New Delhi: At 7 a.m. every day, Vala Ram Gameti, 32, sets off from his home at Koviya village in southern Rajasthan to the nearest market, about 3 km away. He takes an hour for the day's prep--chopping onions, carrots, cabbage, and stewing sauces. By 9 a.m., he pulls up the shutters of Bankyarani Chinese Corner, "the first-ever Chinese food stall in the area" as he proclaims it to be. He set it up after losing his job as a cook in a fast-food restaurant in Gujarat and returning home in March, when a national lockdown was announced.

Gameti is one of estimated 10.5 million migrant workers who returned to villages after the national lockdown, according to data submitted by the government in parliament. More than half a year after the reverse migration from cities during the lockdown, how are migrant workers coping?

In a three-part series on how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted livelihoods, we examine how workers are adapting to the changing circumstances. In this first part of the series, we look at workers who have stayed back in villages, focusing on southern Rajasthan. The state has reportedly witnessed the return of 1.3 million migrant workers, engaged mainly in construction, manufacturing, daily wage and hospitality sectors. In the next, we will report from Odisha on workers who have returned to cities. In the final part, we will explore how the lives of women have changed due to the pandemic in Uttar Pradesh.

Of those workers who have stayed back in villages, most are waiting to go back to cities but have not found employment there yet. They are expecting the situation to change after Diwali, IndiaSpend found in the course of numerous interviews. Some said they are still fearful of the novel coronavirus, so they do not want to go back but to earn their livelihood at home instead. Although it is too early to analyse how this will change the nature of work in the long term, two trends are clear: workers are being forced to change their trade out of desperation and some were learning new skills; returnee migrants are setting up small enterprises in rural areas to provide services thus far only available in cities.

A yet-to-be-published study by Aajeevika Bureau, which visited five districts in southern Rajasthan in April and May to survey 426 migrant workers who had returned home from different parts of the country, found the workers facing multiple vulnerabilities. Many had large families to support, but only one working member was in paid employment per family. The lockdown had left the workers jobless and cashless, and many had not been paid their last wages, the survey found.

By the end of April, 57% of workers said, they had no money left at all; 22% said they were down to their last Rs 100-500, forcing them to take out loans even to meet their basic needs. About 38% reported they had received no help from the government such as food and ration during the lockdown. With no regular work currently and little government support, 69% of workers said they wanted to get back to the cities to work, the survey found.

"The unavailability of work for a long time will reduce the worker's available resources which might ultimately affect their bargaining power and mobility," the study predicted, adding, "In the absence of resources, the workers might not be able to return to the city or take a credit on high-interest rates and get trapped in the debt trap. This also will highly impact the bargaining power of the workers who will be accepting the wage lesser than they deserve."

'City life is tough'

Gameti had worked in a restaurant in Vapi for more than a decade. When the lockdown was announced, the restaurant shut down and he was not paid for the month. He made his way back to his village along with two of his brothers who worked with him. They took a bus to the Rajasthan border and then walked for two days to their village of Koviya. After the lockdown was eased in June, his brothers returned to Vapi but he decided he had had enough of city life.

"The city was very difficult," said Gameti, now home with his wife, three daughters and his parents. "My employer refused to increase my wages. I would worry about my family. I feel safer here and there is less chance of falling ill." In August, he opened the food stall with aid from Aajeevika Bureau, a Rajasthan-based non-governmental organisation that supports migrant workers. He used to earn Rs 13,000 a month in Vapi while the Chinese stall makes close to Rs 1,000 a day and on some days a little more--which he finds quite satisfactory. Besides, he likes working for himself. "Main high level ka Chinese banata hun [I make top quality Chinese food]," he said.

Men from Gameti's village, which falls in a tribal zone, have traditionally engaged in rasoi work across India, mostly in Gujarat. The southern Rajasthan-Gujarat migration corridor provides workers for three sectors: construction, textiles, and small hotels and restaurants. A research paper from 2018 found that the adivasi community of southern Rajasthan was subject to "super-exploitation" in Gujarat where employers take advantage of their historically low socio-economic conditions, which perpetuates the community's disadvantaged position across generations, even when they have jobs.

Between early April and the end of May, over 1.3 million workers returned to the districts of Udaipur, Dungarpur, Sirohi, Jalore, Nagaur, Barmer and Bikaner, according to the Rajasthan government's Labour Employment Exchange portal.

Workers forced to change trade

After the lockdown, workers from this region were either out of work or forced to take up any work that came their way. Many had found the cities more hostile than before.

Parta Ram, 33, from Ajaypura, not far from Gameti's Koviya village, has worked in hotels and restaurants for nearly 25 years. When the lockdown was announced, Ram, along with 35 men from his village, was employed as a cook at a school in Chotta Udaipur in eastern Gujarat. He was not paid his wages when he returned home during the lockdown, and has not found any steady work since. He said he had invested his life's savings of Rs 2.5 lakh to install a tubewell in his farm before the pandemic. With no savings and no work coming his way, he could barely meet his daily expenses. He found work for a few days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and at private construction sites, earning Rs 100 to 200 a day, which is lower than the minimum wage rate of Rs 225 for unskilled workers in Rajasthan.

Rajasthan accounted for 6.57 million of 60 million households that have availed MGNREGS since April this year. This was the second most, after Uttar Pradesh's 8 million households. There were gaps in implementation, the wages paid were below the daily wage stipulation, work was stalled and supervisors pilfered material and money, according to labour rights groups. These issues have been noted across the country.

"MGNREGS has been a shock absorber in the post-lockdown period," said P.C. Kishan, state commissioner for MGNREGS in Rajasthan. "We employed 5.4 million persons per day in the month of June this year, compared to 3 million last year in the peak months of summer. The state has revised its budget from 300 million person days for this year to 370 million. We are anticipating more demand for MGNREGS in January and February, since migration has started but only in certain sectors and people are on the brink of poverty. We will revise the budget again to 400 million person days," he added.

However, the situation is worsening as MGNREGS work has dwindled since August, said Saloni Mundra, a knowledge and programme support executive at Aajeevika Bureau: "When the workers returned in April and May, they came back without any wages. Some found work under MGNREGS and at the local level between June and July. But from August onwards that work has depleted." A lot of workers have changed their trade out of desperation, she said--those who worked in textiles or hotels were taking up work in construction, a sector that has picked up while others had shrunk.

This shift in occupation has been noticed across the country. A report on the impact of COVID-19 on the urban poor conducted in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region by the non-governmental organisation Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) said, "Some skilled workers reported shifting to other unskilled work in an attempt to earn. Those who have gone back to their villages to farm reported being unable to do so. In such situations the dependence on state provided welfare is high."

Workers have had to adapt due to loss of income, said Marina Joseph, associate director at YUVA. "Those who did skilled work in a sector like construction like plumbing or electrician would have moved to lifting and loading," she said, "Many others have taken up street vending."

"Diamond cutting in Gujarat employs a large number of youth from Rajasthan and these are skilled workers who are paid good wages; [they] are taking up unskilled work like loading and unloading to earn a few hundred rupees a day," said Madan Vaishnav, a field officer at the workers' rights collective, Centre for Labour Research and Action.

"It is a process of deskilling," said S Irudaya Rajan, an expert on migration at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala. "As we get closer to Diwali, sustaining livelihood in rural areas will become more challenging as people will borrow money for spending during the festive season." The government needs to recognise the crisis and make direct cash transfers to the bank accounts of those who have lost their jobs to help them tide over this period, so that the workers are not compelled to return immediately to cities, where they could face exploitation given the state of the economy.

Forming cooperative societies where groups of migrant workers come together could be a way for them to protect their rights and to develop their services, as most development economists have recommended.

In August, Ram, the cook from Ajaypura, was offered work at Mundra, a port town in Gujarat. When he reached there with 27 men from his village, they realised that the contractor had misled them. They had been promised work in a utensils factory, but on reaching there they found that the factory manufactured iron pipes. They had to work 12-hour shifts loading and unloading pipes. "We are not trained for this work, each pipe was almost 50 kg," said Ram, adding, "I felt my body was breaking. We returned to our village in three days." Before the pandemic, loading and unloading, work that is considered hazardous, was handled mostly by migrants from Bihar.

Ram is back in his village now, tending to his maize crop. The terrain is hard and rocky and difficult to cultivate. His one bigha (0.25 hectare) of land is not enough to sustain his family of six. But there is no fear of the novel coronavirus in these parts, Ram said, unlike in the city. "The hills in the area keep the virus away," he insisted.

The crisis here is one of economic survival as the uncertainty stretches on. But Ram did not want to risk searching for new work in the city again and hoped that schools would open after Diwali so he could get back to his job cooking in a school canteen.

Learning new skills

Amid all this, there are signs of resilience too. Some workers, supported by NGOs or of their own initiative, are trying to upgrade their skills to fit into the rural economy.

Lokesh Khorwal, a trainer at Aajeevika Bureau working on their livelihood programme, has been training young people from rural Rajasthan to repair mobile phones to enable them to set up shops in villages. There has been a steady uptick in demand for these workshops over the past few months, he said. "Since this crisis we have had the highest interest in this workshop, every batch is full," said Khorwal. "Every person in the village has a mobile phone but not every village has a mobile repair shop and they all have to travel far for it."

On a weekday afternoon in late September when IndiaSpend contacted them, 31 men from different districts had been attending the training for two weeks and were preparing for an exam.

Mahendra Dhodiya, 20, who was learning how to repair the motherboard of a mobile phone, said there was a lot of pressure to study and practice in the workshop. Dhodiya, who had been stranded for two months before returning home during the lockdown, used to work at a tea shop in Pune. He had already thought of a busy spot in the village market where he would set up shop.

It is possible to earn anywhere between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 a day from a mobile repair shop, said Khorwal, adding that it was more than the wages the trainees would earn in the city. The workshops for two-wheeler repair and electrical wiring for houses--skills that can be used to set up small enterprises in villages--were also running full, he said.

(Kumar is a Delhi-based independent journalist. She writes on social justice and gender.)

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