New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series
By Ranabir Samaddar.
My book The Postcolonial Age of Migration was published in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic raged in India and elsewhere. Global mobility had screeched to a halt, as had mobility within India. Locked down in my house when I received a copy, I was driven to reflecting on what I had written: did I do justice to our age in describing it as the postcolonial age of migration?
While writing the book I was aware of the importance of historical sensitivity in making sense of our postcolonial age. Time and again the book goes back to colonial histories of war, plunder, changes in land use, peasant dispossession, ecological marginality, primitive accumulation and the continuities of all these themes in our time. With this backdrop the book discussed colonial practices of violence and border-making exercises and how they were being reproduced today on a global scale. It argued that wars, famines and ecological changes accounted in a big way for today’s migrations and forced migration flows and influenced patterns of labour mobility. This was also the context of the emergence of modern humanitarianism with its specific doctrine of protection. In brief, the book analysed the imprints of the colonial roots of modern humanitarianism and protection.
Yet, as I reflected on the book in the midst of the pandemic, it dawned on me that it was silent on one of the most important realities of our time. The overwhelming presence of COVID-19 made me realise that it did not take into account epidemiological disasters as integral to the colonial history of migration and the postcolonial age of migration. The absence of any concern for migrant workers and refugees in the structure of global public health concerns should have been noted. The book discusses camps and speaks of health concerns of the refugees in camps, but the larger perspective of public health was absent.
India’s history of epidemics offers insights into the country’s poor public health infrastructure. The history of the 1897 outbreak of bubonic plague in colonial Bombay is well known and the present situation of COVID-19 has evoked comparisons. Thousands fled the city in the closing years of the 19th century, spreading the disease in the process. Public health infrastructure was zero. Residents locked themselves up in their houses in fear of plague-control officers who could pick anyone up, quarantine them, and separate children from their families.
In the following 20 years about 10 million people died of the disease across India. Plague was accompanied by other infectious diseases such as cholera, smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis and influenza. Malaria killed millions through the years, and an estimated five per cent of the country’s population perished in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. As one commentator put it, of all these diseases, it was only the bubonic plague that was declared as crisis. ‘Then, as now, only one out of a handful of deadly afflictions, the one that most directly threatened commerce, trade, and the accumulation of capital—was identified as a crisis.’ The plague became the Bombay government’s priority for the next two decades. As capital and labour began fleeing the city in the wake of the disease, the government implemented massive efforts to bring them back in. We are probably witnessing today something similar to what happened in the past.
The countrywide lockdown of 2020 reminded us of these earlier eras as the country witnessed masses of migrants returning home on foot, a growing hunger crisis, stockyards and storages overflowing with millions of tons of surplus food, and arbitrary powers being exercised across the nation. This was a call back to the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. In the outbreak of the plague the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) came to a halt. Thousands of workers (according to some estimates 300,000) left the city. This only sharpened the crisis further. The Bombay Improvement Trust was formed to restore the city’s ‘reputation’ of cleanliness. Yet in those efforts, the policy focus was on making the city ‘clean’ rather than setting up and improving public health infrastructure. Cleaning the city was a ‘public’ purpose; ensuring health of the people was less of a priority. We still do not know, as we did not know in 1896-98, if draconian measures such as the sudden and total lockdown can stop or control contagion. So far, we have waited and tolerated a ‘minimum number of deaths’ (including collateral deaths such as of migrants on the roads or rail tracks) to allow the pandemic to pass away. Social Darwinism matched perfectly the economic policies that were to follow the pandemic.
Disease does not act alone. It acts in unison with a policy of eroding public health infrastructure. Pushing refugees and migrant workers to the fence and robbing them of access to the public distribution of food, public health provisions and employment in public works became wittingly or unwittingly a part of disease control measure. In many ways independent India followed the colonial approach.
In this context the migrant is seen, like the virus, to spread disease. The migrant’s body is considered suspect. Like the virus, in country after country, the migrant has been symbolised as the enemy from outside. We are now accustomed to the idea that our civilisation is at war with a new kind of external enemy. Like a parasite it breeds in the most vulnerable areas of human life, waiting for the moment to release a pathological violence upon its otherwise oblivious prey. The colony also represented this threat to the metropolitan world. Colonies brought ‘tropical diseases’ and were the source of mysterious illnesses and dangers.
Political society has long held the belief that viruses and migrant workers both belong to the outside. The outbreak of the epidemic and the sudden emergence of thousands upon thousands of migrant workers on the roads in India trying to escape the trap of lockdown signalled the end of the mythical safety of a society of settled population groups and of the state that guards this insularity. The range of policy problems and debacles in coping with the pandemic arose from the ignorance of the phenomenon of mobility – of both pathogens and workers. There is no doubt that any account of postcolonial imprints on the current age of migration will be incomplete without an examination of the interrelated notions of public health and refugee and migration flows.