant labourers. Join us on 30th August to hear Prema Gopalan, Founder SSP India and other women leaders share their story.
Another Changemaker, Purnima Upadhayaya, who leads KHOJ, NGO in Melghat tribal area, asked us to reconsider Gandhi’s vision of local self-sustained village economy (Sarvodaya). She shared that the villages that adapted the local economy model had less than 10% migration and were able to sustain better through the crisis.
One of our thought leaders, Dr Arvind Chinchure, proposed that we need to shift the centre of the economy from a few urban centres to a cluster-based connected rural economy. He believes that by applying modern principles like Industry 4.0, we can create a distributed economy that addresses the root cause of the migration crisis and restores their dignity of labours as local entrepreneurs.
What does it mean for the rest of us? — as businesses, consumers, investors and storytellers?
It is a call for policymakers to shift the attention and investment from industries that thrive on cheap migrant labourers to distributed micro-enterprises that create value for people and the planet.
It is a call for businesses to innovate their business models to leverage technology and create value without making villagers migrate as cheap labour.
It is a call for NGOs and social enterprises to rise as a network that can support the new economy by building grassroots capacity at scale.
It is a call for those living in cities as consumers, investors and storytellers (media) to commit to this new economy by consuming and promoting what’s local, fair-trade and organic.
It is a call for all of us to make a radical commitment and unplug from the seductive slow poison of mindless consumerism, exploitative capitalism and ultra-urbanisation.
This pandemic has exposed the broken foundation of our development narrative. In the heart of our heart, we always knew that the current socio-economic system is not creating wellbeing for all. The painful exodus of 23 million fellow humans on highways has given us a glimpse of the massive disasters awaiting for 116 other migrant labourers suffering in cities. The ripple effect of this may eventually impact all of us.
NASA analysis highlighted that great civilisations collapsed after reaching their high points of development. We are seeing a similar pattern being repeated on a global scale.
Referring back to NASA study, I wonder what must be going on in the minds of people when their civilization showed initial signs of collapse. When they noticed the ecological disasters and socio-economic divides, did they get together to transform that opportunity?
Deepak Chopra made a crucial point while introducing his new book “Meta-Human“. He said that “Humanity is poised at a fork between the extinction of human spices or next leap of evolution”. Either we rise together beyond our old patterns founded in ego, greed, societal divides and evolve to the next level. Or we go down the path of extinction. “It depends on us. If we go extinct, universal consciousness will say— it didn’t work. Dinosaurs didn’t work either. Let’s keep trying”.
I do feel we are at the very end of this fork and the current migrant crisis is a call to choose the path.
Each one of us has a choice, and each one of us matters!
Manish Srivastava (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I am grateful to:
- Sonali Gera, Anupam Rawat, Nirvana Laha and Vijaya Nair for reviewing and encouraging me in publish this article
- All changemakers from Dignity of Labour Action-learning platform who have inspired these insights
- Presencing Institute Social Arts team for helping me deepening my wisdom through contemplative arts
- 139 million migrant labourers who inspire us with their resilience and spirit to serve
Pls feel free to share your views and engage in further dialogue at the facebook group