Pandemic highlights major policy gap: Citizenship crisis as a subset of coronavirus crisis

By Savi Soni*

Crisis situation of today is compelling to think about the policy gap existing with regard to the internal migrants — the urban poor. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some very crucial issues and one of those is the policy vacuum in the arena of internal migrants. The struggle of internal migrants bring to the forefront the inconsistencies not only with regard to policies but also reflect the weak fabric of citizenship in India.

The question of internal migrants is crucial to think about the struggles around citizenship in India. As Arjun Appadurai and James Holston in their work “Cities and Citizenship” argue, “Cities remain the strategic arena for the development of citizenship”. Restricting citizenship to merely a process of territorial belonging implies silencing of the internal inconsistencies in it arising out of the inequalities in the system.

Proliferation of homelessness faced by internal migrants in the cities despite their formal citizenship status has raised question on the fabric of citizenship practice in India. What does being “a citizen” of a nation-state entail? What are the limits of formal citizenship status? The limits of formal citizenship status become evident with the “lived experiences of the citizenship” as Anupama Roy in one of her seminal works on citizenship, “Mapping Citizenship in India”, argues.

The lockdown period has highlighted the issue in a big way but it is to be questioned if the figure of urban migrant has emerged only now. Probably not, so what is different about it this time? What is the reason behind this shift in the pendulum of government attention, which has moved from completely neglecting it to calling for prompt policy action?

Definitely, pandemic has called for prompt action by all the states in the country. Apart from this, the current crisis faced by migrants which has compelled them to be on the streets (at a time when it can be life threatening), due to lack of secure housing and other social security measures reflects the silence of the government in an issue of this magnitude.

Firstly, the period of pandemic has highlighted the denial of basic rights such as housing, food and other basic amenities to the urban poor. Even before this period, these everyday struggles around basic rights of housing, water, food, electricity and sanitation prevailed but the magnitude of it was never revealed in the eyes of the public. Pandemic period has revealed the crucial link between right to life and livelihood opportunities along with the nature of work. The nature of work and security of the urban poor is now being questioned.

Secondly, it is a crucial time to think about the significance of numbers. The issue of urban poor would not have created an impact that it has now been able to create if it lacked numbers. Scholars such as Anupama Roy and Veena Das have long traced links between the urban poor and the political parties. For instance, Shakur Basti, a slum settlement located in West Delhi is one prominent example where the residents have been voting for AAP since the Assembly election of 2013.

So, slums are called unplanned settlements by the government but slum settlements and other “illegal” settlements were still surviving which implies that they were allowed. This was because of the political convenience of the government which make the residents trade their vote for maintaining the status quo of their slums or for ameliorating their social security rights. The residents of these settlements do not understand the value of their vote for the political futures. This was the concealed politics of the urban poor and the government which might undergo a reform post the pandemic period.

Thirdly, miserable condition of urban poor, and now the fight of the states over taking care of migrants from “their states” (natives) has come up in a big way. For instance, reimbursement bill sent by Delhi government to Chief Minister of Bihar for the travel of migrants from Delhi is merely one such tussle taking place between the states. This is reflective of the weak practice of federalism in the country as states are behaving not in cooperation with each other but as individual entities. The urban poor crisis in India is coloured with the tendency of a refugee crisis.

Lastly, till now, everyday struggle of the residents of “illegal” settlements for basic amenities was restricted to their colonies. Their entrenched politics in their everyday fight for survival and for claiming socio-economic citizenship rights, such as politics of exchanging votes in return for securing survival needs was not so pertinent. This politics helped them survive but it also contained the mass mobilization of the community of urban poor to claim their rights. In the time of COVID-19, they have been forced to demand the basic rights in an unprecedented manner by organising themselves.

It is high time for the government to shift them from the zone of “paralegal” to a zone of adequate and secure housing. Lockdown has revealed the significance of housing in terms of physical aspects of it but significance of housing closely impinges on one’s social world. Housing enables the citizens to engage in a more participatory and active citizenship rather than reducing citizenship to a “statistical” (numbers) fact as the prominent Indian Anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai argues.

In a poor migrant’s case of right to housing, it is socio-economic citizenship which can ensure right to life and right to livelihood. Formal citizenship is worthless in an environment where shelter and livelihood is in a precarious condition. But, achieving the goal of social citizenship is a movement in itself which makes it contingent upon the relations between the state and the community in question.

The decisions with regard to internal migrants will be emanating from political compulsions post the pandemic because sadly, political colour to an issue is reflective of its value for the government and hence ensures speedy policy action. Michael Munger, Director of the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University. in his article “Unicorn Governance” aptly indicates the intertwined nature of governance and politics by arguing that the normative of “what the state should do” should always be thought as what the “politicians running in the electoral system” should do.

MA Law, Politics and Society, School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, Ambedkar University, Delhi

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