In an interview with the Press Trust of India (PTI), eminent historian Ramchandra Guha said that the forced migration of labourers from urban metropolises to their rural hometowns post lockdown has been “the greatest man-made tragedy in India since Partition.” In the midst of a global pandemic scenario, the lockdown was imposed on India through a televised address on the evening of March 24 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without any notice period. The abrupt decision had an appalling repercussion, leading to one of the biggest humanitarian crises that the country had ever witnessed. Overnight layoffs by employers and the consequent financial crunch faced by the labourers led to their reverse migration back home from urban centres where they had been employed.
Throwing light on the administration’s piecemeal approach in handling a pandemic and its concomitant humanitarian issues, in an interview with The Quartz, Irudaya Rajan from the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, said, “In a sense, this is a refugee crisis now and not merely a migrant crisis.”
UK-based documentary photographer Ashutosh Joshi has been travelling for many years now through the heartland of UP and Bihar visiting families of migrant workers and trying to understand their problems. He has also followed them on their journeys to sites where they were employed as contract workers, in order to document their stories. This particular project was documented near the Vashishti river in Chiplun, Maharashtra, where they worked on illegal mining projects in extreme conditions. Mr Joshi stayed with them for a week on a boat and captured their stories through his photographic lens.
In doing so, he has revealed a side of the country that many aren’t aware of. Along with photographs, he has also laced his photo story with a thoughtful commentary on the plight of the workers by foregrounding their daily lives in dire situations.
Says Ashutosh, “As the Coronavirus hits the Indian streets, news about the growing migrant crisis keeps slowing down. These people come or are brought from different parts of India to the major cities to work, but they are demonised and treated as criminals.”
Ashutosh chiefly interacted with contract workers about whom, he says, “The people in the picture are people who were brought to the cities to work under a contract. In many cases, these contracts are also not followed upon arrival.”
He elaborates, “They go to the river every night to take the sand out, an activity that uses six people to perform a perfect hand synchronisation. In return, however, they are given really small rooms to stay in and are given very little food. These workers are made to sleep on a wooden board with no blankets. The only voice they want to hear on the boat is their loved ones. They talk for hours about their wife and kids. With no vacations and sick leaves, they almost go without meeting their family for years at times.”
It is well known that India inhabits one of the largest informal work systems in the world. These systems are often exploitative and thrive on a vicious nexus of the different hands of power.
Says Ashutosh, “The whole system of contract workers and the men policing them is flawed. Many police officials often know about the illegal activities and the people running it. Politicians, government workers, and the police often work in unison to cover it up. If we do not talk about these things right now when will we? The least we can do is to treat them with respect.”
Elaborating further, Ashutosh says, “Often referred to by slurs like ‘bhaiyya’, ‘gandh’, and ‘kide’, which literally translate to insects and dirt, these people are not even given justice in the Indian system. The police often use brutal measures against them. It’s unfortunate that these activities are glorified in the popular culture by the Indian film industry. Oftentimes, their deaths go unreported by the police and the data is burned to hide the proof. Politicians use language that conflicts the citizens’ opinion of them, language wars are created on news and television that further the narrative. People in smaller cities are prey to this thinking, they blindly follow what television has to offer them. News is filled with politicians on one hand and entertainment that does not need to have any sense or logic.”
As Ashutosh points out, there is a serious need for the media to make sure these stories come out. He continues, “Protests are common in states like UP, Bihar and even in the North-east from where they come from. These people are stripped of their dignity and human rights once they reach the bigger cities. But all the reporting of these events go unnoticed due to all the rubbish filled on the television. They are not robots who are imported for work, they are humans who have values and emotions. However, they are always treated as a second class citizen at each and every step. This generates a question, how (in)human are we to not understand their feelings?”
Ashutosh is a documentary photographer from India currently based in the UK. His work explores the emotions and the society that perceives it, through the photographic medium. His work delves in humanitarian issues and social stigma that pertains in modern society. Prioritising positive news, and stories of empowerment and resilience, Ashutosh believes that this can bring in the necessary shift in news and media around the world who primarily focus on negative reporting. Ashutosh has exhibited in India in galleries like Tao Art (Mumbai) and Museum of Goa (Goa) and has been published in The Guardian, UK.
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