When the time comes for South Asia to look back at this year’s astonishing disruptions, the biggest story won’t be coronavirus, because the contagion will be behind us by then.
Much greater and more lasting impact will come from the massive de-peopling of our cities, as untold millions of migrant workers have already decamped. When lockdown lifts, even more will go.
This signal moment marks the end of processes that seemed irreversible. The sub-continent has only urbanized-from 10% of the population in 1901 to over 30% in 2001. If the dense, concretized sprawls beyond municipal boundaries are included, over 60% of us are city dwellers.
Whichever way you measure growth (area, population, economy), the majority of the world’s fastest growing cities are in the sub-continent. According to The Economist’s most recent survey, three are in Kerala alone (this anomaly is probably because the southern Indian state reports numbers reliably, while others fudge).
Lockdown guillotined the growth. Hundreds of millions have seen livelihoods disappear, with inadequate accommodations made for their welfare. They’re told to remain strictly indoors, but in living conditions that are highly vulnerable to coronavirus. Thus, calculating correctly that the state will do little for them, the workers want to leave.
The case of Surat is illustrative. Gujarat’s commercial capital was projected to be the fastest growing city in the world until 2035. But now workers have rioted repeatedly, demanding to go home. It’s unlikely they will come back.
Future historians will say this moment of reckoning was inevitable. South Asians had become unconscionably inured to condemning huge numbers of their own people to the worst and most unsustainable living conditions on the planet. As 2020 began, 25 of the most polluted cities in the world were in our region (21 in India alone). What is more, at least 20 Indian cities-including the national capital of New Delhi-will run out of groundwater this summer.
These are potentially survivable conditions for elites (who will take care of themselves) and the middle class (because our governments will endeavour to deliver for them). But for the 85% majority that comprises the informal sector in India alone, they’re a death sentence. This is why so many people-soon to outstrip Partition numbers by orders of magnitude-have taken responsibility for themselves by taking to their feet.
Even while it’s readily apparent this exodus is the most important dimension of the coronavirus emergency, the media has struggled to do it justice. One notable exception is the veteran anchor Barkha Dutt (in 2017 she left mainstream television, and now runs Mojo, her own digital channel).
Every day, over the past month, she has tirelessly covered the story on the highways, and online, including to over 7 million Twitter followers. The barrage worked. Earlier this week, the Home Ministry finally relented to allow relatively safer large-scale return for migrants.
Dutt told me she was compelled to persist where others did not because, “my former medium -- which is national television-totally flunked this story. I was appalled by this journalistic abdication by mammoth media organizations. We are talking about millions of Indians being judged as if they were the perpetrators, instead of the victims. It just made me so angry.”
A pioneer of Indian television news, who rose to stardom after covering Kargil battlefields in 1999, Dutt told me: “I have reported war, conflict, insurgencies from the front line, and this figures right alongside in the breathtaking scale of its tragedy. In some ways, it has been even tougher -- the greatest mass exodus since the Partition, and yet rendered invisible. I had to work doubly hard, physically and emotionally, to go out there, walk with the migrant workers, and get people to care about them. I definitely draw some satisfaction from the fact that our relentless coverage did finally have an impact.”
To get some perspective on Dutt’s achievements over the past month, I wrote to Patricia Mukhim, the indomitable veteran editor of Shillong Times in Meghalaya, and member of the executive committee of the Editor’s Guild of India.
Mukhim responded: “Every once in a while we see a committed journalist pursuing the path of the true scribe -- that gives the agency of voice to the voiceless. It goes beyond the cacophony of television debates, and brings readers and leaders face to face with what is often the ugly truth they would rather not know about.
“In this crisis, Barkha Dutt has been that soul of journalism, stepping out of the comfort zone of the TV studio to empathize with those most affected by Covid19 -- the migrant labourers who lost their jobs, their hope, and their dignity, by having to walk thousands of miles. Such journalism is what keeps our hopes alive.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.