The Invisible

Sweating in noisy power-looms,
Endlessly punching out metal washers,
Children washing pipes in acid,
Dismantling electronic waste,
Inhaling toxic fumes of furnaces,
Bent over steaming vats of fabric dye,
Loading and unloading sacks at godowns,
Carrying bricks up rickety bamboo ramps.

Working twelve-hour days with
No leave, no benefits, no job security,
They hold life and family together precariously.

They exist in our midst, keep our cities going,
Yet are invisible.

A sudden announcement
Brings the nation to a halt –
Factories, shops, trains, buses, cars.
And with it, their livelihoods too.
Not for an hour, not for a day, but
For three whole weeks.
There’s fear in the air – a new disease.
Desperate thoughts – without a daily wage, what do I do –
How do I eat, where do I live?
Will I die in this city, far away from my village?
They, the workers, are invisible.

They start their long walk home.
Without transport, without food, they walk –
The old, the young, the children,
Pregnant women,
They walk. 20, 80, 200 km.
They walk in the hundreds, in the thousands,
In hundreds of thousands.
And fill our TV screens.
Making some of us squirm,
And leaving some of us worried – what if they spread this new
Disease all over the country?

Some do not make it home, and fall by the wayside –
Hunger, exhaustion, heart attack.
We do not know who they are, says an official:
They have no documents with them.
Will they return? When?
When will our cities start functioning again?
Our industries, for whom a
Package has been announced?
Fleeting thoughts, before we wash our hands,
And sit down to dinner.

Ramani Atkuri is a public health physician based in Bhopal, who is associated with an organisation that works with migrant labour.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty