While we hide in our homes, highways are full of bodies defying the regime, walking bereft of any rights and dignity. They are the migrant labourers of the nation. They are the reserved army of the labour. They are the Shudras of the caste system. They are the Promethean, the archetypal worker who has no survival without work.
A long time ago, Jonathan Swift, in a satirical piece, put forth A Modest Proposal to relieve the economic problems of the workers. The proposal can be used to resolve the crisis of migrant workers. But is that a solution?
Ousted by their employees, disowned by the State and knocked down by the landlords, these people are running out of the cities as one runs for life. Harassed by the police and the local authorities, they have been detained like dreaded criminals and treated like slaves. Left with no support, they are walking to the villages with the hope that villages will not let them die. Abducted by the State, locked up without food, disinfected with the dangerous chemicals and now getting mowed down by the trains, trucks and lorries, it looks as if a gangster has taken over the supposedly democratic regime—the migrant labourers are citizens who have become stateless in days.
While the world fears the disease pandemic, they fear hunger and starvation. Unsafe, thirsty, tired, they have no option but to walk. They know the city and its civility, its casteist civic sense that makes them dirt. They are miscreants.
They are the figures of suspicion. They become criminals after every crime, and thieves after every theft. Their feet blistering under the heat of the sun; the workers of the world are walking. Pregnant women are pulling their bodies and walking. The young ones who dreamt a new life in the city are walking.
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Democracy has become a joke at the expense of the life of these workers. They came to the cities to find a livelihood. They are running out of the cities to save their lives. They are walking home, where hunger is already awaiting.
A few days ago, it was Mothers’ Day. Shakuntala delivered her baby on the roadside and walked. Her walk transposed the memory of the epic Shakuntala. The same story; the same question. How many times will Shakuntala be betrayed? How many times will she be displaced? How many times she will be thrown out of the city. This Shakuntala was lucky and walked with her baby in Satna in MP. But Saroj Bai walked out after the death of her son, who died due to lack of treatment. Pulling the little empty cart of her son, she walked as Brecht’s Mother Courage is walking. There was no Charudatt or Vasantsena from Mrichchhkatika to put gold in the cart. The classics were torn apart.
Civilization put to shame. Jamlo Makdam, the 12-year-old Adivasi girl, died just a few kilometres away from home. Death track was no longer a metaphor of music; it was the only track left for the workers to walk. Was it a pitiful accident, or was it a state-ordered crime? Betrayal would be a mild term to use for this open bigotry of the nation. It is the fascism in its rawest form that writes off the debt of its favourite corporate oppressors and reduces the workers to nothing short of cogs in a slave-run machine. The pandemic has proved that the emperor is naked. He has no clothes, even if he cares so much for displaying his robes.
It was a similar situation in which Jonathan Swift wrote his chilling satire, A Modest Proposal in 1729. The proposal aimed to prevent the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden on their parents or country. It was for making them beneficial to the public. Swift submitted that the poor Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to rich gentlemen and ladies. He writes, “a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.” He offered to the public consideration, “that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for the breed… which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine.” The piece proposes “those who are more thrifty may flay the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.”
So, what should be a modest proposal for migrant workers in India? How to deal with the excess and burden of the economy? We propose that the nation should immediately take a few drastic steps before it loses the march to the three trillion economy. First and foremost, takes away all support from these workers. They may develop a dependency on support mechanisms, laziness. They may be treated freebies like public universities. Let them realize that the nation is not a ration shop; it runs on the taxpayers’ money. Shut everything for them, from hospitals to trains. Force them to leave the cities if they cannot manage their lives in the pandemic. Drive them to such desperation that they take their own lives. But the problem with the BIMARU migrants is that they don’t commit suicide like the farmers of Vidarbha. The modest proposal advocates that they should have accidental deaths. Every death has to be an accidental, a blameless and sinless death. Kill them accidentally, so no one is to be blamed. It should be a clean murder of ‘unclean’ people. Even if some workers and armies have to be killed, the nation should term it as a sacrifice. When migrant workers can be easily killed, by hunger, the police or even lorries, there is no point in appointing murders.
The State should not expend a bullet to kill a migrant worker whose price is less than a bullet. We will keep the weapons for the bigger enemy, the M. The State should consider workers bodies as booty. As soon as a body falls, the police should collect it. Packed in special trains, bones and flesh split from the body should be immediately frozen. They should be offered to our hungry leaders as soon as the houses open. The flesh of the young, who could have been rebels, should be methodically roasted. Food should be prepared in the fire of ghee and sandalwood. It shouldn’t look like a meal; it should appear like a Vedic sacrifice.
The Ministry of Welfare should check with the corporate whether they would prefer baked or boiled pieces of the liver. They must have become ravenous in the lockdown. They should just rip out the liver of the labour as the Caucasian Eagle of Zeus who will feed upon the liver of Prometheus. All the big corporates should act as butchers because they have the experience of cutting the body into size and packaging and branding them for sale.
Remember that though demeaned, they are the precious body of the labour, the real source of the capital. No part should be spared. The headpieces should be sent to the headquarters. They should be displayed among dignitaries. The exhibition should become part of every corporate seminar on labour laws. In the light of artificial emotional intelligence, the eyes should be used for the purpose of surveillance on the workers themselves— the self-attendance. The ears and tongues should be chopped to be offered at the temple of freedom of expression.
The body should be properly skinned. And the skins should be sent to the judges who will wrap their law books in them. The curator argues that ‘a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.’
Swift has shown that poor children make good wholesome food. The children below five can be used as appetite stimulants for the ultra-rich. Finally, the earnings generated from the sale of meats should be sent to the SELF-CARES Fund. As proposed by a Ministry, the stockpiles of grains can be used for making hand wash liquids and sanitizers. Every time you deal with migrant workers, wash your hands and sanitize them as criminals do after every killing.
This is a short term proposal. Our long term proposal should be more purposive. Capitalism has acquired emotional intelligence. It means it can love; it can cry; it can invest in love and cry. It is not because of its humanity but because of its sheer profit; it won’t be interested in even killing the children of beggars. It would rather have them crippled to be invested in sentimental capitalism. Workers are more profitable living than dead. Therefore, a long term modest proposal for the workers cannot be more modest than the figure of Prometheus Bound. The character who is credited with the creation of humanity from clay. One who stole the fire from heaven and defied the authority.
One who remains chained to the rock and punished for his act. Every day a giant eagle sent by Zeus feeds on his liver. Every day the liver grows in the night. It is the repetition in which capitalism survives.
We would like to submit this modest proposal for the consideration of the government, corporate and riches of the nation. But our submission is also that we already have an extremely humble model in practice. That is: Keep ripping apart the liver of the workers. Pause…Plunge…Grate…Move. Let it grow. Keep it repeating like the dance of death.
( Views expressed are that of the writer )