Amandla’s Carilee Osborne interviewed Anindhita Adhikari
Amandla!: You’re a founding member of the Stranded Workers Action Network. Could you tell us about the events that led to the emergence of SWAN?
Anindhita Adhikari: When the pandemic hit the world and became global in early 2020, the Indian government was quite late to react. They didn’t take any preventive measures and were basically sleeping on the job. They didn’t really wake up till much later. At the end of March, the Prime Minister decided to address the nation on national television at 8pm and announce a nationwide lockdown with four hours’ notice. From midnight, the country would go into complete lockdown, which meant you couldn’t even leave your home, and all rail, road and all forms of transport were banned.
It brought the entire country to a grinding halt. What the Prime Minister of the country and his government failed to recognise was that when you lock down a country with four hours’ notice and you shut down all forms of travel and transport, you have forgotten the estimated 100 million informal workers who are living in your cities under extremely precarious conditions, pretty much hand to mouth. They eat what they earn, they earn what they eat. Now suddenly, as construction work comes to a halt, major infrastructure projects are stopped and commercial establishments are shut down, their income come to a grinding halt as well.
A!: Could you tell us a bit more about the conditions under which migrant workers operate in India. What kind of work do they do?
AA: These are all informal workers and the bulk of them are construction workers, at least in the bigger metropolises. Then you have a large proportion who are self-employed, such as street vendors. And then you have those who work in smaller establishments like garment factories and people working in ancillary units around car manufacturing plants. All of these of course are not even contractual. These are daily wage workers. These workers have to arrive at what is called a labour “chowk”, which is like a central place in an industrial area, every day in the morning at 5am. And contractors come there and pick up groups of workers, depending on what their requirements are for the day.
Most of these people are circular, internal migrants. They spend four to five months in the city and then they go back during the agricultural season to their home in the countryside. Not all of the informal workers who were hit by the pandemic were migrant workers. Many were also settled populations who have been in the cities for maybe a year, two year or may have moved with families.
So this is extremely precarious wor . You don’t know whether you’ll have work tomorrow, or the day after. When the lockdown was announced, it was this category of workers who were hit so bad. They waited for a few days, thinking that their employers or their contractors or the government or some sort of something will kick in, in order for them to be able to survive in the city. At this point no one knew how long this lockdown was going to last. In fact, it got extended multiple times and went all the way up to the end of June.
Within a few days of the lockdown these workers got desperate, because they had maybe two days’ worth of food ration left in their homes, and under 200 rupees (approximately R40 in cash) left. So they took matters into their own hands and decided they’re going to go back to where they have some form of security, which is home. And these homes are 500/600 kilometres away in towns and villages across the country. That’s whe this kind of mass exodus began.
A!: Could you tell us a little bit about the work that the Stranded Workers Action Network did in response t this crisis and how it emerged?
AA: As people who worked as researchers and volunteers on campaigns and members of social movements, we started getting calls from people we know saying “we have this relative in this city who’s stranded and they’re completely out of cash.” Basically, they were requests for small amounts of cash. So at most, you know, 1000/2000 rupees (R200 to R400). And so we started doing that on a personal level. What started with about five to ten calls became a flood, because they passed our numbers on to others. By this time, we were watching all this unfold on television, with the migrant workers starting to walk home.
We were seeing workers on empty highways walking with everything they own in their hands and their children on their shoulders, just walking to the safety of their homes. So we started reaching out to friends we knew and asking them if they’d help respond. Eventually, by the time SWAN really wrapped up in the first phase of the first wave, we had about 150 volunteers that joined us from all over the country. We set up a system where we would do a basic needs assessment and make small cash transfers of 1000 to 2000 rupees depending on the need.
But then for those of us who’ve been in activist spaces, we felt we weren’t satisfied with just doing this, and we were letting the government off the hook. By this time people were walking home but also losing their lives on the way because of exhaustion and being run over by trucks and trains. It was awful. By the end of the first wave, there were about 900 migrant workers who lost their lives just trying to get home.
We had to use the numbers that we were getting to start pushing the government to do much more, and to announce relief measures. This was already around 20 days into lockdown and there was absolute silence from the government. So we started to put a report together, and we had activists who filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding that relief measures be announced. And we also started putting out a report to people in the media and it got a fair bit of coverage, so momentum started to build. And of course by this time we weren’t the only ones doing this. There were civil society organisations across the country that had started responding. Not to say that local administrations weren’t stepping in, but the initiative and the push on local governments came from civil society.
A!: So what has been happening with the situation of migrant workers since then and what work has SWAN been doing since?
AA: When the first wave ended and when the lockdown lifted, restrictions eased and some migrant workers began to trickle back into cities. But a lot were so scared that they didn’t want to come back. They stayed in the villages in the hope that they would find something. There was a lot of trauma also from this complete neglect. By the end of 2020, workers were returning to cities. But then we had he devastating second wave.
This time the government was too afraid to impose the kind of mobility restrictions that they had in the first wave because of the political fallout. So they didn’t stop trains, buses and busy road transport and rail. But what that did was it actually invisibilised distress even more. Now you couldn’t see the workers walking back. They knew that they were not going to get any kind of relief.
SWAN swung back into action on a slightly smaller scale, but we did similar things again through April, May, all the way up to June 2021. Then, one way that we thought we could continue was to set up a fellowship program with a group of migrant workers who had gotten in touch with us and who were exceptional in some ways – they did more than just secure something for themselves. They mobilised a group. They demonstrated quite exceptional leadership for people that were living and working in cities who were also in desperate situations.
We decided to support them with small fellowship amounts so that they could continue to build the kinds of skills and capacities that they wanted and, based on very individualised plans, have the kinds of futures they want for themselves. Some, for instance, have chosen not to go back to the city, but build small businesses in their villages. Some have set up self-help groups in the villages. Another helps workers register in the informal worker system, file complaints and labour violations and so on. No one is better versed with their realities than they themselves. So we just facilitate that and connect them to an institutional and legal framework so that they do what it is that they want to do to rebuild their lives.
A!: What was the government’s response in terms of social support?
AA: The biggest resistance came from workers themselves. They chose to defy a very stringent lockdown by walking home. They were like, if you guys are not going to provide for us, we’re going to walk back home, which to me is the ultimate defiance. And resistance came from workers themselves and across the country. So they may not be coordinated mobilisations or action. But to me the most remarkable thing is these were not desperate people walking home. If I used that word earlier, it was to describe that the distress was deep. But these were workers trying to safeguard their own dignity saying they would not suffer in cities at the hands of an apathetic government.
A!: Can you say a little bit about the level of organisation of workers and how that does or does not link up to more labour unions or other tradi ional left formations in India?
AA: Like everywhere else in the world, labour unions are on the decline because of the informalisation of work and what that means for unions. These daily wage workers are highly informalised, casual, daily wage workers. They’re not affiliated with any unions because the nature of their work is so precarious. They work through the contractor system, so they don’t even know who their actual employers are. As far as they’re concerned, their employers are the contractor. And contractors are this middle layer and they abscond. Indeed, their own work is precarious. So the informalisation of work has killed unions across, not just in India but everywhere else.
But there was a sort of collective consciousness that I think built. I can say this from the scores of migrant workers spoken to over the course of this period, but also the fellows that we’re demanding things from the state, is yet to be seen. I know there are pockets in Bihar where I work where there is a group of workers that were primarily rural agricultural and landless agricultural labour. But now they have also started organising around rights of migrant workers who are returning to villages.
These are now people who are saying, OK, you made all these announcements promising work for those of us who return. Where is it? And I know a group called the Pravasi Mazdoor group – they call themself PMG – and they now want to register as a political party. There are these little pockets where you’re beginning to see this consciousness turn to something concrete. But these are very few and far between and, given the crushing weight of the structure of work itself, workers being able to really rise within this and claim their fair share of entitlements is of course far off.
But I think if organised unions can use this moment to build something, they could build something quite powerful around, say, the re-centering or centering of informal workers into the legal institutional structure that we have excluded them from, including civil society and union organisation. Our structures don’t fully address their concerns. So I think it’s a wake up call for the state, but also for civil society and former unions.