This article investigates the possibility of comparisons between the COVID-19 crisis in India and an earlier episode of pandemic crisis: bubonic plague in Bombay at the end of the nineteenth century. There are numerous apparent parallels. In both cases, Indians experienced an unprecedented and sweeping use of state authority to enforce minute regulations of everyday life. These regulations, on both occasions, were nominally universal in their scope but in practice bore most heavily on the working classes and specifically the urban poor. During both pandemic crises, the immediate consequence of the strategy of state control chosen was a massive flight of the urban poor: from Bombay between 1896 and 1898, and from many of India's major urban centers in the summer of 2020. The parallels and convergences mentioned above provide a basis for comparison. But they do no more than that: the emphasis of the analysis that follows is on the contrasts between the two pandemic crises. It is these contrasts between the two episodes, rather than the superficially more striking similarities, which offer a basis for reflection on the character of the respective crises. These reflections focus, at their core, on the mode of authoritarian state policy deployed in the two cases, and on the predicament of laboring classes during the two cycles of pandemic crisis.
In March and April 2020, as the global COVID-19 pandemic made its presence felt in India, Narendra Modi's government invoked two pieces of existing legislation to enable the prevention and regulation of the disease. The first was the Disaster Management Act of 2005. The second was the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. The latter was a piece of exceptionally forceful colonial-era legislation initially formulated to control the plague epidemic that struck the city of Bombay (and subsequently spread across much of western and northern India) around the turn of the century. Between the original enactment and 2020, provisions of the act had been used several times: during outbreaks of cholera, influenza, smallpox, and the Nipah.1 However, these uses were localized. In 2020, for the first time since its original deployment, the act became the legal basis for sweeping powers of medical and social control exercised on a massive scale.
The possible parallels between the bubonic plague pandemic that began its journey in 1896, and COVID-19 in its Indian incarnation, do not end there. In both cases, Indians experienced an unprecedented and sweeping use of state authority to enforce minute regulations of everyday life. These regulations, on both occasions, were nominally universal in their scope but in practice bore most heavily on the working classes, and specifically the urban poor. During both pandemic crises, the immediate consequence of the strategy of state control chosen was a massive flight of the urban poor: from Bombay between 1896 and 1898, and from many of India's major urban centers in the summer of 2020.
These parallels authorize what I seek to do in this article: offer certain comparative reflections that encompass the Bombay plague crisis at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginnings of the COVID crisis in the spring and summer of 2020 in India. These reflections focus on the mode of authoritarian state policy deployed in the two cases, and on the predicament of laboring classes during the two cycles of pandemic crisis.
The parallels and convergences mentioned above provide a basis for comparison. But they do no more than that: the emphasis of the analysis that follows is on the contrasts between the two pandemic crises. As I will try to elaborate as the argument takes shape, it is these contrasts between the two episodes, rather than the superficially more striking similarities, that offer some insight into the character of the respective crises. These contrasts, I try to show, involve at their core the transformation in the character and texture of modern Indian state authority in the postcolonial era. A comparison of the two instances of pandemic crisis is, therefore, necessarily a comparison of two radically different state forms, and the political possibilities that they respectively encase.
The Bubonic Plague and the Working Classes of Bombay, 1896–1898
Several years ago, I carried out some research on the global bubonic plague pandemic that struck India at the end of the 1890s. Since at the time I was working on the early history of factory labor in the city of Bombay (present-day Mumbai), what drew my attention was an apparent paradox in the predicament of the city's working classes during the plague crisis. The city's large and diverse working class was the prime target both of the pandemic itself and of often arbitrary and punitive measures of colonial plague control. At the same time, the period between 1896 and 1898—when the city's plague crisis was at its peak—also witnessed several cycles of industrial working-class protest, unprecedented in their force and their magnitude not only in Bombay but in nineteenth-century India at large.
Two interlinked social crises formed the ground of these surprising collective assertions of working-class social presence. There was a general crisis of urban social authority generated by the pandemic and by measures of state control: frequent and often violent responses by the city's laboring poor proved potent and consequential in relation to these. This crisis of authority was not confined to the colonial state, however, but also extended to the structure of industrial relations in what was India's major manufacturing city. This was notably true of Bombay's textile mills, which by the end of the nineteenth century were the city's biggest single employer of industrial labor. Here the year 1897, when the plague crisis was at its peak, witnessed a temporary but very dramatic shift in industrial relations. The balance of industrial relations tilted vertiginously in favor of mill workers, who were able to sustain an unprecedented set of industrial struggles based on substantially new claims. The gains they made in the process were largely rolled back by the end of the year, but in interesting ways anticipated future patterns of relationships between capital, labor, and the state.2
The first cases of plague were reported in Bombay in the summer of 1896, but it was in the late autumn and winter that a full-fledged social and economic crisis began to break out.3 The form this crisis initially took was popular panic and mass flight from the city. David Arnold has examined the rumors that circulated during the pandemic: these repeatedly emphasized a suspicion that the colonial state was up to nefarious purposes, which involved carting people off to hospital and killing them.4 Given the ramshackle and grossly underresourced medical infrastructure of the city, with patients dying audibly and painfully, these rumors, in the minds of city residents, must have been confirmed daily. So the fear of a death by plague combined with apprehensions about state policy, and both fed into the mass flight which the city experienced in winter. By January over four hundred thousand people, or nearly half the city, had left Bombay.5
Plague control measures have been described by historians as an “assault on the body” of mostly subaltern colonized subjects, and as an invasive campaign waged by the colonial state against the urban poor of Bombay.6 Both descriptions hold force. Plague mortality disproportionately struck the working classes: for instance, one in every eight victims of the epidemic was a mill worker.7 The susceptibility of the poor to the disease, as a number of historians have shown, was worked into the etiology of the plague itself and informed the conduct of plague control policy. Despite the growing evidence that rat fleas, rather than human beings, were the vectors of the disease, colonial officials invested their faith, for a long time, in a contagionist theory of the spread of plague. This was reinforced by the belief that the sanitary conditions of working-class life were the prime incubators of the disease. Sanitary, medical, and municipal officials regularly described the city's working classes as “predisposed” and “habituated” to filth and therefore to disease.8
These cognitive commitments authorized a sweeping annexation of powers by the state, and intrusive, authoritarian modes of plague control increasingly targeted mostly working-class individuals, families, and neighborhoods. These included the inspection and compulsory hospitalization of plague “suspects”; the isolation and segregation of families that had experienced plague; house-to-house visits by health officials under armed military and police protection; the condemnation and destruction of houses judged “unfit for human habitation”; inspections of corpses prior to burial; the disinfection and limewashing of houses, streets, and drains; and the inspection of passengers on steamers and railways.9 As Rajnarayan Chandavarkar has noted, the Bombay Health Officer, in 1897, claimed that plague officials devoted intense attention to “the disinfection of houses and to the segregation of the poor”: this stunning parapraxis inadvertently summed up plague policy in its aspect as an assault on specifically proletarian bodies and living environments.10 Never before, except during the suppression of rebellion, had colonial rule borne down with such intensity on patterns of social life; never before had it scrutinized, directly controlled, and policed the lives of subaltern social classes with such ferocity.
The flight of the working classes concentrated in the industrial belt of northern Bombay soon assumed catastrophic forms. By the end of the year, quite apart from the rumors and fear circulating in the city, workers had much more immediate reason to rush back to their villages in the Konkan and elsewhere in western India. The Bania and Shroff moneylenders and grain dealers were the first major segment of Bombay's urban society to flee as a bloc.11 When their principal source of credit vanished, workers increasingly found themselves unable to cope in a city whose delicate bonds of social interdependency had been violently snapped. As they moved back to their villages, they confronted another social crisis unfolding in tandem with the plague: famine across much of the western Indian countryside.12
The workers who stayed back, however, imposed themselves on the public life of the city in new ways. Between the end of 1896 and the middle of 1898—the months when the plague crisis was at its peak—they were at the forefront of popular resistance to the attempts made by the colonial and municipal authorities to intensify plague control measures. So if mass flight was the first form in which a crisis of labor became a generalized crisis of urban society, the ways in which working-class fractions of Bombay's population responded to plague control measures formed the bedrock of a crisis of colonial and elite social authority.
The social tensions provoked by the authoritarianism of plague policy can be traced through several episodes of working-class protest. These assumed a wide range of forms, stretching from supplicatory petitions to widespread individual evasion of medical scrutiny, from large-scale rioting to strike action.
A petition sent to the Bombay government by cartmen and casual laborers in Colaba in southern Bombay, in March 1898, clarifies some of the ways in which popular grievances were constructed. The petitioners objected to the practice of “making all the inmates of a house in which a plague case might have occurred, to vacate it, and to make them stay in a starving condition,” thus signaling their grievance against compulsory hospitalization and the isolation of plague “suspects.”13 They also stressed the arbitrary cruelty of house-to-house inspections, which—if plague or insanitary conditions were identified—could lead to the destruction of their homes. As the petitioners observed, search parties investigating working-class dwellings frequently carried out their inspections while residents were out at work. If their homes were consequently labeled “unfit for human habitation” and destroyed, “we would have to give up our work, and would have to go after that business which would take up our time and would draw upon us the blame of our employers and the consequent disadvantages therefrom.”14 The iniquities of medical inspection were also underscored by the petitioners. Since they were laborers, they stressed, it was “natural that the bodies of labouring people are always warm,” and it was both irrational and unfair of the plague authorities to conclude on this basis that they were suffering from fever and therefore to “carry us away.”15 As befitted a petition from subaltern subjects, the laborers struck a conciliatory note, but with an ironical twist. Thanking the government for “the lakhs of rupees expended for the public good,” they observed that, nonetheless, this expenditure had “made no reduction in deaths,” and they concluded, “We should not contend against Nature.” Allowing nature to take its course, they urged, would “save the Government from launching itself into heavy expenditures.”16
Petitions of this sort, with their conciliatory and supplicatory mode of discourse, had little impact on a colonial government in authoritarian overdrive. But they were frequently accompanied by both quotidian and organized forms of resistance. Officials tasked with restraining plague constantly described the concealment and evasion of the sick: rolled up in bedding, stuffed into sacks, and hidden in lofts to avoid the catastrophic consequences of plague inspections.17 And in 1897, a year before the petition mentioned above, the same fraction of Bombay's working class—cartmen and “coolies” engaged in work near the Colaba docks—had petitioned the government, asking it to stop the practice of arbitrary house inspections and destruction. When the petition failed, they had launched a strike that spread to the docks, lasted two days, and paralyzed the streets and dockyards of Colaba.18
In a long poem describing the progress of the plague in Bombay, a school headmaster, B. F. Patell, vividly described the conduct of plague inspection:
But this portentous display of state authority rested on fragile foundations, as Patell noted:
On several occasions, plague policy generated a violent response. The best-known such case took place in Poona in 1897, where an especially feared plague commissioner, WC Rand, was assassinated by radical nationalist followers of Bal Gangadhar Tilak.21 Such a directly “political” response was the exception, however, rather than the norm. More commonly visible were the ripple effects of plague control strategies on working-class subjects, and an escalation, and qualitative transformation, of the “little rows and petty fights” observed by Patell. Among Bombay's subaltern classes in particular, the general atmosphere of suspicion and antagonism frequently assumed a more menacing shape, far removed from the supplicatory tone of petitions and the abjection that marked the concealment of individual plague “suspects.” Periodic rioting was the chief index of this antagonism, as well as its most consequential element.
Two examples should suffice. In October 1896, before plague policy had assumed a clear shape, rumors broke out among mill workers working in factories located near the Arthur Road Hospital at the heart of the mill district. The hospital, it was rumored, was a place where patients were being operated on and deliberately killed. Stories of compulsory inspection and hospitalization were rife, and eventually provoked a violent response. A riot that encompassed workers from the different factories in the area broke out, and the workers threw stones and brickbats at the hospital during the half-hour break they were given for lunch.22
In March 1898, this time during a significant ramping up of state surveillance and control methods, another riot broke out. In a street in Madanpura, a working-class area heavily dominated by Muslim julaha weavers, a botched plague inspection called forth massive urban violence. Plague officials entered a chawl to medically inspect a woman suffering from plague-like symptoms: this galvanized a crowd outside the chawl, and eventually led to pitched battles between state authorities and working-class rioters through the day.23
In each of these cases, however, what really provoked the colonial administration's deepest fears were the consequences for labor control. In October 1896, the authorities issued a notice to all mill workers assuring them that they would not be medically inspected or hospitalized without their consent. This was triggered by the sanitary commissioner's fear that the Dalit workers who made up the sweepers and scavengers (halalkhores and bigarris) of the city, being “in open sympathy” with the rioting mill workers, would either strike work or leave the city.24 This would in turn expose the fragile sanitary foundations on which the city rested, and could potentially lead to the collapse of all sanitary and social order.
In 1898, the riot led to several days of strike action that stretched from the docks to the railways, from the cloth and grain markets in the center of town to the city's transport infrastructure, and, once again, to the sweepers and scavengers. The riot triggered something resembling a general strike of urban workforces occupied in keeping the essential services of the city running. The municipal and plague administration were forced to withdraw their policy of compulsory hospitalization, and shortly afterward there was a general shift toward a more permissive policy of voluntary plague inoculation.25
If we turn from the streets of Bombay to its mills, we find another social phenomenon at work: a panic-driven but far-reaching reconstitution of the structure and conduct of industrial relations. Apparently oddly, in the midst of an epidemic crisis that wreaked havoc on Bombay's working classes, we find the first intimations of a sustained bloc of working-class self-assertion emerging. It was during this collective experience of mortal danger, and desperate socioeconomic vulnerability, that factory inspectors and other colonial officials began to use certain phrases that might sound counterintuitive. “The year 1897 witnessed . . . the shattering of the tie hitherto binding the employer and employed,” observed S. M. Edwardes, leading government official and historian of the city, in 1902.26 “A Labour Question comparable to those of Europe has emerged,” remarked A. L. Wood, the factory inspector for Bombay Presidency, in 1897.27 A year later he put the point even more forcefully: “In my humble opinion,” he wrote, “the Bombay mill-hand can now look after himself.”28
Mass flight, from December 1896 onward, radically altered the shape of the labor market in Bombay in the first half of 1897. This was most pronounced in the cotton mills, the biggest employer in the city. Of the 2 million spindles normally at work daily in Bombay's cotton factories, only sixty-five thousand were running in March, at the peak of the plague crisis.29 In place of the usual early morning sight of workers thronged at the factory gates, the mill districts of Bombay in the early months of 1897 saw men posted at mill gates and street corners outbidding each other's offers of daily wages.30
There was, in fact, a short-lived but precise structural transformation of work relations in motion. Workers, deprived of their sources of credit and thus of money for food, rent, and social sustenance, were driven into a closer relationship with their employers than before. But the terms of this intensified dependency weren't the millowners’ to dictate. Employer control over workers rested on the retention of wage arrears. Mills in Bombay paid most of their wages by the month. From this they subtracted a month or more of a worker's earnings, which were retained by the mill as security against desertion and as a basis for attendance and factory discipline. This drove workers into lasting cycles of indebtedness and intensified their dependence on moneylenders and grain merchants (the two were frequently the same person).31 When the moneylenders left Bombay in the immediate aftermath of the plague outbreak, the basis on which work was organized collapsed. In January 1897, some employers initially tried to use the retention of November's wages to retain their workforces. Successful strike action blocked this strategy. At the end of January, the Bombay Millowners’ Association was compelled to move in the opposite direction and to authorize its members to pay wages to their employees at the end of each working day—at significantly enhanced rates.32
This significantly eroded managerial control in the workplace. The factory inspector complained of “the failure of the attempt to impose even a minimum daily task.”33 Mill managers complained of the “untrained loafers” who had come to fill the place of regular workers. They complained that workers would now “decamp” from mill to mill in the course of a single working day in search of higher daily wages.34
This crisis intensified after April, as the workers who had fled the city began to return to work—a return accelerated, of course, by the ongoing famine in rural western India. By the end of May, the mills were working at about three-quarters of their full capacity.35 The Millowners’ Association tried to revert to the old arrangements, calling for an end to daily wage payments and a return to monthly wages. This led to prolonged strike action. A compromise was struck in June: daily wages were slowly rolled back but were replaced by a thinly disguised equivalent: the payment of daily bonuses. Bonus payments were in principle retractable, but in practice they amounted to a continuation of daily wages and became the source of renewed—and successful—strike action in July. It was not till the end of the year that employers managed to get rid of these concessions and to restore their earlier authority in the workplace.36
A final consequence of the plague crisis for labor relations manifested itself around another set of questions: worker recruitment and retention, housing arrangements, provisions for food and credit, medical attention, and drinking water. In other words, the social reproduction of workforces became, for the first time in the history of industrial Bombay, a matter of pressing concern for employers.
The working-class neighborhood had been, and would substantially remain, the site where most of the social needs of workers were resolved one way or another: Bombay's mill employers, often noted for their philanthropic contributions to the city, were notably parsimonious when it came to their workforces. The other side of the coin was that workers’ lives were substantially opaque to, and in certain respects autonomous of, their employers. Their means of social sustenance were usually paltry, but their dependence on networks stretching from the village to the neighborhood moneylender to the mill jobber and foreman all constituted potential obstacles to the extent of direct employer control.37 At both these levels—welfare and control—the plague occasioned a rapid shift in perspective for a number of the city's larger employers, as it did for the state.
Jamshedji Tata, who had for some time been pressing his fellow millowners to agree on a collective arrangement for the importation of workers from longer distances, finally got a chance to put this plan into action. Tata's scheme was built on a sociological intuition: landless rural laborers from northern India, he believed, would yield better value for the mills than workers from rural western India, who retained closer ties with their villages and could leverage this against their employers. Welfare was an element in Tata's design: he suggested that mills could house the workers they recruited and take care of their basic needs. This, in fact, was true of Tata's own workplace strategies in mills he controlled, and in the twentieth century a welfarist paternalism would be a marked feature of the company town—Jamshedpur—that the Tata family would run. During the plague crisis, however, the primary purpose of the strategy was disciplinary rather than welfarist. Tata stressed the utility of long-distance recruitment primarily as a way of restraining wage demands and breaking the unprecedented bargaining power recently gained by Bombay's millworkers.38 The plague, he bitterly observed in a newspaper interview, “had placed the employers of labour in the unenviable position of employees,” and long-distance recruitment from famine-struck districts in northern India would resolve this crisis.39
The Bombay Millowners’ Association acted on Tata's suggestion, recruiting an agent to scour northern India for potential workers. The scheme was a failure: only 114 people took up the offer, and many left subsequently, since the wages offered were so low.40 The episode holds interest not so much for its immediate consequences as for the glimpse it provides of shifts in the discourse and priorities of Bombay's industrial employers. It can also, however, be read as an anticipation of the future trajectory of industrial relations: northern Indian migrants would, in fact, come to make up a larger portion of Bombay's workforce in later decades.
Another scheme—suggested by Nusserwanjee N. Wadia, another of the city's richest industrialists—proved rather more consequential. Wadia made the suggestion that, to prevent a repetition of the plague-induced crisis in the labor market, mills should begin to make significant investments in housing their workforces.41 This idea proved to be one of the cornerstones of the creation of the Bombay City Improvement Trust in 1898. The trust, set up as a collaboration between the city's landowning and commercial classes and the government, was designed to reform the city's built space, to remodel it in ways that would prevent the recurrence of social catastrophes like the plague crisis. The scheme had an uneven and checkered career but also paved the way for an expansion of working-class housing in the city, principally in the form of the vast horizontal tenements, or chawls, that would become a defining feature of Bombay's urban landscape.42
To sum up: the plague crisis of 1896–98 was an immensely consequential moment in the social and industrial history of Bombay. The plague itself, of course, spread much deeper, and exacted an immense toll chiefly from northern and western India, in the years that followed. Subsequent epidemics caused even more catastrophe: the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed more people in a matter of months than plague did over decades.43 But never again would medical, social, and political crisis be articulated quite as sharply with each other as they were in Bombay in the early years of the epidemic. No other epidemic crisis produced such instant authoritarian overdrive on the part of state authorities, and no other health crisis came to be so intensely interlaced with subaltern protest and resistance.
Three analytical points, I believe, can be extracted from the above account of the plague. Each of these bears on the question of what we might loosely term “the politics of epidemic crises.” First, the plague crisis tells us a story about the nature of colonial authoritarianism. Sweeping and brutal as plague control measures were, they were also rendered vulnerable by the stark gap, and immense social distance, between rulers and ruled. Colonialism as a regime of power was founded on this very distance. Plague, even as it ushered in unprecedented forms of arbitrary state power, compelled an intensity of social contact between colonial officials and the dense world of urban social life. This induced severe strains on the conduct of colonial authority, and it was with audible relief that the colonial regime withdrew from the harshest forms of plague control by the end of the century.
Second, the episode illustrates the effectiveness and resonance of working-class protest. The plague marked the visible advent of Bombay's plebeian and proletarian classes on the politics of the city. This was not unprecedented: there had been riots and strikes earlier, in the 1880s and 1890s. But the plague crisis generated new and more potent forms of working-class self-assertion on the streets of Bombay, and the control of the laboring poor became a more pressing dilemma for state authority than it had hitherto been.
Third, the plague prompted a reformulation of industrial relations. The links between capital and labor, in the cotton mills of Bombay in 1897, experienced mutations that were not only unprecedented but also unrepeatable. Bombay's millworkers would never again experience, in their favor, a shift of the labor market quite as radical and far-reaching as this. The crisis produced new claims, rights, and—on the part of employers—new and quasi-welfarist ideas about the management of labor-capital relations. Certain practices surrounding wage payment, such as the invention of bonuses as a form of disguised wages, and the abandonment of wage arrears as a mode of industrial control, anticipated significant shifts that would take place in later decades.
Each of these points, in my view, helps to establish a set of contrasts between the social and political consequences of the Bombay plague crisis and the COVID-19 crisis in its Indian variant. I shall make two sets of observations about COVID-19 in the light of the Bombay plague. First, I shall use the contrast between the two to highlight certain significant political dimensions of the present conjuncture. I shall follow this up with an account of the specific predicament of labor and the labor movement in the present crisis.
I should, however, make a couple of methodological comments to stress the potential pitfalls in such a comparative exercise. There is, first of all, simply the question of scale: I am moving from plague in one city to a pandemic whose dimensions are fully global, and—in the Indian context—fully national. This is bound, to some extent, to be a self-limiting exercise. Second, and more importantly, the medium and long-term effects of the pandemic crisis are still very much in play in India as they are elsewhere, and this means that the political meanings of the crisis that follow below are bound to be contingent and tentative. The politics of the pandemic will no doubt continue to shift and change over the coming years, and its consequences will necessarily remain somewhat obscure for a while. So the remarks here will necessarily be speculative in their character.
COVID-19, Authoritarian Populism, and Labor
The plague crisis of the late nineteenth century and the COVID-19 crisis that began in 2020 offer, it would seem, numerous points of comparison. Looking at each of the crises through the mirror of the other reveals both continuities and convergences. The Epidemic Diseases Act, crafted in response to the plague, was rolled out again in response to COVID. Once again, the initial crisis was caused not so much by the pandemic itself as by the conduct of state authority. Long before the coronavirus caused a real public health crisis in India, the prime minister's announcement of “the world's biggest lockdown” on March 24 generated the largest forced migration in the subcontinent since Partition, as migrant workers trekked—just as they had during the Bombay plague—back to the villages they came from.44 The catastrophic second wave of the pandemic in 2021 exposed the immense deficits of India's public health system, among the worst and mostly poorly resourced in the world. From hospital beds to PPE supplies to oxygen cylinders to funeral space, every link in the chain of mass disease was punctuated by the inadequacies of health provision for the vast majority of Indians. Here too, parallels with the colonial state—premised as it was on the social, medical, and sanitary abandonment of most of its subjects to the mercies of fate—may seem suggestive.
My emphasis is different. I am interested in understanding the ways in which the two pandemics have produced qualitatively different situations, so in what follows I will repeatedly emphasize the divergences between the context of the 1890s and the present. These contrasts, in turn, may help us understand a certain “history of the present.” If the history of the Bombay plague forms—as I believe it does—part of the genealogy of present-day practices and conflicts, and if these have implications for the labor question today, then a comparison of the two historical moments might prove to be useful. It is not so much a comparison, strictly speaking, as clues to a historical transformation—in the nature of political authority, and in the place of the laboring poor within the social and political order.
If we look at the recent pandemic crisis from the perspective of the Bombay plague, the first thing that should strike us is the distance traveled, and the mutations undergone, by authoritarian forms of state power since the nineteenth century. Colonial authoritarianism as manifested during the plague amounted to the exercise of exceptional powers in an emergency. This “exception,” of course, may be held to reveal the “truth” of many tendencies of colonial rule in their fullest form—colonial racism, the pervasive fear of opaquely subaltern social groups, levels of mutual incomprehension and incompatible discursive codes dramatized in the encounters between plague officials and Indians, the hegemonic status haltingly won for Western medicine. But at the same time, this was a constitutively uneasy authoritarianism, its resources and capacities of coercion sometimes stretched to breaking point, frequently forced to backtrack due to popular pressure, vulnerable to intimations of riot and rebellion.
To put matters in a nutshell: colonial rule was premised on the maintenance of the maximum possible distance between rulers and subjects. The plague crisis necessitated a rapid reversal of this distance, and it was this reversal that lay at the base of the crisis experienced by the colonial state when it sought to enact its measures of pandemic control.
Pandemic politics, on the other hand, was structured by a regnant, and growing, authoritarian populism in a context of a real but increasingly threatened parliamentary democracy. In India, the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded within a context of several decades of slow structural reforms to a previously dirigiste, state-dominated economic order. It also acquires its political meaning from a long history of mass competitive democratic politics currently undergoing a profound authoritarian mutation, in the shape of the Modi government and its ongoing transformation of state and society.
This contrast has analytic consequences, one of which is particularly relevant to my argument. Colonial policy during the Bombay plague crisis initially traveled an undecided path, then settled on imposing very invasive measures on the city's poor. These measures fell apart in the face of persistent public resistance by working-class sections of urban society, and a genuine crisis of social authority prompted the state to reconsider its policy and shift to voluntary inoculation as the chosen path of epidemic control. Popular resistance was fierce, immediate, and surprisingly effective. The other side of this was that, being in no sense deeply rooted within the structures of social life itself, the colonial authorities found themselves, during the plague crisis, constantly facing the problem of the social legitimation of their actions. This was a regime that, unlike those in the era of twentieth and twenty-first-century mass politics, lacked the means for the effective manipulation of public opinion.
By contrast, COVID interposed itself in a very different political structure. In India, it emerged within a mass democracy presently dominated by a politics which constantly seeks to forge an immediate equation between Leader and Nation, and where political legitimacy is constantly being renewed by the repeated elaboration of this equation in every public context. Given also that this pandemic crisis is happening within a framework of mass, competitive electoral politics, there is a sense in which each looming crisis must be grasped as an opportunity by the ruling party. From the standpoint of serious policy thinking, the Modi government's immediate response to the pandemic may seem like a calibrated distraction from the real-world challenges of a crippling emergency. However, from the perspective of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its far-right, authoritarian-populist politics, and its vision for the country's future, the political theater enacted by the government in the early months of the pandemic was itself the point.
Barbara Harriss-White has rightly stressed that the nature of Modi's March 24 lockdown closely replicated the way the 2016 decision to demonetize the Indian currency was executed. On that occasion, too, Indians were given no time at all to prepare for the crisis foisted on them: overnight, they lost access to most of their money, a predicament that lasted for months. As Harriss-White points out, it was a decision that knocked the bottom out of the informal economy that sustains most of India's workforce. She argues, on this basis, that the pandemic lockdown in March should be seen as a continuation of a prolonged assault on the informal economy and informal workers.45
Demonetization also, however, ushered in a distinctly new political logic, which was repeated on a larger scale during the COVID crisis. On both occasions, government policy was made on the hoof. On both occasions, it was formulated as a command directly issued to the public by the prime minister and was implemented with immediate effect. On both occasions, Modi urged citizens to embark on an arduous sacrifice, an adventure in the salvation of the nation from its foes. In a country more often associated with long blockages in the execution of policy, Modi ushered in—for the first time in national politics since Indira Gandhi's Emergency-era dictatorship in the mid-1970s—a form of rule by executive fiat. This was followed by unprecedented electoral success for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, in early 2017. In 2019, despite the economic woes inflicted by demonetization, Modi secured an even bigger victory in the Indian general election than he had in 2014. The causal connections between demonetization and electoral victory are of course likely to be indirect, and mediated by multiple forces. But viewed from a distance as a historical snapshot, the link is clearer: demonetization, a colossal “failure” in economic policy, was evidently a roaring political success. The simple fact that such a demonstrably calamitous policy produced no political or electoral backlash is proof enough of this.
The same “shock and awe” principle was followed on other occasions too: during the lockdown and sweeping curtailment of civil liberties imposed on Kashmir, and during the announcement of a major tax reform in 2017. By 2020, therefore, this style of command politics had become a new political tradition. In each of its iterations—demonetization, the Goods and Services Tax, the Kashmir lockdown—a structural problem (corruption, black money, an unreformed tax system, national security) was transformed overnight into a public emergency, and on this basis the prime minister's discourse demanded self-sacrifice from the Indian public.46
COVID, of course, was different from these precedents. The “crisis” of corruption that triggered demonetization, for instance, was pure political confection. Corruption is, of course, an endemic problem in Indian society, but there was no immediate crisis that justified Modi's spectacularly ineffectual and costly assault on “black money.” The whole point of the policy was the sado-populist political theater it generated, and the narrative and discourse of national virtue and self-sacrifice that subtended it. In this respect, the arrival of COVID in India was very different: it was a genuine crisis, which evidently would have required unprecedented measures of public management one way or another.
But state policies happen within particular templates of possible action. In this case, the template had been set by the previous record of the Modi administration: given that radical measures were required, this record determined that they had to be declared overnight, presented as an aspect of the Leader's special wisdom, and repeatedly and loudly hailed as a success. Just like demonetization, the announcement and the execution of the policy were separated by just a few hours. No provisions of any sort were made in advance for the social crises this decision was bound to create. The pandemic crisis thus created yet another opportunity for government by decree, for another hastily improvised policy conducted in large part as an experiment in the demonstration of the leader's sagacity and boldness. And it was this mode of origin that really gave the disasters that followed their particular shape.
There is, I suggest, a distinct political logic to this. This logic may or may not inform the actual motivations of the state, but this is not the point: whether carefully premeditated or improvised, the government's actions reveal a definite pattern that is not accidental. The pandemic itself clearly necessitated measures that would compound the structural as well as the conjunctural deficiencies of the Indian state: rapidly declining economic growth, record levels of unemployment, an inadequate and inefficient public health system, widespread corruption, and—perhaps most of all—a society where globally unparalleled social inequality coexists with extreme physical proximity of people and classes (especially in the cities). In a state and society structured in these ways, a pandemic caused by an unknown virus was always going to lead to a devastating crisis. But the mode in which the lockdown was executed was a way of “capturing the narrative,” as journalists like to say—of stamping the Leader's authority on the event at hand, by enacting this authority loudly, uncompromisingly, and overnight.
It is also not an accident that the early phase of COVID policy, which began in March and stretched through the summer, was also the most populist of its phases. At a time when the pandemic itself seemed to have largely spared India (in contrast to other parts of the world), Modi's government began to declare and preach its own success. Two days prior to the lockdown, Modi had announced an entirely symbolic one-day curfew (on a Sunday) to ward off the coronavirus. In a pronouncement similar to the populist rhetoric deployed by Boris Johnson during the United Kingdom's comparably disastrous pandemic response, he instructed citizens to clap and to bang thalis (metal utensils) to applaud health-care workers.47 Organizations under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar (the family of far-right Hindu nationalist organizations at whose apex Modi is currently situated) began to take out victory processions lauding the government's triumph over the pandemic, long before the pandemic itself had begun to bite. These ghoulish spectacles punctuated the summer months of 2020, a period that may—especially when contrasted to the carnage that characterized the following year—be described as the epoch of “phony COVID.” When a deadly second pandemic wave struck India in April and May 2021, the devastating effects occupied news headlines across the world. It did not, however, make a dent on the rhetoric of triumph and glory purveyed continually by the government. Nor, to date, as recent state elections indicate, has it seriously affected its electoral hegemony.
Let me sum up the political contrast I am trying to develop. The plague crisis required, on the part of the colonial regime, a delicate balance between coercion and compromise, and a strategy that could change rapidly in response to deteriorating situations of social order. The crisis unfolded within a social and political order that derived its strength from preserving the greatest possible distance between rulers and ruled. The real crisis appeared when it was no longer possible to preserve this distance: the exigencies of the plague crisis broke it down and called forth measures of authoritarian state control that the colonial administration found itself unequipped to follow through on. So it found itself frequently needing to retreat and to maintain a shifting balance between coercive and permissive directions of policy.
Paradoxically enough, in the context of mass democracy in present-day India, this balance no longer subsists as an element of state strategy. Because of the authoritarian-populist direction imposed on Indian democracy by the Modi regime, a much more determinedly and uncompromisingly coercive form of pandemic management was, in effect, the only policy path open to the state. (Both the authoritarianism and the populism are important here. Without the odd power exercised by the rhetoric of self-sacrifice in Indian political discourse—however we explain it—Modi could never have been as effective as he is.) This path needed calibration and revision along the way, of course, but a more consultative, careful approach to the crisis, one that could take into account the social needs and human dignity of its victims, was never even remotely a possibility.
The postcolonial state has powers and capacities that its colonial predecessor lacked. It has indeed come much ‘closer” to the lives of its citizens. It has done so in a declaratively democratic idiom, which corresponds to genuine historical shifts in the relations between state power and its subjects. But the last few years of Indian politics demonstrate, with dramatic force, the dark side of this closer relationship. A heavily ideologized, right-wing politics at the heart of the contemporary state, characterized by a plenitude of authoritarian and hypernationalist strategies and rhetorics, has emerged as the prime modality of this closeness. It seeks to interpellate, and discursively annex, its subjects, in ways that the structure of colonial authority precluded.
The practical questions of pandemic management are of course real, and have weighed upon the Modi regime, tasking it with new welfarist responsibilities which have been shouldered, for the most part, clumsily and ineffectually. But policy failure may in fact be congruent with political success. Certainly, even as the pandemic reaped its harvest, the government continually sought to turn crisis into political opportunity, frequently succeeding. The ruling party's repeated claim has been that its pandemic strategy is world-beating, and a tribute above all to the nation's great helmsman. The prime minister's face is pasted on the vaccination certificates of Indian citizens. This is a minor, but telling demonstration of the relentless alchemy that turns crisis management (quite independently of actual efficacy) into photo-op and electoral strategy in Modi's India. The long transformation in the character of state authority in the postcolonial era, and its more rapid mutations in the current age of Hindu nationalist authoritarianism, account at least in part for this apparently paradoxical configuration.
The political construction of the two pandemic crises, then, differed immensely, and the source of these differences can be located in the character of the supervening political regimes. In the years between 1896 and 1898, Bombay—and some other parts of plague-affected India—experienced the authoritarian potentials of the colonial state in their moment of greatest intensity. But this was, in strict terms, an exceptional mode of colonial social and political control. The recent COVID crisis, on the contrary, reveals not an exception to the norm but an emergent norm itself. All the features of the Indian government's immediate response to the crisis—the personalized populism constructed around Modi, the rule by executive fiat, the imperious style of a politics premised on incontrovertible commands from the top—embody the construction of a new political topography, with authoritarian potentials that have only just begun to be plumbed.
Let me now turn more specifically to the question of labor and COVID. To begin, there is evidently a major point of similarity between the plague and COVID pandemic's respective consequences. If the form in which the plague crisis hit Bombay was a mass flight of workers from the city, this was also exactly what followed Modi's announcement of the lockdown. Millions of workers fled the cities they worked in for their mostly rural homes. They walked, traveled on packed and contagious buses, and in May were eventually allowed to board trains. Each mode of travel killed people, in different ways: long starvation, suicide, road accidents, sheer exhaustion, encounters with violent policemen, and COVID itself claimed the lives of an undetermined number of people. According to the Stranded Workers Action Network, the overwhelming majority of migrant laborers received no wages and no food to help them tide over the crisis.48 Attempts by state governments to prevent such migration were rapidly knocked aside by the sheer force of the numbers migrating—just as they had been during the plague.
But this is also where the parallels and continuities end and suggestive contrasts begin to appear. Plague had generated a far-reaching (if in the short run temporary) shift in industrial relations, in favor of labor. The years of the plague crisis were marked by successful strike action, the suspension of wage arrears, the daily payment of wages, wage increases, bonuses, the beginnings of welfare arrangements by the larger capitalists, and an expansion of working-class housing overseen by both millowners and the state. Some of this, of course, was reversed as plague itself became less threatening. But these shifts, as I have argued, also anticipated many elements of the structure of industrial relations that would dominate late colonial and postcolonial India in the decades following World War II.49
This time round, matters were very different. The massive crisis experienced by migrant labor, and the continuing deterioration of employment conditions, only occasionally produced significant resistance. The mass migration of casual laborers and daily wage earners, by dint of its sheer scale, can perhaps be interpreted as an act of collective defiance at a mass level. Yet its “mass” character was deeply ambiguous: it produced no wider solidarities. As Jan Breman notes, the evidently impressive fortitude of millions of suffering “footloose” workers amounts to “a resilience that does not amount to a joint platform of protest and resistance. This inability to seek each other out in mutual support . . . results in their muted public voice and visibility.”50
One might add that the strange paradox of the mass reverse migration of workers was that, at one level, they were in fact far more audible and visible than they had been during social crises of the distant past: social media ensured that they did in fact have a “voice” that millions of people could hear. But this does not even remotely modify the marginality and abjection of their terrifying predicament. A heartbreaking instance of this comes from a news report from the Agra-Jaipur highway shortly after the March 2020 lockdown was announced. A reporter for NDTV begins talking to a Bihari construction worker trying to walk from NOIDA (in Uttar Pradesh, and part of the National Capital Region) to his village in Bihar hundreds of miles away. At the beginning of the interview, he is calm enough. As the questions become more specific, his voice falters. When asked if he has any money left, he responds that he has ten rupees. When asked if he has water to drink, he produces a near-empty bottle. When the reporter asks him why he didn't wait for a government announcement about travel before setting out on his trek, the worker breaks down. Visibly distressed, the reporter moves away from the man and lets him be.51 It is a tragic social encounter that epitomizes the truth of an old (if often misunderstood) claim within subalternist critical theory. The subaltern classes may be able to “speak,” but there is no corresponding guarantee—or social structure—that enables their voices to be heard. Their voices find no echo within the ambit of recognized public discourse, even in its most empathetic forms.
The other side of such cruel social abandonment, of course, was state violence. The brutality with which migrant workers were often treated by state authorities is well documented. A video that sparked widespread outrage showed a crowd of people, in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, corralled on a street by health officials spraying disinfectant indiscriminately on their bodies.52 In another notorious incident, a policeman in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh was caught on camera making migrant workers crawl on their hands and knees down a street.53 A study by the Digital Empowerment Foundation, which interviewed two hundred migrant workers in seventeen north Indian villages, found that one in every four of the respondents had suffered police beatings on their journey home.54
But arguably an even sharper glimpse of authoritarian politics in action comes from an Al Jazeera documentary on the plight of migrant workers. Here a construction laborer wanders around a hastily improvised relief camp consisting of a few broken sheds, waiting endlessly for food, talking to his wife on his mobile, and longing to return home. The police arrive to instruct the laborers to stay put and wait for instructions. The policeman issuing these directives has a kindly, avuncular tone. He explains to the men gathered around that there will eventually be a cure for the disease, but there isn't one yet. He urges them not to believe rumors that bus or railway stations are running—“Whenever the trains or buses start again, we will let you all know.” Then his voice rises an octave. “I want no complaints about this. PM Modi himself will tell you when the trains and buses will go, he'll even tell you where they leave from.” The men nod expressionlessly.55 This is a tantalizing glimpse—there must be countless such quiet, quotidian encounters—of the ways in which state and supreme leader are casually unified in everyday discourse, and of the ways in which a debilitating, existential crisis was annexed to the figure of a putatively omniscient prime minister.
In all these forms and more, migrant workers appeared in public discourse—and almost always in the testimonies they gave to reporters—as victims of a capricious and relentless social fate, as small people crushed by an uncaring social order. Resentment and anger pervaded these testimonies, but these also frequently marked the outer limits of their “political” resistance to what the government had imposed on them.
On the other hand, the pandemic crisis provided an opportunity for the government to institute far-reaching labor market transformations, in the shape of a very capital-friendly relaxation of labor laws, and the creation of a new labor code to replace the various pieces of labor legislation accreted over time. Certain BJP-ruled states went so far as to suspend labor laws altogether. Millions of workers in the more organized segment of the workforce have lost legal protection.
There were, undoubtedly, certain improvisations and advances in the dispensing of social welfare schemes. This is not a new phenomenon: as Partha Chatterjee, Kalyan Sanyal, and Sudipta Kaviraj have all argued, the burden placed by universal adult franchise on the process of capitalist accumulation in India means that targeted forms of welfare have become a distinct terrain of both democracy and economic transformation.56 Relief measures enabled by the possession of Aadhaar biometric identity cards, food supplies organized by state governments and voluntary organizations, targeted cash benefits, the attempt to use the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to dispense rural relief, the registration of migrant workers using an online portal, the creation of arrangements for social distancing, the organization of testing and tracing, relief camps, makeshift hospitals: all of these make up a large, if obviously uneven, landscape of welfare improvisation.57
to guarantee at least one hundred days of paid employment to all rural families. Initiated by the Congress-led center-left United Progressive Alliance in 2005, this scheme experienced severe blockages and funding cuts in the early years of Modi's rule. After the onset of the pandemic crisis, money was reinjected into the scheme, and it has been deployed as a means of social sustenance for rural laboring families.
The point is not that any of these schemes are remotely adequate to the predicament. Still less is it the case that they amount to a concerted attempt by the state to save lives and enable livelihoods. But they do mark a shifting terrain where state power and social need meet. There is a complicated process at work here. A vast need for social regulation in some form has called these piecemeal but by now fairly extensive welfare efforts into existence. But the form of these efforts—like everything else about the present regime—is determined by the shape of national politics. The unequal burden shouldered by central and state administrations in the provision of public relief is one index of this process. In a more speculative mode, we might also consider innovations like the creation of online portals where migrant workers are to be registered. In an authoritarian and highly ideologized political context, this mode of welfare expansion—through mechanisms that make the worker ever more transparent to state surveillance—is necessarily double-edged. As technological means become more elaborate, they also seemingly become more unavoidable—yet all of this is bound to have other kinds of political consequences in the long run and will almost certainly also be used to more grossly coercive ends in the future. Here again, the contrast with the plague is instructive: when Bombay millowners imagined more expansive systems of worker control, as Jamshedji Tata in particular did, these often proved abortive and ineffective. Whereas today, we evidently see new forms of state control emerging that are, in the context of the pandemic, often unavoidable for welfare purposes but that may well come to have a very different kind of life once the crisis abates.
The biggest contrast between the two historical situations, though, is this: the plague ushered in an unprecedented cycle of working-class self-assertion: both against the violence with which plague control measures were executed and against workplace authority. In the context of COVID, there has been no generalized resumption of the labor movement. Indeed, it should be possible to ask, entirely unpolemically, whether there currently exists something in India that can be described as a “labor movement.” The “movement” that was visible in the spring and summer of 2020 was the literal movement of tens of millions of workers away from the cities they worked in. This experience did, of course, generate moments of successful mobilization: it was the concerted mass presence of migrant workers on national highways and their desperation to return home, for instance, that forced a reluctant central government to authorize rail and bus travel for migrants at the end of May.
At a more conventionally “organized” level, though, the well seems to have run dry. There were strikes in individual workplaces, but not very many. There were two rounds of central trade union action, in the form of general strikes on May 22 and November 26.58 These, however, were as distressingly inconsequential as they have been for years now. Every year, the central trade union organizations—mostly on the initiative of dwindling but still large left-led trade union federations—announce a general strike. A day or two of extensive strike mobilization follow. International left media portals—whose credulity about supposed good news from India is matched only by their indifference to the actually existing (and parlous) conditions of the Indian labor movement—annually proclaim these strikes “the biggest the world has ever seen.” Big though they may be, they do not leave a single trace on the political culture and discourse of a mutating nation-state. The year 2020 was, by any reckoning, a defining time for millions of India's working-class citizens. But as far as the labor movement, in its institutional form, is concerned, it was no different from any other year.
It can be argued, to be sure, that the labor movement has been up against heavy odds in the form of a regime that is both intensely capital-friendly and immensely authoritarian in its treatment of the poor and is opposed to any compromise with organized worker demands. But in fact—as the farmers’ movement of 2020–21, one of the rare instances of successful mobilizations against the Modi regime, revealed—there do exist subaltern social constituencies that are capable of exerting significant pressure on the state. Organized labor has not yet been able to mount anything on this scale. It's worth asking why.
There may be two—equally grim—lines of explanation for this. First, the changing place of organized labor within the matrix of the postcolonial state is important. Organized labor was allotted a certain not inconsiderable place by the postcolonial state in its early, dirigiste developmentalist incarnation. This place could never have been secured without militant class struggles and trade union organization, but I think it's nevertheless fair to say that there was a significant disproportion between the actual strength of twentieth-century labor movements in India and the place they came to occupy, for a while, in the project of postcolonial nation-building. And what the state gave, the state could also take away.
Second, what the state gave—in the form of a settlement that recognized and instituted certain rights for organized workforces—was itself always structured by a permanent, if shifting, binary line of division between different workforces, something generally understood as the line between the formal and the informal sector. This line was always, of course, a social and political construction: as early as the time of the first Factory Act in 1881, for instance, a factory inspector had made the point that pegging legal protections for workers to the number of people employed at a workplace was always going to lead to the exclusion of masses of workers from the benefits of such protection.59 But this was a social construction with very tangible and real material effects. In the present context it bears a significant political consequence. Those segments of the workforce most vulnerable to exploitation, most numerous, and most socially excluded—those who suffered most during the lockdown, migrant wage workers above all—are not those targeted most directly by the labor law reforms initiated by the regime. So the labor policy of the government becomes harder to grasp and confront as a direct assault on the rights of labor relative to capital, even though this is exactly what it is.
Equally clearly, the historical meaning of the divergence of experiences between different fractions of the Indian workforce has changed over time. In the first flush of developmental nationalism, the organized workforce, or at least key segments of it, could at various points be conceived of as some kind of vanguard of both nation-building and class struggle. Decasualization across a range of enterprises was, for instance, a project of state-building, and it corresponded logically enough with the overall direction of capitalist regulation across much of the world in the early decades of Independence. But a large historical shift has taken place, and it has in fact become much more plausible across most sectors of public discourse to consider the rights of permanent workforces as an affront and a barrier to the 90 percent or more of the workforce without access to most of these rights.
These are not, of course, in any way sufficient explanations—or even descriptions—of the present social and political crisis of Indian labor. But they are, in some ways, features of the crisis that come into focus if we use historical contrasts as a springboard for analysis. And they are also features that acquire a special significance if we examine the relations between the ongoing crisis of labor and the patterns of authoritarian populism sedimented into state practice with increasing force since 2014.
Couchman, Account of Plague Administration in Bombay Presidency, vol. 1, chap. 1.
Annual Factory Report, Bombay 1897, no. FI-421, Home (Judicial) A, March 1899, National Archives of India.
Annual Factory Report, Bombay 1897, no. FI-421, Home (Judicial) A, March 1899, National Archives of India. See also Kidambi, “Contestation and Conflict.”
Times of India, April 2, 7 and 8, 1897.
Bombay Gazette, October 30, 1896; Times of India, October 30, 1896.
Report by R. H. Vincent, Commissioner of Police, no. 2364/6R, to Judicial Department, Bombay, April 1, 1898, enclosed in Judicial Letter No. 6, April 9, 1898, India Office Records, L/P&J/3/959.
Annual Factory Report, Bombay 1897, no. FI-421, Home (Judicial) A, March 1899, National Archives of India.
No. FI-69, General Department, 1 February 1897, Maharashtra State Archives.
Annual Factory Report, Bombay 1897, no. FI-421, Home (Judicial) A, March 1899, National Archives of India.
Annual Factory Report, Bombay 1897, no. FI-421, Home (Judicial) A, March 1899, National Archives of India; Times of India, January 12, 1897.
Times of India, January 4, 8, and 23, 1897; Annual Report of the Bombay Mill-Owners’ Association, 1896, appendix A: “Bubonic Plague.”
Times of India, February 5, 1897.
Indian Spectator and the Voice of India, May 30, 1897.
J. N. Tata, “Imported Labour for the Bombay Mills,” in Annual Report of the Bombay Mill-Owners’ Association, 1896, 156.
Times of India, May 10, 1897.
Proceedings of the Annual General Meeting of the Bombay Mill-Owners’ Association, July 6, 1897.
This detail reveals more than a striking coincidence, since it points to a long-term feature of India's economy: the permanent presence of circular migration as a key element in the supply of urban labor. Indeed, there are few other parts of the world where urban and industrial workers have so strenuously retained a foot in two worlds. However profoundly the structure and patterns of labor migration may have changed since the colonial period, this basic continuity in the social form of urban labor remains striking.
Times of India, March 23, 2020.
Aadhaar is a biometric scheme of unique personal identification rolled out over several years, on the basis that it facilitates the transmission of welfare to the needy. During the COVID crisis, an Aadhaar card was made mandatory for workers who wanted to access welfare payments. This in effect excluded a large proportion of those affected by the distress migration. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the largest single social welfare scheme in modern Indian history, is designed