The working class are using digital technology to document their despairing experiences during the lockdown, and creating a repository of journalistic narratives and historical archives
In early May, as India’s lockdown 2 neared its end, a group of migrant workers stranded at SIPCOT Park in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, shot a video exhorting the authorities to come to their rescue. The migrants were from everywhere, including Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, and Jharkhand. All they wanted was to be heard.
“We are calling for help from our state governments. All of us labourers have worked hard to build this country. But today we are in great difficulty and we want our governments to hear us,’’ a man in a blue t-shirt and a yellow mask is heard saying, surrounded by fellow migrants. “There are at least a thousand of us here. Our only request is that you ensure all our brothers reach home.”
The video was given to the journalist Chitrangada Choudhury, who posted it on Twitter, and later included it in a scathing piece for HuffPost describing how the Indian government’s apathy had aggravated the plight of these hapless workers. The video, she says, shows “desperation”. The workers, she explains, “find themselves physically trapped in an imminently preventable tragedy. And they are trying to make their voices heard in whatever way they can.”
Another video, made by stranded Bengali migrants in April, caught the attention of the journalist Barkha Dutt, who has been on the road for over 60 days covering the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown. She tracked the labourers in the video to a construction site in Delhi’s Vishwas Nagar and aired their story on her Mojo News outlet. The labourers were unpaid, crammed in tin sheds and barred from venturing outside the compound by their supervisor. Dutt and her team were also briefly prevented from leaving the premises and asked to hand over the film containing interviews with the workers.
Over the last two months, several such videos shot by migrant workers have appeared on social media, recounting anguish at and experiences of the loss of work, lack of food, shelter and money, exploitation by contractors, impracticality of social distancing and stay home orders, and asking to be rescued.
In these extraordinary times, with the presence of journalists in the field limited, a substantial part of the news coverage of the crisis is being provided by those most affected directly by it. The subjects of the most distressing stories of the pandemic have transformed into its chroniclers. And increasingly, it’s these accounts that the mainstream media is relying on for its coverage of the pandemic and the lockdown.
By using their phones to document their own heartbreaking situation, the migrant workers have reinvented the wheel in what is known as “citizen journalism”. The stories they are telling are giving visibility and voice to their struggles, while redefining the understanding of collaborative journalism in the time of the gravest crisis of our lifetimes.
Stories like that of the labourers from Jharkhand stuck in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur asking how they would pay for a train ticket home when they did not have money for food; Mohammad Aslam’s video of fellow workers from Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, running out of rations in Mumbai; the video showing a group of 136 people from Telangana expressing their willingness to undergo tests and remain in quarantine provided they are permitted to go home from Mumbai; the story of 200 seasonal labourers from Bihar at a construction site in Delhi asking why the government had imposed the kind of lockdown that was saving the lives of one section of society while taking the lives of poor like themselves.
Then, there is the video highlighting the exploitation migrants from Orissa have had to endure in a textile company in Andhra Pradesh: they were forced by the contractor to work during the lockdown and denied wages. It was similar to the video by Shyam Sundar Khillar narrating how he and 50 other workers from Mayurbhanj in Orissa were working in Chennai, without wages.
The citizen journalist
Tejas Harad, a copy editor at the Economic and Political Weekly, points out that those engaging in citizen journalism are usually formally educated to some level or belong to a particular class. Now, though, more people from marginalised sections are using social media, because the platform is democratised and publishing is cheaper, making it an effective way of reaching a larger audience. “These videos are being shot where people are making sure to convey facts, mention their name, place and then publicising on social media, which is what citizen journalism is about.”
Chinki Sinha, a reporter with BBC, argues that this is perhaps the first time that labourers and migrants have become a big story in India. “Migrants were never the story in India, that is, they have never been invited to news studios for interviews or on panel discussions. But this is changing now, they are speaking to us directly and it’s up to the media how and where it takes the stories.”
Tales of desperation
Since the Indian government imposed a nationwide lockdown nearly two months ago – seemingly without any consideration for the situation of about 40 million internal migrants and the homeless – over 100 migrants walking hundreds of kilometres home have been crushed to death by speeding trains and vehicles. Many more have died of hunger and exhaustion.
In some cases, the desperate tales of migrants have galvanised the authorities, civil society members and NGOs to take notice and help address their problems.
In the third week of the lockdown in April, Vaibhav Jha of the Indian Express came across a video on the Gujarat police’s Twitter handle of an emaciated migrant teenager stuck in Ahmedabad. Pervez Ansari wasn’t suffering from Covid-19 but chronic tuberculosis and kidney failure, away from his family in Ranchi, Jharkhand.
The video, depicting the toll the lockdown was taking on the poor and the ailing, went viral, and Jha reported on it. The Indian Express carried Pervez’s story on the front page and, two days later, reported his death. Another report by Jha about 1,200 migrant workers being made to wait for 19 hours in blistering heat before being allowed to board a train was also pieced together from videos and photos sent to him by the migrant workers. The Gujarat High Court took suo moto cognizance of these reports, and directed the authorities to make it easier for the migrants to undertake their journeys.
Jha has authored at least five stories based on pictures and videos shot by the migrants since the lockdown. He recalled that even after demonetisation, which affected the labour class the worst, in 2016, “we didn’t receive personal accounts of the plight of people left with no money to this extent. This time there is a barrage of firsthand account videos”.
In their own voice
After six weeks of severe lockdown, the central government permitted the transport of stranded migrants. Sinha was on the ground in Delhi hoping to interview workers relieved to finally get seats on the special Shramik buses and trains. At the chaotically crowded railway and bus stations, where entry was restricted to the media, she realised that trying to conduct interviews was futile and that she was risking infection.
On the spot, she wrote down her name and phone number on a piece of paper, made small chits, and threw as many through bus windows as she could, requesting people to call her.
“At least five people called back and told me their versions of the journey back home. We decided to use their testimonies in an audio project,” Sinha says. The migrants were interviewed again, but in the final clips, one only hears the unfiltered, raw voices narrating who they are, where they were working, what jobs they did, the economic hardships they faced under the lockdown and how they journeyed to their home, alongside their profile photos.
The audio clips offer rare glimpses into the lives of these migrant workers devoid of any embellishment. “We have forgotten about the dignity of the labourers, their dreams, their work and their contribution in making modern India,” Sinha adds. “Our attempt was to present their narrative in their own voice.”
BBC also paid them as contributors for sharing their stories.
Through unfiltered frames
In Bangalore, when the Karnataka government cancelled the special trains for migrants at the urging of the builder lobby, Pradeep Kumar, 25, a construction labourer, sent a series of profile photos to a journalist. The photos show his friends, each in their colourful masks, holding a sheet of paper that reads, in poignant phrasing, “We are prisoners in the city we built. We want to go home. Bihar.” Pradip, who clicked the pictures with his RealMe smartphone, says he hoped they would go viral and prompt the authorities to help.
For days, he had run from police station to government office, filling forms and collecting information on the means to travel home. His village in Samastipur, Bihar, was 2,100 km away from the construction site in Bangalore’s Sunkadakatte and walking wasn’t an option. The contractor provided them food and some money, but was not willing to let the workers go. “It had been two months without any work and we were beginning to feel like prisoners,” he says.
Pradeep recalls the placard text was borrowed from a meme on Facebook and summarised their situation well. “All of us in our group are construction labourers, one puts plaster, another is a painter, I am in charge of putting tiles and kitchen granite tops,” he explains. “We have built many houses in this city but in this epidemic, the city closed down on us.” When Firspost spoke with him on May 15, he was on the train to Bihar and sent more photos and videos documenting the journey of his group home.
Mithilesh Dhar, a journalist with the digital media outlet Gaon Connection based in Lucknow, used unedited photos and a video sent by distressed farmer Sangram Singh in Madhya Pradesh in his report on the crash in onion prices. Singh sold his crop on May 6 for the season’s lowest price of Rs 1.5 per kg. Dhar says Singh’s visuals were compelling and offered an unadulterated view of the agrarian crisis. “Here the frames and the narratives are natural, dictated by the affected farmer. We did not alter it to fit into our pre-existing narratives.”
Recording raw memory
The cases detailed above highlight an attempt by mainstream media to amplify the voices of the marginalised communities in their coverage of the migrant crisis without hijacking their narrative or filtering their gaze. The subaltern is speaking in her own voice, recording testimonies and lived experiences, and using digital tools and new media to broadcast.
Author and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra, who studies migration and memories of people from the time of the Partition, says the migrant exodus from cities and the problems emanating from it – the fear and uncertainty among people – could be compared with the Partition, but only in visual terms. Unlike at the Partition, when the victims couldn’t document their lived experiences and capture the trauma, we now have firsthand accounts of migrants and the working class bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
The video and audio clips and photos made by the migrants are creating raw memories, she adds. “The data is unfair to the lived experience. When the plague hit India in 1896, the mass evacuation of people from the villages into camps was being done without the poor having a clear understanding of what was happening,” she explains. “This unclarity is present during the current pandemic as well. The poor suffered the most then as they are suffering now.”
Malhotra notes that the firsthand testimonies are building an archive of lived experiences from the ground up, the purpose of which is to ensure we don’t repeat this in future calamities. “History is cyclical and this is why the records of firsthand accounts are important,” she says. “What will we use this experience for? Will we learn from it, change our policies? Or help them in some way after listening to their plight or turn a blind eye? These are the questions we must ask of ourselves.”