Imaging the Migrant Crisis

The singularly defining image of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has been that of  bands of migrants trudging across the length and breadth of the country to reach their homes in rural hinterlands. India’s migrants account for much of its urban population. They are that nameless body of people who earn less than 2 dollars a day, working in menial, often seasonal, jobs that are essential to the sustenance of its cities. While nameless for statistical agencies, they are largely populated by Dalits and Muslims, climate refugees, and displaced indigenous communities, who are stuffed into urban slums to eke out a precarious living. When the pandemic was acknowledged by the Indian government and total lockdown was enforced in a matter of hours, India was confronted on one hand with the government’s evident reluctance to provide food, shelter and relief to the migrants, and on the other by the reality of millions of migrant workers desperate to go back to their villages. Since all transportation was suspended, many decided to walk thousands of miles in India’s tropical heat (during its hottest months, April-May). An image that exhumed the Indian subcontinent’s traumatic partition – when millions were displaced overnight and encountered a similar fate. While these millions slogged back home with their meagre possessions and kids in tow, there was the recurring spectacle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appearing on TV, reassuring a middle-class population bound to their TV in the drawing room that India was ready for a relentless war against the virus. In Siddhesh Gautam/BakeryPrasad’s widely circulated illustration, these two realities are juxtaposed against each other with the caption “ignore the background.” For India’s mainstream media conglomerates close to the ruling BJP, it is as if the toiling millions walking for days on end (and often dying on the road) never existed. They dutifully parroted Modi’s rhetoric, steered public attention according to their political masters.

For millions of migrant workers left jobless after the suddenly declared lockdown in India – who largely worked in big cities with no job security or labor laws – returning to their “home villages” was the only way to stave off death and starvation. As the government turned a blind eye to these stranded workers and their families, a few NGOs, activist organizations and civil society initiatives stepped in to mitigate this humanitarian-political crisis by supplying food, access to transportation and tickets. Some even moved the courts to effect some change at the state/policy level. Vipin Kaushik gathered his globally dispersed family on zoom to jumpstart Everyone chipped in to set up software, collect data, promote, design or lay out content. became a digital repository where migrants could update their current conditions, their intended place and route of travel, and accompanying family members. For others chronicling lives on the internet, databases like became ways to document the lives and existences of migrant workers who had fallen off the state’s radar. Perhaps, in lockdown grammar, one could say this was not contact tracing, but tracing the contacts of those without means of communication, travel and food, without smartphones and apps, without paper and document. It became a mode of documenting the undocumented, even if as the Kaushik family admits, the actual migration back to villages remained an unsurmountable task given the absolute apathy of the ruling political class.