What is the Kushwaha Caste

JUGYAI, India (Reuters) - Most days Dayaram Kushwaha and his wife Gyanvati haul stones for stonemasons in a booming northern suburb of New Delhi. They bring their 5 year old son who plays in the dirt while working.

But now it's quiet over the rattling construction site silenced by India's statewide order for protection to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading. Site managers no longer come to the intersection where Dayaram and many others stand in the hope of starting work.

Since Dayaram could not support his family or pay the rent, he pulled his son Shivam onto his shoulders and went to the village where he was born, 300 miles away.

He tried not to worry about what would happen when he got there with empty pockets instead of the money he usually sent home to support those left behind. At least he would have a home.

At dusk on the second day, Dayaram and about 50 others from his extended family had reached a deserted expressway leading south out of the capital.

The family was hungry, thirsty, and tired, and the police were never far away. Every time they stopped to rest, officials called them to move around in a single file and keep their distance from each other to avoid spreading the virus. Officers are under orders to enforce the lockdown, but that day they allowed people to move.

Dayaram, 28, looked around. Thousands of other migrant workers did the same in one of the largest 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 with older relatives in the village because it was too difficult 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'll be with him."

PUSH AND PULL

Villages across India have been emptying for decades.

For many people, the decision is simple arithmetic: making $ 6 a day instead of $ 3 at home. In areas like the arid Bundelkhand region in Madhya Pradesh state, home of Dayaram's ancestral village, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living on the land as rainfall subsides.

Others are looking for something more abstract: the prospect of escape that draws everyone towards a big city.

But after the closure, the cities began to empty themselves. Dayaram and his family were among the first to move. As the days passed and the situation became more desperate, hundreds of thousands of migrants came from factories and workplaces looking for a way home.

Indian officials say the shutdown is necessary to fight coronavirus in the densely populated country of 1.3 billion people. The health infrastructure can hardly afford a widespread outbreak.

For Dayaram and many of the estimated 140 million migrant workers in India, however, the epidemic is far more than a threat to their health - it threatens their economic survival.

During the shutdown, India banned domestic and international travel, and factories, schools, offices and all businesses except those providing essential services have been closed. Taken together, the measures represent one of the toughest barriers in the world.

The number of cases has risen to nearly 17,000, with more than 500 deaths. On April 14, the government extended the curbs until at least May 3, sparking clashes between police and migrants trying to leave India's financial capital, Mumbai.

Migrants are the backbone of the urban economy. Construction workers like Dayaram are a necessity for India's fast growing cities. Others clean toilets, drive taxis and deliver to take away. They mostly earn daily wages with no prospect of job security and live in dirty, densely populated slums. You save money to send them home.

This money is essential for the young and the elderly who are left behind in villages. Government and academia have estimated that around $ 30 billion flows from urban to rural areas in India each year.

Now the infusion of money sent through rural banks or in worn stacks of rupees brought home on infrequent visits has come to a halt.

TURN BACK THE TIME

The journey from New Delhi deep into rural India is not only a journey into the distance, but also a journey into the past.

Skyscrapers and well-paved toll roads give way to wheat and okra fields. Naked men as far as the country with buffalo; An elderly shepherd drives his goats down a dusty alley.

After Dayaram, Gyanvati and Shivam walked and hitched a line of trucks for four days, they reached their family's two-room concrete hut in Jugyai, a farming village of 2,000 people.

An unframed poster hangs on the wall in a dingy room in the house filled with sacks of grain and clothes. It shows a pretty house with a red roof on a lake, the sun setting behind snow-capped mountains. A pair of mallards flies overhead.

“I want to turn back the clock when people lived in small villages and cared for each other,” they say.

Although he cannot read the English text on the poster, Dayaram agrees with the feeling. He misses this village that can no longer feed 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 and left 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. To make matters worse, suspicion is never far away. The returnees have to deal with new prejudices of the villagers who used to be their friends.

"I'm scared," said Sai Ram Lal, a neighbor who works in a soybean oil factory here.

“It spread in Delhi and I am concerned that they brought it here. We keep our distance. We no longer interact with them like we used to. ”

For Dayaram that made him an outsider in his own village.

"We are like garbage"

The Bundelkhand region is famous for the towering sandstone temples and mausoleums from the 16th century in nearby Orchha. It has a culture of its own, and young men still listen to high-tempo music in the Bundeli language on their phones.

According to the India Meteorological Department, it used to rain up to 30 cm per year in the region, but over the past decade this number has almost halved.

For many of the villagers who traditionally made a living from farming, this is a slow-motion disaster that is forcing most able-bodied men and women to migrate in search of work.

It is the beginning of April, and even before the start of the violent Indian summer, when temperatures rise to 50 degrees Celsius, the air is already uncomfortably dry.

In a neighboring village where most of Dayaram's extended family live, two dozen men stood idling on the street.

Only one, 62-year-old Lal Ram, has never been to Delhi. "I had some money so I never left," he said with a shrug.

He is also the only one with a grocery menu, a sore spot for those who have emigrated to Delhi. The targeted public distribution system enables the poorest in India to buy 5 kilograms of subsidized grain per month. However, since the migrant workers are no longer permanent residents, they have no access to the food that is distributed from a nearby grain silo.

“Nobody listens to us,” said one of the men bitterly. "We're like garbage."

Harshika Singh, the top government official in the district where both villages are located, did not respond to requests for comments on the migrants' case.

After this story was published, Indian government spokesman K.S. Dhatwalia issued a statement to Reuters on Friday outlining measures to help the poor during the pandemic. The government provided basic food and cash to poor and marginalized people, Dhatwalia said, and relief camps have been set up in various parts of the country.

Dayaram's father, 58-year-old Takur Das, was the first in the family to leave New Delhi in search of work as it became increasingly difficult to make a living on the parched land.

That was a decade ago. Finally he sent for his son too. The work there was hard but steady.

"We can get some money for your wedding," he told Dayaram.

Many people in New Delhi would have trouble locating Alipur, the suburb of Delhi where they had settled, on a map. National news is rare except for the unhappiness of the workers: 25 children rescued by the authorities in a series of camp raids; Four men, including two brothers, were crushed to death by sacks of rice.

Dayaram says his heart sank when he saw the crowded tarpaulin-covered slum where the family slept 12 in one room. His first thought was to flee back to the village.

But he stayed. What else could he do?

Dayaram is always talking about fate.His marriage, his move to New Delhi, his return home - all decisions that were made out of necessity rather than choice.

Dayaram's maternal aunt was playing matchmaker when it came time for him to get married. He and Gyanvati came from the same Kushwaha caste, a lower tier of the ancient Indian social order that was traditionally active in agriculture.

They first met a month before their wedding day.

"She was fine," said Dayaram, a smile flickered across his face and remembered their meeting.

"But whatever is in my destiny is fine whether it is good or bad."

After Mangal was born, Gyanvati stayed in Jugyai to take care of him. When he was 1½ years old, she came to New Delhi with him too.

But after Shivam was born, they were faced with a choice: take Mangal too or leave him in the village.

"It's easier to carry one child at work, but two are too difficult," said Gyanvati. "So we had to leave him behind."

NO ALTERNATIVE

The family's return that month coincided with the winter wheat harvest. One morning, after a night on a rope bed in the light of the pink supermon, Dayaram put on a shirt that was torn at the left armpit and went to a nearby field.

His sons followed him and picked unripe berries from a bush. Shivam, wearing the same faded yellow plaid shirt he had when he left New Delhi, put his hand on his older brother's shoulder.

Dayaram, Gyanvati, and three other relatives began hand-cutting stems with worn scythes. After harvesting almost a ton of wheat there for three days, they received no payment - only 50 kilograms of the crop that they brought to the village mill.

The family's basket of lump potatoes would take a week. If that worked out, they would have to survive on bread alone.

In good months in New Delhi, they were able to save 8,000 rupees, or about $ 100 a month, to send them home and repay a loan taken out when Gyanvati fell ill early in their marriage.

But soon, Dayaram said, he would be forced to borrow again from local funders and charge interest at 3% per month - an interest rate that can quickly turn into unpayable debt.

Even though Mangal and Shivam have been apart for months, they are still close. Both have their father's broad nose and mother's lively eyes, the same matching shell haircuts with unevenly clipped sides.

"They cut each other's hair," said Gyanvati with a laugh. "That's why they look like this."

Both boys shrugged when asked if they wanted to go to school as if the subject had never really been discussed.

Dayaram fears that the shutdown will end any hope of an education for his children.

“Neither parent wants their child to work as a worker,” he said. But there is no alternative, he said: "You will have to do what I did."

Under the bright red blossoms of the Indian coral tree, the family finished the field at noon, a white sun directly above them.

Tired of chasing dragonflies through the freshly cut stubble, Mangal and Shivam sat quietly watching cartoons on a cell phone. Dayaram came over to them. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, looked at his boys, and smiled.

Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Danish Siddiqui; Adaptation by Kari Howard

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