The pandemic is about eyes shut

There is a resonance between Saramago’s literary world and the migrant labour distress in contemporary India

Updated - July 09, 2020 12:38 am IST

Published - July 08, 2020 12:02 am IST

Silhouette of exodus of economically backward people carrying luggages and children.

Silhouette of exodus of economically backward people carrying luggages and children.

The novel, Blindness , by Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago , is strikingly prescient about a sweeping illness. The plot revolves around a mysterious epidemic because of which people suddenly turn blind.

The thread

It starts with a person driving his car who turns blind while waiting at a traffic signal. He pleads to be taken home and a man, on the pretext of helping, takes him home but soon after runs away with his car. The contagion spreads rapidly and all those affected by the epidemic are quarantined in an asylum. The novel follows seven people, who do not have names but only descriptions: the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with the dark glasses, etc. Lack of equitable delivery of food, inhospitable and unhygienic living conditions, police brutality and apathy of power structures lead to panic among the blind. They are on the brink of starvation. Seven characters escape the asylum and enter the city where they came from only to find that everybody in the city has become blind. Lacking any support, the country plunges into utter despair before resurrection happens quite magically.

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Apart from the obvious connections with the pandemic, there are other, numerous and allegorical ways in which Saramago’s world resonates with contemporary India.

Data and worker anonymity

Consider for example, the case of blindness regarding the number of migrant workers. The government’s own data sources are inconsistent and are a massive underestimate. The office of the Chief Labour Commissioner stated that there are 26 lakh migrants while various estimates, including the Economic Survey, put this number above 8 crore people . The anonymity of the workers has been reinforced as governments have not kept records of who they are and where they are working. This lack of accountability has given a free rein to the complex web of contractors and sub-contractors to exert various forms of exploitation. The migrant workers, like the characters in Blindness , have been rendered nameless in this unequal power gambit.

Then, there is the blindness about hunger and deaths. On June 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced free food grains for National Food Security Act (NFSA) beneficiaries till November. While it is a welcome move, it yet again excludes those without ration cards. As per estimates of Meghana Mungikar, Jean Drèze, and Reetika Khera, roughly 10 crore eligible beneficiaries continue to be excluded under the NFSA . This is because the central government is still using 2011 Census data and hence underestimates NFSA coverage. Moreover, migrants and many self-employed workers do not have ration cards. At a time when the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India have 2.5 times the buffer stock norms, not universalising rations is inexplicable.

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Two petitions concerning food and income support for migrants were summarily dismissed by the Supreme Court of India during lockdown. The Court finally took suo motu cognisance of the crisis after 20 senior lawyers wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India to intervene. The Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, representing the Union of India, has submitted that there has been no death in the Shramik trains because of lack of water and food, and all deaths took place due to “earlier illnesses”. On May 15, Union Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal at Bennett University said, “We have gone through the entire three months without a single person starving.” In reality, there have been at least 850 non-COVID deaths due to an unplanned lockdown. Indian Railway Protection Force Service data show that there have been 80 deaths in Shramik trains alone between May 9 and May 27; most of these are due to starvation and financial distress. Numerous ground reports indicated the extent of hunger. As in Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) reports covering more than 34,000 workers, 50% had just one day of rations left and 64% had less than ₹100 when they reached out during the lockdown. In such light, the combination of falsehoods and measured silence by the governing institutions and the judiciary indicate that they have been afflicted by Saramago’s imaginary epidemic of blindness that refused to see the gravity of the crisis.

Museum of misery

As rising cases of COVID-19 suggest, the lockdown did not curb the spread of the virus. It was a unilateral decision taken, apparently, to buy time to create health-care facilities. However, the government’s hubris backfired. The resilience and the perseverance of the migrants exerting their fundamental right to return pushed the government to respond this time. The SWAN report says: ‘While a part of the government’s slow response is due to the lack of empathy towards workers, a part is also the result of inefficiencies resulting from unilateral decision-making. Consequently, the government has created an archive of distress and a museum of misery.’ The maze of obfuscating travel orders and the opacity surrounding train schedules was as if the migrants were made to play a cruel game of snakes and ladders. The lucky ones took the metaphorical ladder to the train only to find themselves hungry and fighting with fellow migrant travellers to get food. Even among them, most have had to pay for travel forms, pay bribes and face police brutality. The resemblances with the plight of those in Saramago’s novel are uncanny. The unlucky ones stayed back, some evicted from their rented spaces, waiting anxiously for their illusory chance to come. As a character says in the Saramago novel, “... you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner on the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives.”

Full coverage | Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

Some advice

Unlike Saramago’s fictional world, such systemic and structural blindness has no magical cure. After continued hostility that workers were forced to endure, it is difficult to pin down the precise analytical reasons for the diverse expressions from migrants. Some have been resolute about returning immediately while some are unable to return home without earnings. Surveys cannot do full justice to understanding these amalgam of expressions and would at best create reductive categories. We definitely do not need piecemeal platitudes coming from the central government. We need many corrections such as stronger adherence to constitutional values, transparency and accountability from the government and the judiciary. And, not just those in power but also those who elect them need to collectively treat the epidemic of blindness that has eroded our moral core where we do not feel uneasy in seeing the hardships of marginalised communities.

Rajendran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University and has been a SWAN volunteer

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