Forced domesticity, homes and new vulnerabilities: experiences during the Covid-19 in India and impact on research
By Barbara Bertolani
On the evening of March 24, the Indian Prime Minister Modi announced on TV that, starting at midnight, all India would be blocked, the markets would be closed and public and private transports would stop due to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Arundhati Roy, an Indian journalist and writer, the decision to close a country with 1.38 billion inhabitants was made without consulting the governments of the 27 states of the Indian Federation, with only four hours forewarning and without any preparation. The lockdown then turned into the most punitive form of isolation and achieved the exact opposite goal of what it should have been: it protected the upper middle classes, who had the means to fill their pantries with food and time to barricade themselves in their homes. But at the same time, the “lockdown” exposed the lower middle classes – which make up the majority of the population – to a series of risks. Indeed, it caused the physical compression in the slums of millions of seasonal workers, or their mass migration from big Indian cities to rural areas of the country on foot or in makeshift vehicles.
Seasonal workers are estimated to contribute around 10% of Indian GDP through their work in cities. According to the National Sample Survey, in 2008-09 internal migrants represented over 28% of the Indian workforce and over 40% of the population in Delhi and Mumbai. In a government briefing to Parliament in March of this year, they counted around 100 million. These seasonal workers come mainly from the most deprived rural areas of the country (especially the central and eastern states of India) and belong to the most fragile and discriminated social groups (such as the “lower” castes, tribal populations or landless peasants). These people constitute the flexible, unprotected and cheap labor force on which the dynamism of the tertiary sector (especially services and building activities) and the economic growth of the Indian urban economies are based, mainly in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.
Inserted primarily in the informal economy, these seasonal workers suddenly lost their jobs and all means of livelihood because of the lockdown. Many of them slept in the workplace or in overcrowded and precarious housing conditions in vast urban slums. Therefore, the lockdown also resulted in the loss of housing arrangements and access to services. As internal migrants typically work and remit all the money back home to their families in the villages of origin, they did not have any savings to resist and keep on living alone in big cities without working. For this reason, going back to their home village turned into the only chance of survival for them. The absence of organized means of transport by the government forced them to exhausting marches. Many of them died of hunger, thirst, fatigue, or road accidents. A mass exodus occurred which, in the memory of the older population, recalled forced transfers after the Partition in 1947. For fear that the infection would spread to the villages, many of these seasonal workers were caught and constrained by the police (using coercive methods) to go back to overcrowded camps and slums in urban suburbs, where social distancing is simply a utopia. Instead of protecting them, forced domesticity without a home has made them even more helpless.
A few months have now passed since the end of March. Although the spread of the virus is very alarming and the (probably underestimated) number of deaths is continuously growing, the containment measures have been eased as the economic crisis has added to the health crisis. According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), in April, around 122 million people lost their jobs. Many of the seasonal workers who have returned to their villages are now unemployed and unwilling to return. Rural India cannot absorb these workers but needs their remittances; urban India needs them because their absence could delay economic recovery. These workers are now more vulnerable than before because they are exposed not only to misery if they remain home and to the lack of rights in the workplace if they go back to town, but also to contagion.
The crisis caused by Covid-19 has shown the limits of the global development and integration model based on “long” supply chains. The Indian situation, however, also highlights another aspect. Global capitalism is also structurally based on migration and on the exploitation of a flexible workforce without protection and rights. There are various forms of mobility from the “periphery” to the “center”. Emigration abroad usually involves those with more economic and social resources to invest. Internal migration, instead, concerns the lower-middle class of seasonal workers who spend several months a year in uninhabitable and congested cities, or who daily inflate the rows of commuters from villages to the town. In all cases, migration is structurally grounded on the crisis of rural areas and peasant societies. As I wrote the text of this post, I remembered my last trips to India, the people I met and the stories they told me. I also took advantage of their condition of exploited and migrants. During my last trip to Kerala as a tourist, while every morning at dawn I walked to go to my daily yoga class, I passed in front of my favorite vegetarian restaurant. I heard sweet music (the Suprabhatham, a kind of greeting to the sun and all creatures) coming out of the speakers of the open-air restaurant. For me, it was the sound of morning well-being. But for the dozens of Indian seasonal migrants coming from rural areas (cooks, waiters, dishwashers, servants), who slept on outdoor tables of the restaurant, this music represented the alarm clock. I also remember the lady who performed Ayurvedic massages for the hotel guests. She had to face a journey of several hours by bus every day to reach the coast from the hinterland, hoping to find some customers.
The crisis of the rural economy is not only economic but also social, political and cultural. It does not concern only farmers but also all non-agricultural activities that traditionally support the cultivation of fields, such as those of carpenters or weavers. It is based on the fact that agricultural activity, as it is currently organized, has been rendered unproductive and does not allow families and young people to enjoy a “modern” lifestyle based on consumption. During my last visit to Punjab last summer, I was very impressed with the testimonies I collected from some local farmers. According to them, the constant lowering of agricultural product prices (which are set by the federal government) has made agriculture unproductive, while in the 1960s and 1970s Punjab was the granary of India thanks to the “Green Revolution”. They were complaining about the scarcity of public investment policies and of resources to support agriculture, compared to an increase in current expenditure for small landowners. They explained to me that payments of agricultural products by the state are made twice a year and sometimes delayed. Furthermore, investments to repay damages caused by natural disasters (floods or other) are completely insufficient. To cover current expenses, some farmers contract very high-interest debts that they often cannot repay. In the end, they are forced to sell the land and lose their houses. This lies at the origin of a growing number of suicides among the rural population of Punjab.
For all these reasons, small landowners diversify risks by supporting their children, especially boys, to enter the public administration (which guarantees a fixed monthly salary to the extended family, covering current expenses) or to emigrate abroad (which can ensure a flow of remittances in the future). The socio-economic change adds to the cultural one since the peasant economy does not meet the expectations of young people. Young Punjabis are increasingly inspired by a western lifestyle which cannot be easily satisfied with the revenues from agricultural work. Many of them, as well-educated youths, no longer want to carry out the most demanding farming activities that were previously performed by post-partition generations and which are now increasingly done by seasonal Indian workers from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. However, Punjabi youth find themselves in a situation of scarcity of alternative jobs, as Punjab continues to attract industrial investments to a much lesser extent than the neighboring states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Therefore, migration and the abandonment of rural society seem to be the only viable alternative for many of them.
The health crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic had a less dramatic impact in Punjab, especially in rural areas. Compared to other parts of India, Punjab has so far recorded fewer infections. The lockdown is still ongoing but is limited to a few hours during the night, so currently, most of the economic and social activities have resumed. However, during the last months, millions of seasonal workers have abandoned their jobs in the cities and fields to return home, and the absence of workforce has put a strain on crop management. Especially during the first and most severe lockdown weeks, the gurdwaras (Sikh temples) worked as grass-roots welfare providers through langars (common free-kitchens) by distributing food for free, thus preventing the most vulnerable population from starving. At the same time, forced domesticity for humans and total economic lockdown turned into freedom for nature that took possession of human-made spaces and places. Unsurprisingly, wild animals came out of their dens and hiding places: peacocks and parrots occupied the wide-flowing roads in Punjab which were empty, while the monkeys that lived in large urban centers, finding no more food (which was typically stolen on the stalls) also returned home to the forest.
Initially, the village of Thali Khurd, where I conducted the bulk of my fieldwork last summer, was completely isolated. Barbed wire and simple wooden bars were put on the road at the entrance to the village, the shops and the markets remained open just for a few hours in the morning to allow people to buy food. In some extended households, this situation has tested precarious family balances, and the lack of space and the inability to move have exacerbated existing conflicts through space control practices. Forced domesticity has turned to loneliness and physical malaise for older people, whose social role is linked to practices of mutual exchange, help and barter. Their daily routines are punctuated by kirtan, the Sikh prayers which are usually spread in the air by the speakers of the neighborhood gurdwaras, but which remained unusually silent during this period. The school was suspended, and teachers tried to continue their work by sending phone messages to their pupils’ parents and, where possible, receiving photos of the deliveries. However, online teaching has proven to be a utopia for most families. In villages, most of the population have no internet connection or computers and sometimes not even a smartphone. The pandemic reinforced social inequalities and disclosed a multi-speed India. This country is famous in the world for its silicon-valley and its IT engineers in large urban cities. However, in rural villages the internet is not yet considered a vital necessity.
When the Indian Prime Minister announced the lockdown, some of my informants got stuck in the middle. As they were guests of their relatives, with no time enough to go back, they had to stay in someone else’s house for weeks, without clothes or amenities from home. After one month, they finally decided to take a risk and go home during the night, trying to avoid controls. They kept a bottle of whisky in the car just in case the police had stopped them at the numerous checkpoints. The fridge had to be voided from wasted food, and new fresh clothes have finally been worn. On the other hand, some other Indian acquaintances who live in Italy got stuck between multiple houses and multiple countries. They had left to visit their Indian homes shortly before the beginning of the lockdown in Italy. The closure of the borders and flights cancellation blocked them in the country of origin for several weeks. When the health situation finally improved in Italy, the explosion of the pandemic in India made their stay risky and the return to the Italian home difficult. One may wonder what feelings of safety or insecurity these people may have experienced and if their idea of home has changed, as a result.
During the last months, I have kept in touch with my Indian interviewees, both for personal interest and affection and for research reasons. I learned of their difficulties and of the conflictual situations they were experiencing. I felt uncomfortable as I knew that my actions were not exquisitely disinterested. I wondered if it was ethically correct to get in touch with them for reasons unrelated to pure human closeness or if I could use their stories for my research. Some of my acquaintances refused to tell me what they were experiencing. The situation was so emotionally heavy that they did not have the energy to explain what was happening in their houses. At the same time, they feared that the relationship with me would be negatively affect by this. In order not to create further difficulties, I decided to step back and wait some time before calling them again.
Overall, the experience of the pandemic determines a series of ethical and methodological dilemmas for a researcher, which condition their empirical work. How should we modify our research tools? How can we “enter” into people’s homes? Who would allow a stranger to sneak into the folds of domesticity in a time of crisis, when family balances may have been questioned? What is the right positioning to keep to safeguard the researcher’s role, but also the relationship with the interviewees? While doing our empirical work, we may be considered potentially dangerous by people for their physical integrity. This distrust might also be mutual: what is the impact on the data collected? Finally, does the possible use of digital platforms for online interviews change the type and quality of the data collected?
Home is often associated with comfort and security. From a theoretical point of view, the experience of the pandemic forces us to consider its different interpretations and meanings. Many people experienced forms of insecurity in the domestic space. Therefore, the relationship between the concepts of (economic, physical and social) vulnerability and home has to be deepened. At home and in isolation, many may have lost their jobs, while others may have directly experienced the disease. For some people, the confinement has led to new forms of marginality and social invisibility. The house transformed its meaning, from a residual and service space to a crucial dimension of life. The centrality of “home”, “domesticity” and “being indoors” (summarized in the mantra “stay safe, stay at home”) requires a shared and reflective analysis. There are still many questions to be explored that have not yet been answered.
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