Shekhar Gupta: White-collar, blue-collar, no-collar

We usually classify the working classes based on the colour of the collars they wear: White-collar and blue-collar. The tragic, startling and continuing drama on our highways has woken us up to the existence of a third category of our working classes. Let’s call them the collar-less workers.

Why collar-less, you might ask. And with good reason. I would suggest, therefore, that picture all the hundreds of people you might see in the course of one day, making our lives possible, safe, comfortable.

 
Those loading and unloading bricks, cement and steel from trucks. Hauling bricks and mortar at construction sites. Those ironing our clothes on the corners of our neighbourhoods, tending to our gardens, pulling our rickshaws, fetching and carrying, cutting our hair, frying halwais.

 
How often do you see them actually wearing a shirt while working? Shirts are cumbersome in their jobs. So, they often take them off and work in the usual ‘baniyans’ (singlets) or worn out tees.

But their shirtless backs do not make the jobs no less important. You can’t do without them. With the barbers away, for example, even the prime minister’s moustache is hanging longer by the day. Check out the pictures from his various speeches and public appearances. We miss our pressraddi’ wala, even the rag-picker.

This third category of working classes that we somehow thought was invisible thus far is much more numerous than the other two, collared classes. We’ve not been noticing these workers because they are so meshed in our lives, we take them for granted. And because they were silent. They are the ones now speaking up and making their presence felt.

Illustration by Binay Sinha

 
So many carry their children, in one case, outside Agra even one hanging on a suitcase, though you can be sure no Samsonite has built wheels yet to survive a 500-km “walk”. Some carry old parents on their shoulders, obviously strong from life-long physical labour as the collar-less backbone of India’s economy.

Some deliver babies on the way, and some die. Run over by speeding trucks and trains, or felled by sickness. Read the story by ThePrint’s Jyoti Yadav and Bismee Taskin, for example, of Ram Kripal, 68, who travelled 1,600 km in a truck over four days from Mumbai to reach home in Sant Kabir Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, and collapsed just as he got close (https://theprint.in/india/68-year-old-migrant-worker-travels-1600-km-to-up-dies-30-km-from-home-tests-covid-positive/420903/). He was thirsty, exhausted, just done with it. Tested only after his death, he was also positive for coronavirus.

The good thing is, having discovered this missing Indian working class, we all want to help. The bad thing is we still get it all wrong. That is because we still do not understand who they are. Let’s for a test run a little quiz among ourselves on who these tens of millions are.

They are very poor people obviously, we will say. They are hungry, homeless, unemployed, with no incomes, no shoes, blistered feet, hopeless poor things. Children of a lesser God, somebody is bound to pull that out too. They are running back home in ignorance and panic. If only they were smart enough to know they might be safer in the cities, and so on. 

We are all wrong. And it is because we understand them all wrong, our solutions are worse. Take food packets, collect used clothes, feel sorry for them, rant on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. “I am so heartbroken” while talking about this never-ending exodus is an expression used as often now as “this deadly coronavirus”. This is how you spell hypocrisy.

If you’d only stop and speak with any of these retreating workers and ask them what they were doing in the city, and what they were earning for it, you will know how wrong you were. A worker who does purely physical labour, like loading and unloading trucks, earns anything from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 a day. Of course, their working day isn’t necessarily eight hours. But that’s not why he/she came to the city.

This is for the category we unfortunately classify as “unskilled workers”. Anyone with a bit of training and skill, a tailor, a barber, mason, carpenter, and so on would earn a lot more. They aren’t exactly destitute, hungry and helpless people lucky to get three meals a day.

Most of them, in fact almost all of them, did not leave their villages because they were starving. They came here looking for better lives.

Migration within the country, from village to the city, from any city to a metro is as much an aspirational urge as an engineer hunting for that H1B visa and that holy grail of a Green Card, or what, especially in our southern states’ matrimonial bazaar, is called a GC. Saves words and money in a matrimonial ad, you see.

What a GC is to our middle-class children and children-in-law-to-be, a Rs 600-per shift manual labourer’s job is for the child of a marginal, subsistence farmer from deep inside western Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. They did not come to the cities to escape hunger, deprivation, and destitution.

Ask them, with patience, not pity, why they came here. What did they do with the money they earned? The answers you should get are on the lines of the following: To improve the quality of life for my family, children and myself. To have some surplus, which I save each day to send home, so my kids can go to a better school.

The millions you see going back are no beggars. They are a wonderful new generation of aspirational, working-class Indians whose pride and self-esteem have now been so rudely punctured. This is the greatest mass humiliation of India’s most hard-working millions in decades.

They are the builders of our booming economy, generators of surpluses, contributors to our demographic talent pool that improves by the day as they educate their children with that one dream the people of every resurgent nation and society have: My children should live a life better than mine. In the country whose GCs our children vie for, this is called living the American Dream.

Narendra Modi and his government are hurting. They know they dropped this ball. The images and voices speak out to them from all corners of India, especially the Hindi heartland, where their voters are.

They also read them wrong in believing that all they needed was a little money in their accounts and immediate succour. They miss the point that this sudden, shock-and-awe lockdown so thoroughly failed to take the fate of these millions into account that their lives are completely disrupted. It is this collar-less working class that fell between the cracks as the Lutyens’ bureaucracy gamed this lockdown.

And to know how wrong we get this, check out the security guard outside your house. They man the pad-locked gates of your colony, shooing away “unauthorised” visitors, on behalf of Middle India’s equivalent of Kim Jong un, the Residents Welfare Association (RWA). Why are they not walking back home with these hordes? Aren’t they concerned about their families, panicking about the virus? Aren’t they poor?

They are all of that, and yet stay put because their wages are assured and they understand they came to the city to take their families a step up in life. Almost all of them work double shifts and live a dozen to a room and save to send home. The difference is, their employers haven’t dumped them. If only this had been ensured for the rest just for a few weeks, many millions of Indians would have been saved this trauma, and India this global embarrassment.

By Special Arrangement with ThePrint


Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel