Millions of India's migrant workers have faced severe hardships since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As they look to return to their old jobs, they're confronted with the grim reality of the nation's economy.
Vitthal Bhandari, a painter, recently returned to India's financial capital, Mumbai, from his village, Satara, located about 250 kilometers (155 miles) away from the city. Bhandari's main source of income is painting office spaces and individual homes.
He used to earn about 800 rupees ($10.80, €9.15) per day before the Indian government in March announced a sudden nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Now, he struggles to get work on most days. "Work at construction sites has stalled, while individual families don't allow me into their homes," Bhandari told DW.
Bhandari regrets coming back to the city: "I paid 2,000 rupees to come back to the city. I have taken several loans to support my family in the city. Back home, I used to get food at least two times a day. Now, I struggle to feed myself even once."
India is currently in the grip of an unabated pandemic, with the second-highest number of coronavirus infections worldwide. To add to the country's woes, the economy contracted by as much as 23.9% in the April-June quarter, its worst performance in at least 24 years.
There are hopes that the next quarter will witness a tentative recovery, as hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who returned to their villages after losing jobs during the lockdown slowly return to cities as more workplaces open up. But the picture remains grim for many of the jobless.
According to Sanjeev Dham, chief operating officer of the Smile Foundation, an NGO, migrant workers who are employed in the construction industry can at least come back and seek work in the city, unlike their counterparts who work in businesses that require face-to-face contact with customers.
"Back home, migrant workers are increasingly depressed with the current economic situation and suicides have increased. For a person who is operating a small vegetable shop or a juice center in the city, the situation is worse when they come back. They will have to take a pay cut. Life won't be the same for them again," Dham told DW.
Mohammad Badruzzama, a tailor, came back to Mumbai last month from the Madhubani district in the northern state of Bihar after his village was submerged by floods.
He has come back to a city where no one wants to buy the leather purses he makes. Badruzzama believes that there is a bias against workers from Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, which is why he's unable to get work.
Badruzzama's view is shared by Tayappa Bhimappa, a construction worker from the Gulbarga district in the southern state of Karnataka. Bhimappa, who stayed back in Mumbai during the lockdown, believes employers don't want to call Dharavi residents to work, as the slum reported a high number of coronavirus cases in the initial months of the health emergency.
"My former employer told me he replaced me with someone who lives close to the construction site. He said transport to the site is an issue for me, which is why I was replaced," Bhimappa told DW.
"I am out of work and relying on ration (donations) from NGOs and the government. I am not sure if I can work elsewhere as I am uneducated. I don't think about going home as the coronavirus is there too," he said.
Satyajeet Mohanty, the CSR head of Neptune Foundation, which is currently distributing ration to hundreds of migrant workers across Mumbai, told DW that many unemployed informal migrant workers are now dependent on aid from NGOs, even for food. "It's a challenge for daily-wage workers to get even two square meals in a day. They are relying on ration as their means of income," he said.
Some politicians blame businesses for not supporting their workers. Umesh Prakash Karkera, a politician with the Shiv Sena, a party that's currently part of the ruling coalition in the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located, believes some construction workers were let down by small companies in the initial stages of the lockdown, which is why they chose to go home.
"The smaller companies and contractors didn't support the workers with money, food or water in the first two months of the lockdown. The workers obviously felt that they would die without food, so they decided to go home."
'Regret going home'
The situation seems to be different for workers on the site of The Wadhwa Group, a real-estate giant. Pankaj Mondal, a worker on the site, regrets going back home as his company had, sometime after the lockdown was first imposed, provided all facilities for workers who had stayed back in the city.
"I went home as there was a lot of pressure from my family, who were panicking because of the coronavirus. I went home in a truck and it took me three days to reach home. It was just too much hassle for too little," he told DW.
Mondal said his peers who stayed back in the village are each earning around 50 rupees ($0.7) daily by working on the farm, but even they are looking to come back as the money isn't enough to feed their families.
The Wadhwa Group says it has set up isolation huts for workers coming back to the site from their villages, while basic ration like vegetables are brought into the site from chosen vendors so that workers don't venture outside the site.
"Safety measures included a hygienic place to stay, complete sanitization on-site, regular medical checkup, regular temperature check, masks, and most importantly, provision of ration and cooked food," Mukesh Jaitley, director at the Wadhwa Group, told DW. "A doctor visits the site two days a week to monitor the health situation of the workers," he added.
Back to the city – not so soon?
Still, workers are only slowly coming back to their former employers, where demand at several construction sites is greater than available labor.
Chinmay Tumbe, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIM-A), said that life hasn't changed much for workers involved in high-end construction projects, as there is still demand for higher-end housing.
"While high-income housing will continue to see demand, low-income housing will be hit hard, as purchasing power will decrease," Tumbe told DW.
By mid-August, construction work resumed in only 40% of the sites in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.
A lack of trains running to Mumbai from across the country compounds the problem for companies, as workers are finding it difficult to come back to the city. Pankaj Mondal said he had to walk 117 kilometers from his district in West Bengal to the Katihar district of Bihar to get a train back to Mumbai.
Shyam Basakhetre, a labor law consultant in Mumbai, told DW that workers are now demanding more from their employers to return to work. He pointed out that workers who are now being called back to the cities by contractors are making demands for health insurance and advance wage payments, as the fear of the pandemic and its after-effects continue to scare them.