The Coronavirus and the Great Indian Unravelling

When the coronavirus pandemic hit India around March 2020, it began a great urban unravelling. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in characteristic style, imposed a draconian nation-wide lockdown at four hours’ notice on the evening of March 24th. With the announcement, the middle-class and rich sections of India retired into their buffered and gated enclaves, virtualizing their transactional, recreational, and existential operations through social media or zoom. The elites initially lauded the measure because the specter of the virus had shockingly perforated all walls of exclusivity and social insulation. There was nothing concrete left to absolutely secure the plush apartment complex from the slum. It was thus an essential part of statutory lockdown strategies that the so-called servant classes from tenements or from the outskirts of the city in packed commuter trains be temporarily exiled from respectable homes. As a result, domestic helpers, gardeners, and chauffeurs joined day laborers, masons, street vendors and workers of sundry small and medium enterprises in an instant army of the unemployed.

The viral wave liquidated protective social cushions (property, caste, income, nutrition, medicine, or hygiene) and gave us an elemental picture—an MRI, let us say—of the underlying nature of the milieu at a rare moment when the dizzying circulations had come to a standstill. The picture presented a basic scenario of segregation and inequality: of arrested bodies and resources, of areas of secure flourishing and optimal capacities as well as those of fundamental risks and precarities. These disparities were always there, but now they threatened to become biopolitical determinants of life and death. When the lockdown was extended beyond the initially stipulated eighteen days, the vast army of migrant workers in the cities gathered their meager belongings and began what would be one of the biggest mass relocations in human history, the largest in the subcontinent since the partition of 1947. Tens of millions of people—diamond polishers from Surat, real estate workers from Calcutta, or hotel waiters in Delhi—trekked on foot or caught the rare, overcrowded vehicle to return to their native villages. The exodus threw up many images of utter despondency, death, and privation—the tired little boy sleeping on a suitcase being pulled, resting migrants mowed down by an unexpected locomotive, the fifteen-year-old who biked seven hundred miles to bring her injured father home. Construction worker Dayaram, pictured above, carried his five-year-old on his shoulders for three hundred miles across an arid landscape. (See cover image.) People like him left because wages had been stopped or stolen; they had run out of lodging money, food, and other essentials. The governmental apparatus had withdrawn almost completely. There were no moratoriums on rent, no measures to secure incomes, protect micro-industries, or to supply rations. The exodus of the city workers carried the microbe that had initially arrived in slick international airports deep into the hinterland, as the workers’ forefathers had carried the Spanish Flu about a century ago, on return from World War I.

It was primarily the informal sector of the Indian economy—that sphere of human activity that stretches from individual vending to small-scale manufacturing and services—that was disrupted. The informal sector contributed roughly half of the Indian GDP and employed a vast majority of the gargantuan Indian workforce. After the lockdown was over and production resumed, a significant percentage of workers did not return to urban India. Reversing the course of capitalist modernization, India’s labor participation in the agrarian sector increased from 42.5% in 2018-19 to 45.6% in 2019-20. This was after the heady first decade of the millennium, when around 7.7 million people had left the agricultural sector for better opportunities. This time many decided to stay back in their villages because they could not trust the city anymore and because the countryside offered the safety net of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) that ensured one hundred days of work annually in government programs. Despite repeated appeals by welfare economists, the Modi government had not extended MGNREGA to the urban poor.

A few months later, there was also that other image birthed by the second wave of COVID-19, especially between March and June of 2021. This was when breathless urban India—with around 98% unvaccinated bodies and short of medicines, ICUs, and oxygen—spat out its dead into the holy waters of the Ganges or buried them in shallow graves along the riverbank while the steel trays in electric crematoriums melted. The numbers of infections and deaths exploded in great slums like Dharavi in Mumbai where social distancing—with about 520 acres housing a million people—was impossible. The health infrastructure collapsed; education was wrecked, large sections of the middle class were severely damaged economically, and 230 million Indians slipped back into poverty by the summer of 2021. The regime in New Delhi was criminally negligent, casting the virus as a Muslim conspiracy, responding apathetically toward the marching immigrant laborers, ignoring experts and promoting caste Hindu superstitions, procuring vaccinations only with a fatal tardiness, and failing to set up oxygen plants and meet other basic infrastructural requirements in the lead up to the second .

I would like to look at the unraveled city from a genealogical perspective pertaining to third world modernities. The modern city can be understood as a metropolitan diagram of power that has historically abstracted forces, populations, spaces, and temporalities of older urban formations and fielded them into processes that we have variously and in different moments called capitalization, industrialization, financialization or techno-modernization. As such, it has aimed to disrupt and end feudal or kinship circuits of patronage and tribute and institute the circulation of value only as capital. Broadly one can say that this urban map comes into being with the movement in western societies from mercantilism to what Marx called real subsumption of capital, to the point where capital produces not just social life itself but also inducts all futurities into its transactional modes. This great transformation, as Michel Foucault (in The Birth of the Clinic or Society Must be Defended) has shown, may also be read in terms of a historical parable of the European city changing itself into a biopolitical entity to fight the microbe. We can date the first wave of these transformations from the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when cities were associated with congestion, disease, foul air, and death, to a moment more than a hundred years later, in 1900, when Western cities, for the first time in modern history, were able to grow their populations without an influx of immigrants (see Manuel de Landa, A Thousand Years of Non-linear History, 174). Europe would absorb the devastations of about half a dozen cholera pandemics in the nineteenth century, but unlike the past, it would do so without losing a third of its population, like with the Black Death of the fourteenth century, or even ten percent of it, as with small pox in the eighteenth century. The flourishing of the capitalist mode required a standing population of bodies of optimal health and longevity to consume, labor in the factories, or service the empires. The crucial point is that Europe achieved this for the most part without germ theory (which would arrive much later via Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch) and without even knowing that cholera was a waterborne disease.

Modern European society went to war against the microbe (while mistaking microbe as miasma) by reinventing the city as milieu. (See Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 21-23). The milieu is not simply a historical setting or context; in a technical sense derived from biology after Lamark and physics after Newton, it is a geometric abstraction of natural and artificial forces, in terms of alignments, mutual distances, and dynamic interactions. It is a mathematical reckoning of actions and causalities to maintain circulations of bodies, merchandise, money, water, and air, while distributing and managing risk. The modern milieu was the work of a biopolitical and governmental medical bureaucracy that was dedicated to operations of power targeting populations rather than individuals or territories. It was marked by novel modes of recording and archiving information and lateral discursive exchanges between data sets and experts; here graphs and sets of numbers would converse with other graphs and sets of numbers. The medical bureaucracy would therefore include doctors and scientists, but also statisticians, town planners, medical district officers, the police, or lawyers. The new cartography would focus on air corridors, ventilation and light supply in buildings, outlay of roads, management of bodies of water, public parks, disposal of garbage, graveyards, or new hydrographic charts that separated waterworks from sewage works. The mathematization of spaces, energies, and bodies were directed toward achieving acceptable ratios and flattening of curves that we are familiar with—birth rate contra death rate, or infection rate contra mortality rate.

In the postcolonial Indian scenario of the fifties, this statistical template involving “technicians of power” was adopted in the form of the planning commission, modern planned cities like Lutyens’s Delhi or Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, axiomatic institutions of higher learning and research, and great infrastructural, financial, medical, and heavy engineering works launched from the commanding heights of the state. The modernization question in India can thus be allegorically read in terms of a desired movement from an agrarian-feudal “Old Delhi” to “New Delhi” as an updated geometrical biopolitical milieu marked by waterworks, pollution control, sanitation works, state-of-the-art medical institutions, and a million other things. The pandemic produced shocking moments when the new vanished and the old resurfaced in spectral ways. A normative diagnosis of Western political economy and political philosophy would attribute this to a so-called incomplete or imperfect historical installation of the modern urban map in South Asia. By that logic, what the Covid pandemic dramatically exposed was the endemic deficiencies of the “underdeveloped” modern Indian milieu. The body-politic, in a sense, harbored co-morbidities. Unlike rich countries, India did not have enough money to give cash handouts to distressed citizens and protect small-scale livelihoods. There was not enough immunizing and curative material: vaccinations, beds, oxygen cylinders, drugs, doctors, trained experts, or available spaces for social distancing. I have no intention of exploring this well-worn question of the Indian city as an imperfect derivative. On the contrary, I see the Indian city as a picture of globalized neoliberal biopolitics.

In a recent book, Partha Chatterjee revisits the question of sovereignty in the age of neoliberalism and the decline of the welfare state. He considers the changing interactive dynamics and increasingly asynchronous histories of the popular sovereignty of the people-nation and a nation-state increasingly tied to a global techno-financial governmentality. Chatterjee theorizes this in relation to a political society—distinct from civil society—which becomes an arena for competing populations (rather than peoples) to negotiate with civic and legal authorities for doles, exemptions, entitlements, informal allowances, and even differentially permitted tactical illegalities. Political society therefore houses populations that historically lack the basic resources to fully enter the classic civil society arena of organized production, free trade and free legal competition. It is not a categorial outside to civil society; rather, its energies and metabolisms perpetually wrap around, percolate, and infect the latter. It features an immense range of social actors: domestic help employed with scant regard for minimum wage or work-day rules, unlicensed vendors allowed to occupy public spaces to sell their wares, and illegal or quasi-legal modes of production where labor, environmental, taxation, copyright, and safety laws are suspended. There is open pilfering of public goods like electricity and water and occupation of governmental land in the form of illegal shanties and tenements. The Gramscian “Integral State” in India (one that balances contending parties in the absence of a clear-cut bourgeois hegemony) must tolerate such masses in its passive revolutionary workings. Since they are voters, populist governments must provide them with escape clauses and key subsidies to keep them at subsistence level, without capacities to gather surplus or disturb the otherwise normative rules of circulation and private property. It was this precarious population that was compelled to march when the virus dissolved the city and the ghost of the welfare state suspended its already weak discourse of morality as well as that of calculative reason.

The current regime in India—a heady cocktail of Hindu chauvinism and neoliberal economism (see Anustup Basu, Hindutva as Political Monotheism)—prescribed strong medicine to jump-start the ailing economy and put it back on the track of “development.” It involved dismantling whatever remained of a post-independence Nehruvian socialist welfare structure and state planning. The government thus organized fire sales of public sector companies, passed a set of farm laws to corporatize the agrarian sector, and issued ordinances in several states to suspend almost all major labor laws for 1000 to 1500 days. The first, involving airports, railway assets, banks, and fiber optic cable networks, meant that apart from other things, the measure would reduce affirmative action government employment for Dalits, indigenous groups, and other marginalized people. The second triggered a massive and historic year-long protest by farmer organizations and forced the government to withdraw the farm laws before important state elections. The third, in proposing that the workday be increased to eleven-twelve hours, harkened back to the days of relative surplus value (lowering wages) and absolute surplus value (increasing work hours) that Marx noted in Dickensian England. Meanwhile the old Nehruvian parliamentary architecture was being literally knocked down in New Delhi’s Raisina Hill. An ambitious Central Vista reconstruction project in the capital—imagistic and ideological, costing almost two billion dollars—was launched and continued when the nation was struggling with shortages.

The pandemic exposed the gambit that is modern India—that is, the sheer extent and the million manners in which it is a gambit. It revealed the breathtaking magnitude of chance and statistical noise in the space between, say, the millionaires of Mumbai’s business district and the slumdogs in Dharavi next door. The latter belonged to an Indian life of “perchance” jugaad, one shock away from unemployment, jailtime, or disaster loans—daily wagers to micro-entrepreneurs, tech pirates, smugglers, or peddlers of illicit liquor. This massive slice of humanity had endured many disasters in the past, including, recently, the draconian Indian demonetization drive of 2016. This time, however, they experienced the absolute limits of creativity, endurance, and futurity.  Beyond these limits there were no “peoples”; there were only nakedly biopolitical bodies—infecting, ailing, burning, or floating. There was thus a question lurking in the chasm that the virus had opened between the immanence of the people-nation and the transcendence of the neo-liberal nation state. Is it in the interest of capital—in the age of growing automation, massive industrialization of agriculture, outsourcing, free marketing, and instant disposability of skills, practices, and forms of life—to induct entire national peoples onto its workings and ensure their preservation and security? Chatterjee reminds us that capitalism historically established itself in Western Europe by being able to manage the absolute surplus population it had generated by way of a set of fortuitous historical options: immigration to the Americas and settler colonies like Australia and New Zealand, manning overseas empires, and, indeed, pandemics and famines. Absolute surplus population is not the regular “standing army of the unemployed”; it is that critical mass of humanity that is displaced from agrarian and traditional modes of production but then cannot be absorbed into the new capitalist dispensation. The incipient presence of such a population could be glimpsed with the great march of the Indian migrant workers. It was the preview of what would happen if the general technocratic Indian class fantasy of rocketing to a five trillion-dollar GDP—by leapfrogging India to the digital economy—was realized. This breathtaking limit scenario would be that of a total corporate-capitalist techno-rationalization of the agrarian sector (on which more than half of Indians directly or indirectly depended) and the extended informal sector (providing more than three-quarters of all jobs). The question therefore is quite simple: in national theaters, how much of the “people”—as a figuration of sovereignty, virtue, freedom, and dignity—could global capital support within the parameters of its own working logic? Conversely, as it seems to be voluble—albeit in confused, schizophrenic, and often violently nativist ways across the world—how much capitalism can the “people” actually afford?

Cover image: A migrant worker carries his son as they return to their village during a nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus disease in New Delhi in March 2020. Photograph by Danish Siddiqui.

Anustup Basu

Anustup Basu is professor of English, criticism, film and media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author, most recently, of Hindutva as Political Monotheism (Duke, 2020).