Most days, you can find Dayaram Kushwaha and his wife, Gyanvati, hauling bricks for stonemasons in a booming northern suburb of New Delhi. They bring their 5-year-old son, who plays in the dirt while they work.
But now a hush has come over the clattering construction site, silenced by India’s nationwide order to shelter in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Site managers no longer come to the intersection where Dayaram and many others stand, hoping to pick up work.
And so, with no way to feed his family or pay the rent, Dayaram hoisted his son Shivam onto his shoulders and began to walk to the village where he was born, 300 miles away.
He tried not to worry about what would happen once he got there, with empty pockets instead of the money he usually sent home to help support those left behind. At least he would have a home.
By dusk on the second day, Dayaram and around 50 others from his extended family had reached a deserted expressway running south out of the capital.
The family were hungry, thirsty and tired, and the police were never far away. Every time they stopped to rest, officers would shout at them to keep moving in single file, to maintain distance from one another to avoid spreading the virus. Officers are under orders to enforce the lockdown, but on that day they were allowing people to move.
Dayaram, 28, looked around. Thousands of other migrant workers were doing the same thing, in one of the biggest mass movements of people in the country since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
It began to rain. Dayaram’s thoughts turned to his other son, 7-year-old Mangal, who had been left behind in the village with elderly relatives because it was too hard to care for two children while he and his wife worked. He missed him. In the middle of a pandemic, there was one consolation: “At least I will be with him.”
PUSH AND PULL
For decades, villages across India have been emptying out. To many people, the decision is one of simple arithmetic: to earn Rs 400 per day instead of Rs 200 back home. In areas like the parched Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh state, home to Dayaram’s ancestral village, living off the land has become increasingly difficult as rainfall recedes.
Others seek something more abstract: the prospect of escape that pulls anyone toward a big city. But after the shutdown, the cities themselves began to empty. Dayaram and his family were among the first to move. As the days went on, and the situation became more desperate, hundreds of thousands of migrants emerged from factories and workplaces in search of a way home.
Indian officials say the shutdown is necessary to beat coronavirus in the densely populated country of over 1.3 billion people, with a health infrastructure that can ill afford a widespread outbreak.
But for Dayaram and many of India’s estimated 140 million migrant labourers, the epidemic is much more than a threat to their health – it endangers their very economic survival.
Migrants are the backbone of the urban economy. Construction workers such as Dayaram are a necessity for India’s rapidly expanding cities. Others clean toilets, drive taxis and deliver takeout. They predominantly earn daily wages, with no prospect of job security, and live in dirty, densely populated slums, saving money to send back home.
That money is essential to the young and elderly left behind in villages. Around $30 billion flows from urban to rural areas in India each year, according to government and academic estimates.
Now that infusion of money, transferred through rural banks or in worn stacks of rupees borne home on rare visits, has come to a halt.
TURN BACK TIME
The journey from New Delhi deep into rural India is one not just of distance, but of travelling back in time. Skyscrapers and well-paved toll roads give way to fields of wheat and okra. Bare-backed men till the land with buffalo; an elderly shepherd herds his goats down a dusty lane.
After four days of walking and hitching lifts on a series of goods trucks, Dayaram, Gyanvati and Shivam reached their family’s two-room concrete hut in Jugyai, a farming village of 2,000 people.
In a dingy room in the house filled with sacks of grain and clothes, an unframed poster hangs on the wall. It depicts a handsome red-roofed house on a lake, sun setting behind snow-capped mountains. A pair of mallard ducks fly overhead.
“I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other,” it says. Though he can’t read the English text on the poster, Dayaram agrees with the sentiment. He misses this village that can no longer sustain him.
“It’s not that I love Delhi,” he said. “I need the money to survive. If we had it, we would have stayed here. This is home.” His mother, 53-year-old Kesra, is more practical. She too had gone to New Delhi with her family, leaving the village behind.
“Home is wherever the family is,” she said. “At least in Delhi there is money to buy food.” But now they are all back, and there is no money to buy food. Making it even worse, suspicion is never far away. The returnees must deal with new prejudice from villagers who used to be their friends.
“I am scared,” said Sai Ram Lal, a neighbour who works in a soybean-oil factory here. “It was spreading in Delhi, and I am worried that they have brought it here. We keep our distance. We don’t interact with them like we used to before.” For Dayaram, that has left him an outsider in his own village.
“WE ARE LIKE GARBAGE”
The Bundelkhand region is famous for the towering 16th century sandstone temples and mausoleums of nearby Orchha. It has its own distinct culture, and young men still listen to high-tempo music in the local Bundeli language on their mobile phones.
The region used to get up to 35 inches of rain per year, according to the India Meteorological Department, but over the last decade, that has almost halved.
For many of the villagers, who have traditionally earned their living farming, it is a slow-motion disaster, forcing most able-bodied men and women to migrate in search of work.
It is early April, and even before the full onset of the fierce Indian summer, where temperatures climb toward 50 degrees Celsius, or 120 Fahrenheit, the air is already uncomfortably dry.
In a neighbouring village where the majority of Dayaram’s extended family lives, two dozen men stood idling by the road. Only one, 62-year-old Lal Ram, has never been to Delhi. “I had some money, so I never went,” he said with a shrug.
He’s also the only one with a ration card, a sore point for those who migrated to Delhi. The Targeted Public Distribution Scheme allows India’s poorest to purchase 5 kilograms of subsidized grains per month each. But because the migrant workers are no longer permanent residents, they’re left without access to the food doled out from a nearby grain silo.
“Nobody listens to us,” one of the men said bitterly. “We are like garbage.”
Harshika Singh, the top government official in the district where both villages lie, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the migrants’ case.
The family’s return this month coincided with harvest of the winter wheat crop. One morning, after a night on a rope-strung bed under the light of the pink supermoon, Dayaram put on a shirt ripped at the left armpit and headed to a nearby field.
His sons trailed behind, picking unripe berries from a bush. Shivam, wearing the same faded shirt in yellow checks as when he left New Delhi, put his hand on his elder brother’s shoulder.
Dayaram, Gyanvati and three other relatives began cropping stalks by hand with well-worn scythes. After three days there, harvesting almost a ton of wheat, they received no payment – just 50 kilograms of the crop to take to the village flour mill.
The family’s basket of lumpen potatoes would last a week. When that ran out, they would have to survive on bread alone.
But soon, Dayaram said, he would be forced to borrow again from local money lenders, charging interest at 3% a month – a rate that can quickly spiral into unpayable debts.
Dayaram worries that the shutdown will end any hope of providing his children with an education. “No parent wants their child to work as a labourer,” he said. But there is no alternative, he said: “They will have to do what I have done.”
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