Poor people, poorer politics

Dipak K Midya

We can observe proliferation of nation-statehood across the world over the last 200 years. This has been caused primarily by the power shift towards nationalists to overthrow or absorb the established regime, as observed by Wimmer and Feinstein (2010) in an interesting study based on the dataset on 145 current states for the period from 1816 to 2010. One of the basic premises of a nation-state is ensuring equity of rights for all citizens by a sovereign government. This is because a modern nation-state is an independent state that is ruled on principle by a nation of equal citizens. When we are engrossed with the worldwide statistics or epidemiology of the Covid-19, we do miserably fail to notice the inadequacies or weaknesses of the modern nation-states to protect the equitable rights of their poor and disadvantaged section of people, as in USA or in India. This article is an attempt to draw attention to such weakness.

Modern nation-state which adheres to the state system of political organization is endowed with a centralized authority. Such authority has a hegemonic tendency to remain busy with safeguarding its authority as it always suffers from the fear of powerlessness. Contrary to the western concept of nation-state that builds upon uniformity of cultural tradition, the Indian nation-state develops nationalism by subsuming the diversity in terms of her ethnic groups, language, religion, tradition, and political philosophy. But one of the gravest loopholes of Indian nation-state lies in its sphere of institutionalization of politics, functional mechanism of which rests on the organization of political parties. We can see centralization of power and authority within the structural hierarchy of political parties, be it the so-called ‘Left’ parties with their dialectics of ‘centralized democracy’ or the ‘Right’ wing parties with their ‘high command’ or the ‘party supremo’. Everywhere one can feel centralization of power, but not democracy. The administrative hierarchy in the state system also shows the similar attribute of concentration of power. This phenomenon of inbuilt inadequacy of the state system is once again revealed in the incidences of mass exodus of the so-called ‘migrating labour’ across our country. No institutional authority (either in the central or state level) is ready to take up the responsibility of safeguarding the equity of rights of these poor people who had out-migrated their state of residence in order to find out a suitable earning opportunity for their mere subsistence in dearth of such opportunity in their home states. In fact under the present situation of the Covid-19 outbreak, every institutional authority has miserably failed to take the responsibility of providing food, water and safe transport to and of ensuring physical distancing for the migrated labours when they are trying desperately to return to their home states after losing their earning opportunity (and shelter in most cases) all of a sudden. The migrated labours who are the real builders of the nation have been bearing immeasurable pains to feed themselves and their families under the period of Lockdown phases 1, 2, 3, 4 and presently the Unlock phase 1, often without any support from the contractors, employers or state governments concerned (i.e., government of the state where they are working and the government of their home state), and struggling to arrange for their return journey to home. A developed nation witnesses thousands of thousands poor people (including women with their children) marching towards their home without any support from the state system. They are walking hundreds of miles without food, water or logistic support (with rare exceptions where their employers came out with at least some sort of support), but with police harassment on the issue of violation of the lockdown protocol and immeasurable humiliation culminated even to loss of life in several times. Under this circumstance, the migrated labours are already suffering from the chronic energy deficiency (CED) syndrome that enhances the susceptibility to Covid-19. After returning to the home state, these people again face another round of humiliation. They are subjected to unhygienic living condition, inadequate provision of food and water in the quarantine centres and sometimes insensitive attitude of the neighbourhood and/or even their own family members. All these factors have resulted in higher frequency of infection of Covid-19 and a higher death rate among such people. Did we utter, poor lives matter?

Surprisingly, our union and state governments have no records about the number of migrating labours or about the inter-state migration of economically vulnerable people. This displays   non-responsiveness of our state system towards our poor citizens. However, there are “The inter-state migrant workmen (regulation of Employment and Conditions of service) central Rules, 1980” and “The inter-state migrant workmen (regulation of Employment and Conditions of service) Act, 1979”. But neither the rules nor the act have any provision of compulsory contingency support either from the state or employers in favour of the employees in the event of any emergency situation like public health calamity as in the present case of Covid-19 outburst. The state ought to review immediately the rules and the act in question. Moreover, most of the so-called migrated labours usually get engagement through non-licensed agencies or middlemen who are not bound to abide by the provisions of The inter-state migrant workmen (regulation of Employment and Conditions of service) central Rules, 1980”. Under this circumstance, neither the Union Government nor the State Governments concerned show any interest to safeguard the basic rights of the labours. On the contrary, there is politics of polarizing votes concerning such labours as found in West Bengal in particular. Thus, the poor people have become the subject of even poorer politics.

Wimmer, A. and Y. Feinstein (2010). The Rise of the Nation-State across the World, 1816 to 2001. American Sociological Review 75(5): 764–790.

Dr. Dipak K Midya, Professor & Co-ordinator, SAP (DRS-I), Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore- 721102, W.B.

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Jul 28, 2020

Dr. Dipak K Midya

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