Life versus Livelihood: Is there any Choice?

Dayabati Roy

May 5, 2020

The same question haunts the people, who live in Kolkata slums as well as in the Indian Sundarbans: how do we save our lives without protecting our livelihoods? They are asking this question at a moment when the government prioritizes the life over livelihood as part of combatting measures against the Covid-19 advising the people ‘to stay home for saving your lives’. Anyone would wonder how thousands of migrant workers who are now stuck in several places across the country in transit to homes or in destination cities due to lockdown could protect their lives. The Jan Sahas rapid assessment report “Voices of the Invisible Citizens” clearly reveals how the lockdown ‘has exposed the extreme vulnerability of migrant workers in India’. The plight of the construction workers who constitute the highest number of migrant workers across India is manifold since they do not have employment identity cards and are therefore deprived of receiving government benefits. The migrant workers in Kolkata are experiencing the same ordeal as far as government benefits are concerned. However, the migrants living in Kolkata and the people at the source of migration i.e. the Sundarbans region, are experiencing the impacts of the Covid-19 related lockdown differently.

The slum neighbourhood, which is located at the fringes of Kolkata City, houses migrant families who are originally from various parts of the Sundarbans. The people, who fled the villages in Sundarbans in search of livelihood, assembled and formed the neighbourhood for more than four decades during which this new part of Kolkata emerged. This new section of Kolkata has emerged through a recent urbanization process in which the new middle class accrued the majority of its benefits, sustaining their privileged social position. The people of the new middle-class, however, depend on the migrant workers and especially the female migrant workers. The migrant workers, in turn, can sustain themselves meagerly through informal work. Consequently, the middle-class neighbourhood and the slum neighbourhood maintain and sustain their position and existence, respectively, thereby aiding the social reproduction of classes. My question is, how does the interdependence between these two classes, these two neighbourhoods, and the privilege and under-privilege of classes is hampered or affected by the processes of the lockdown as a preventive measure to counter the Covid-19 outbreak.

The migrant families depend for their everyday subsistence mainly on women’s work as maids and caregivers for the middle-class families. Men of the migrant families who work in construction and other manual fields as well as in small self-employed businesses are not considered as the main breadwinners as their earnings are not stable. Women who can earn a more stable income as a maid or caregiver are considered as the main breadwinners. The economy of this working class neighbourhood is feminine labour-based, domestic work-based, as well as, above all, an informal one. The domestic work of the middle-class neighbourhood always remain open for the women of the nearby slum neighbourhood. But, these linkages of interdependence have stopped working at least for the time being since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown in India. The women, as well as the men of the middle-class families who have always been averse to domestic chores, have now been compelled to do their housework themselves, though reluctantly, just out of fear of Covid-19 infection. These families try vehemently to avoid the women who before the epidemy made their lives meaningful with a sensible, feminine, and caring touch. The migrant women, like their male counterparts, on the other hand, are now passing time without any earnings. As they are not working, they are not getting paid by their employers although most middle-class families receive regular salaries. A few who do pay for their maids during the lockdown are the exceptions, which prove the rule. Therefore, the migrant families go hungry occasionally and face a lack of many essentials. Washing their hands with soap or keeping ‘social distance’ is not possible in the congested neighbourhood where people get their drinking water from a roadside makeshift tap.

The government benefits have become more elusive for the migrants who, despite earning their livelihoods in the city, often keep their identity cards on the village address. Many of them are in a dilemma putting either foot on two regions—rural and urban. Migrants are, therefore, hardly entitled to receive government benefits except some charities given by the municipalities, NGOs, and other philanthropic associations. When I talked with few people over the phone, I understood that they were lamenting how, had they been able to commute to the villages, they could have collected their free rations including vegetables for daily use (provisionally arranged for managing the lockdown effects). The slum dwellers, who had once migrated to Kolkata from villages in search of livelihood, are rethinking the option of returning to the rural regions at least for this emergency period because the villagers in Sundarbans manage their lives better. Although rural people cannot market their products like paddy, vegetables, and fishes, they can use these products for home consumption and for ‘barter exchange’ with each other. The villagers do not witness disruptions in agricultural activities as they mostly depend on family or neighbourhood labour. They are, therefore, raising the alarm in tune with their counterparts in the city slums, ‘how do they save their lives without protecting their livelihoods?’

The villagers who possess local identity papers, like everyone in the state, are entitled now to free essential food materials. For the first time, people are witnessing public distribution without corruption. Even the leaders of the opposition party of a village informed me that the distribution of rations now works well. How did the Covid-19 achieve this positive result when the Aila cyclone and its aftermath failed to evade corruption? What made the people at least in some places to deliver justice? One answer that comes to my mind is that there is less corruption this time since everyone is entitled to the same governmental benefit. However, only a long-term observation of the politics of distribution could shed more light on these questions. While I note that the villagers in the Sundarbans are managing their lives comparatively well, I am troubled by a phenomenon that is emerging in other parts of West Bengal. In some parts of rural West Bengal, the overenthusiastic villagers are putting up fences to separate themselves from the Muslim villagers; so, the term Covid-19 is used in some places synonymously with the Muslim community.