When Earappa Bawge found work as a project manager in Bengaluru in March 2019, he had no way of knowing that a year later he would lose that job to the lockdown. And that by June 2020, he would be working at MGNREGA sites in Kamthana, his village in Bidar district in north-eastern Karnataka.
“After sitting jobless at home for a month, I tried to understand the NREGA process in April,” he says, “to earn and ensure that my family survives. We barely had any money when the lockdown was announced. Even my mother was finding it difficult to get work because farm owners weren’t calling labourers.”
That job that he lost to the lockdown had come his way after a lot of hard work and growing debt, and with his family members’ support and determination to lift themselves out of a subsistence-level income through education.
Earappa had completed his BTech degree in August 2017 from a private college and before that, in 2013, a diploma in automobile engineering from a government polytechnic, both in Bidar town. For eight months, he had worked as a technical trainee in a multinational company in Pune that makes farm machinery, earning Rs. 12,000 a month, before enrolling for the degree course. “I was a good student so I thought I could take on bigger responsibilities and earn more money. I thought one day I too would be called an engineer,” says 27-year-old Earappa.
His family took several loans to finance his education. “In three years [of BTech], I needed around Rs 1.5 lakhs,” he says. “Sometimes, my parents took Rs. 20,000, sometimes Rs. 30,000 from local self-help groups [SHGs].” When he was in his fifth semester, in December 2015, his 48-year-old father, a labourer, passed away due to jaundice. For his treatment, the family took further loans of around Rs. 1.5 lakhs from SHGs and relatives. “By the time I completed my degree, I had many responsibilities on my shoulders,” Earappa says.
So when he got a job in Bengaluru in a small-scale unit making plastic moulding machines as a project manager for a salary of Rs. 20,000, his family was happy. That was in March 2019. “I sent my mother Rs. 8,000-Rs 10,000 every month. However, everything changed once the lockdown was imposed,” he says.
Earappa started receiving frantic calls from his mother Lalita. She felt that her son would be safer in their village. “I worked till March 22. Since it was almost month-end, I didn’t have enough cash with me to return home. I had to borrow Rs. 4,000 from my cousin,” he says. He eventually took a ride in a private car to reach home.
For the next month, the family of four – they belong to the Gond community, a Scheduled Tribe – depended on the money their mother earned whenever she found work on farms removing grass, for a daily wage of Rs. 100-15 – for which, Earappa says, farm-owners usually employ women experienced in doing the work, and not young men like himself. And they picked up PDS rations on their BPL (below poverty line) card. Earappa has two younger brothers – 23-year-old Rahul is preparing for the jobs recruitment exams of the Karnataka Public Service Commission, while 19-year-old Vilas is in the first year of a BA degree course, and preparing to apply to join the army. On the family’s one acre of rain-fed land, they cultivate masoor, moong and jowar, most of it for their own consumption. The family owns a buffalo which Earappa's brothers look after, and they earn around Rs. 5,000 a month by selling its milk.
Earappa worked on MGNREGA sites for 33 days – mostly canal desilting tasks – and earned a little over Rs. 9,000 in total. His brothers did 14 days each in July, their mother did 35 days – under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, a family is entitled to a total of 100 days of work in a year. Since September, his mother has been getting more weeding work on fields, for her usual daily wage of Rs. 100-150.
Within a few days after his return to Bidar, the manufacturing unit Earappa worked at in Bengaluru shut down for three months. “My boss said there’s not enough work for everyone,” he says, distraught. “I have sent my CV to three-four engineering college friends working in Bangalore, Pune and Bombay,” he adds. “I’m regularly checking job websites. I hope something works out and I get a job [again].”
In the same village, another young man’s dreams have all but evaporated. Atish Metre, 25, who completed his MBA coursework in September 2019 (from the Oxford College of Engineering, Bengaluru), has also, in recent months, worked with Earappa on MGNREGA sites in Kamthana village.
In April this year, he had to leave his job in the sales division with HDFC Bank in Bengaluru due to the lockdown. “We had targets to meet and stepping out of the house was neither allowed nor safe. A majority in my team had quit. I had no other option,” he says.
He returned to Kamathana with his new bride, 22-year-old Satyavati Ladgeri, who has a BCom degree and also worked for some days with Atish at MGNREGA sites till she could not handle the exertion. Atish continued, and till November 21 had done 100 days of work on these sites – digging trenches, cleaning small dams, desilting lakes – and earned a total of around Rs. 27,000.
In April, Atish’s two elder brothers – the family belongs to the Holeya community, a Scheduled Caste – got married in a small ceremony for which their mother took loans of Rs. 75,000 from local SHGs; the instalments are to be paid every week. Atish also has to pay Rs. 3,700 every month against a loan of Rs. 50,000 that he took to buy a bike in November 2019. In recent months, the family has largely depended on the income of his elder brother, Pradeep, who works as an AC technician in a Bengaluru company. Their parents are labourers, as is another brother in the eight-member family.
“My brother Pradeep had returned to Kamthana with me in April after the lockdown. But he went back to Bengaluru in August and joined his old company,” Atish says. “I too am going to Bangalore on Monday [November 23]. I’ll stay with a friend and look for jobs; I am willing to work in any sector.”
Unlike Atish and Earappa, Pritam Kempe had stayed back in Kamthana after he graduated in 2017. He found part-time work as a quality tester at a drinking water plant for Rs. 6,000 a month. He then completed a BEd course in December 2019. “I had to start working immediately after graduating to support my family, going out to the city wasn’t an option for me,” he says. “I don’t think I will move to any city even now because my mother needs me.”
His mother – the family too belongs to the Holeya SC community – earns an income by stitching clothes, but has vision problems and leg pain due to the work; his sister is studying for a BEd degree too, two older siblings are married and live separately; their father, a farmer, passed away in 2006.
Pritam had borrowed Rs. 1 lakh in February from a private financing firm for his elder sister’s marriage. He has to deposit Rs. 5,500 per month to repay the loan. During the lockdown he had to again borrow money from a villager against his mother’s gold, to be able to pay this interest amount.
In the first week of May, he too started working at MGNREGA sites along with Earappa and Atish. “It is very difficult for me to manage finances like this. When it rains, we don’t even have NREGA work,” he told me some time ago. Pritam worked for 96 days at various sites till November 21, and earned a total of around Rs. 26,000.
“There isn’t much work at the drinking water facility in which I’m employed,” he adds. “I visit that place three-four times a week for a few hours. I was paid [one-time] Rs. 5000 in October. My salary for a few months is pending. There isn’t any guarantee of receiving regular pay even now. So I am looking for a job in the industrial area of Bidar.”
Like Earappa, Atish and Pritam, many others in Kamthana village — which has a population of 11,179 — turned, in desperation, to MGNREGA work during the lockdown.
“Initially, when the lockdown was imposed, many people were out of work and struggled for food,” says Lakshmi Bawge, who helped form the Buddha Basava Ambedkar Youth Team in March 2020. The group, which now has around 600 members of all ages, collaborated with the district administration in Bidar town in the early lockdown weeks to distribute rations to families in Kamthana who either did not have a card or were not able to access PDS outlets, delivered food supplements from anganwadis to pregnant women, and tried to help in other ways.
Lakshmi, 28, a member of All India Democratic Women's Association, spoke to senior activists in neighbouring Gulbarga district to understand the process of registering for MGNREGA work. “It was not easy for these unemployed youth to get the job cards,” she says, because of irregularities in the process at the panchayat level. “However, senior officials in the district helped and made sure that they could start working.”
From April to September, 2020, a total of 494 MGNREGA job cards were issued in Kamthana, says Sarath Kumar Abhiman, assistant director in the Bidar taluk panchayat. “The district administration realised that there is a huge influx of migrant workers who were returning from bigger cities and towns to Bidar. So we started issuing job cards to them and made small groups and allocated work under NREGA,” Abhiman told me on the phone.
Around 100 kilometres from Kamthana, in Taj Sultanpur village in Gulbarga district, 28-year-old Mallamma Madankar had worked on MGNREGA sites since 2017 while still a student – desilting lakes, constructing farm ponds, drains and roads. “I used to leave my house early, work till 9 a.m., then take a bus for my college from the site,” she says.
In March 2018, she managed to complete her law degree from the Dr. BR Ambedkar College in Gulbarga, and worked as a State Bank of India clerk on contract for nine months for Rs. 6,000 a month. “I wanted to start my legal practice under a senior lawyer in the district court in Gulbarga, and had even spoken to one who had helped me with a college project. My plan was to start working in the courts this year, but I couldn’t start [due to Covid].”
So Mallamma – she belongs to the Holeya SC community – went back to MGNREGA sites for a while in late April and May. “But due to rains and social distancing, officials in our village did not even allow us to do much work under NREGA this year. I worked only for 14 days,” she says. “If Covid wasn't there, I would have started working in the court. “
Malamma’s seven-member family has tried hard to move up on the education scale; one sister has MA-BEd degrees (and worked as a surveyor with an NGO in Bengaluru), another has a Master’s degree in Social Work (and had a job with an NGO in Bidar); a brother has an MCom degree.
Their mother Bhimbai , 62, takes care of their three-acre land where they grow jowar, millets and other crops, and use the produce mainly for their own consumptions. Their father was a high school teacher in Jevargi taluk of Gulbarga district. He passed away after retiring in 2002, and the family receives Rs. 9,000 a month as his pension.
“My sisters returned home due to the lockdown,” Malamma says. “All of us are unemployed right now.”
She and the young men in Kamthana village are desperate to find work where they can use their education. “I want something where I am given responsibilities,” Earappa says. "I want my education to be of use. I am an engineer and want to work in a place where my degree is given at least some value.”
All the interviews for this article were conducted on the phone between August 27 and November 21.