Balaji Hattagale was chopping sugarcane one day. The next day he wasn't. His parents wish they knew more. “The uncertainty is killing us,” says his father, Babasaheb Hattagale. On an overcast afternoon in July, a dark cloud hangs over his one-room brick home, almost reflecting the despair in Babasaheb's voice when he says: “We just want to know if he is dead or alive.”
It was in November 2020 that Bababsaheb and Sangita, his wife, last saw their 22-year-old son. Balaji had left their home in Kadiwadgaon village, in Maharashtra's Beed district, to work in the sugarcane fields of Belagavi district (or Belgaum) in Karnataka.
He was among lakhs of seasonal workers from Marathwada region migrating for six months of a year to cut cane in western Maharashtra and Karnataka. Every year, the workers leave their villages in November, after the festival of Diwali, and come back in March or April. But Balaji did not return this year.
It was Balaji’s first time leaving home to do the work that his parents had been doing for nearly two decades. “My wife and I have been migrating for 20 years or so to cut cane. [Together] we earn Rs. 60,000-70,000 in a season,” says Babasaheb. “It is our only assured source of income. Daily wage work in Beed is uncertain even in normal times, and it has become worse after Covid.”
Finding wage work during the pandemic – on farms and construction sites – has been difficult for the family. “We hardly made any money from March to November 2020,” says Babasaheb. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, in the months that they were back in their village in Beed's Wadwani
, Babasaheb usually worked 2-3 days a week, earning about Rs. 300 per day .
In March 2020, the sudden lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the country, jeopardised livelihoods of lakhs of migrant workers like Babasaheb and Sangita. Many lost their jobs, and many could not find daily wage work. They continued to struggle for an income for months even after the lockdown was lifted in June.
The Hattagale family's situation was no different. Desperation from the lack of work in 2020 forced Balaji to migrate from Beed when the sugarcane-cutting season arrived. Until then, he had only worked in and around the village.
Newly married, he went with his wife and her parents to Belagavi’s Basapur village – about 550 kilometres from home – to cut cane. “He called us regularly from there so we wouldn’t worry,” says Sangita, breaking into tears.
On an evening in December when Sangita called her son, his father-in-law answered the phone instead. He told her that Balaji had gone out. “His phone was off when we called later,” she says.
When Balaji’s phone remained switched off for the next 2-3 days, Babasaheb and Sangita became worried. They decided to go to Belagavi to check if he was alright. But they didn’t have enough money for the journey. They were just about managing two meals a day for the family, which includes daughter Alka, 15, and another son, Tanaji, 13. The family belongs to the Matang caste, a marginalised Dalit community in Maharashtra.
Babasaheb borrowed Rs. 30,000 in
cash from a private moneylender – undeterred by the interest rate of 36 per cent. He just had to see his son.
Babasaheb and Sangita set off for Belagavi in a hired vehicle. “When we reached there, his in-laws were disrespectful to us. They had no answers when we asked them about Balaji,” says Babasaheb. Suspecting foul play, they filed a missing person complaint at the local police station. “They are still investigating the case.”
Had he not agreed to send Balaji away, says Babasaheb, his son would still be with him. “What to do? We are migrant workers. And work in nearby villages and towns was at a standstill after the lockdown.” Sugarcane cutting was the only option, he adds. "If I were confident of finding work nearby, I would have told him to stay.”
A lack of livelihood opportunities exacerbated by the long agrarian crisis and now climate change, have forced people from Beed to migrate for work. Apart from going to the sugarcane fields, many have been migrating to cities like Mumbai, Pune and Aurangabad and working there as labourers, drivers, security guards and domestic workers.
Their journey back to the villages after the nationwide lockdown last year – an exodus not seen in the country before – unfolded over two months. Starving, dehydrated and exhausted, the workers walked long distances to return home. On the way, some of them died of hunger, exhaustion and trauma. And though their travel back home was widely reported in the media, very little is recorded of how they have coped in the last year and a half.
It was around May last year when Sanjeevani Salve, 50, returned with her family to their village, Rajuri Ghodka, in Beed – 250 kilometres from Pune. “We somehow managed for a month. But we realised that it would take a while for things to settle down, so we hired a tempo and came back,” says Sanjeevani. She was earning Rs. 5,000 a month as a domestic worker in Pune. Her two sons, Ashok, 30, and Amar, 26, and daughter Bhagyashree, 33, used to work for daily wages in the city. They came back with Sanjeevani. Since then, the family, who belong to the Nav Bauddha (formerly Dalit) community, have been struggling to find work.Bhagyashree returned to Pune recently, but her brothers chose to stay back in Beed. “We don’t want to go back to the city. Bhagyashree went back because of certain compulsions [her son’s schooling]. But she is not finding work easily. It is not the same in the cities anymore,” says Ashok.
Ashok is haunted by the memories of their difficulties in Pune during the lockdown. “What if a third Covid wave came and we had to go through it all over again?” he asks. “We had to take care of ourselves. Nobody asked if we had food or water. We could have died and nobody would have bothered.”
The community in the village provides Ashok with a sense of reassurance. “There are people here I can count on. And there are open spaces here. Being locked up in a small room in the city is suffocating.”
Ashok and Amar have been trying to establish themselves as carpenters in Beed. “The work is not consistent. But expenses are not many in the village. We are getting by," says Ashok. However, we would be in trouble if there were an emergency.”
While many have returned to the cities in recent months, those who stayed back have had to settle for less work and less income. A steep rise in the job cards issued under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) shows that many more people looking for work.
In 2020-21, the job cards of 8.57 lakh households in Maharashtra were included under MGNREGS – more than three times the cards issued for households – 2.49 lakhs – in the previous financial year.
However, the scheme has failed in providing the promised 100 days of employment in a year, even after the lockdown. In Maharashtra, of the 18.84 lakh households that demanded employment in 2020-21, only about 7 per cent – 1.36 lakh households – completed 100 days of work. The rate is similar in Beed.
While many workers have returned to the cities in recent months, those who stayed back in the villages have had to settle for less work and less income. A steep rise in the job cards issued under MGNREGS shows that many more people are looking for work
Caught between the lack of livelihood options at home and the risk of being stranded in a city, migrant workers – most of whom belong to marginalised communities – are in a double bind in the pandemic. “We returned home a month after the lockdown,” says 40-year-old Archana Mandwe, sitting under the leaking tin roof of her hut in Beed taluka 's Mhasewadi village. Her family’s travelled nearly 200 kilometres at night. “Five of us on a motorcycle was dangerous. But we had to do it," she says. "With no income, we were running out of money after the lockdown.”
Archana and Chintamani, her husband, were in Aurangabad city with their three children – Akshay, 18, Vishal, 15, and Mahesh, 12. Chintamani drove a truck and Archana did embroidery work. Between them, they earned about Rs. 12.000 a month. “We lived in Aurangabad for five years and in Pune for 10 years before that," says Archana. "He [Chintamani] always worked as a truck driver.”
In Mhasewadi, Chintamani began to feel out of place. “He had not worked on farms before. He tried, but could not manage it that well. I was looking for agricultural work too. But not much was available,” says Archana.
At home and unemployed, Chintamani’s worries increased by the day. He wondered about his kids and their education, “He felt worthless,” says Archana. “Our financial situation was getting worse and he couldn’t do anything about it. His self-respect was weakening. He slipped into depression.”
One day in July last year, Archana found her husband hanging by a rope from the tin roof when she returned home in the evening. A year on, she is struggling to earn a living by herself. “I hardly make Rs. 800 a week as a farm worker. But I can’t think of going back to Aurangabad,” she says. “I can’t manage alone in the city. It was okay when he was around. In the village, I have people to rely on [for help].”
Archana and her children want to move out of their hut. “It reminds me of him every time I walk in,” she says. “I keep thinking of what I saw when I came home that day.”
But she can’t think of finding a new house yet. She wonders if her children, who attend the local government school, will be able to continue their education. “I don’t know how to pay their fees,” she says.
Archana’s brother bought a smartphone phone for the three boys to attend their online classes. “It is difficult to follow an online lecture,” says Akshay, a student of Class 12 aspiring to become an engineer. “The [mobile] network is bad in our village most of the time. I go to my friend's house and study with his books.”
While Akshay is courageously focusing on his studies after his father’s death by suicide, Tanaji Hattagale is trying to come to terms with Balaji’s disappearance. “I miss my brother,” he says, refusing to speak further.
Babasaheb and Sangita are doing their best to find Balaji, but the process hasn’t been easy on them. “We met the [district] collector of Beed and requested him to step in," says Babasaheb. “We have very little money so we can’t keep going to Belgaum [Belagavi]."
Even under normal circumstances, following up on a police complaint would be difficult for a poor family from an oppressed community. But the pandemic has made the task more difficult, with restrictions on inter-state travel, and the lack of resources and cash at hand.
After their first trip to in December, Babasaheb and Sangita went back again looking for Balaji. That time, they sold 10 of their sheep for Rs. 60,000 to make the trip. “We travelled 1,300 kilometres in total,” says Babasaheb, who had noted it from the vehicle’s odometer. “Some of that money is still left, but it won’t last long.”
The new sugarcane-cutting season will begin in November. And though Babasaheb’s mother is still ill, he and Sangita want to go for cane cutting. They have to consider the survival of the family, says Babasaheb. “We have to look after our remaining children.”
This story is part of a series supported by the Pulitzer Center through an independent journalism grant to the reporter.