Simran Oraon has no regrets about the day she ran away from her home in Jharkhand all the way to Tamil Nadu.

It was mid-April 2019, a few days after she had finished a two-month tailoring course at a skills training institute in Gumla, a town and district in Jharkhand. Simran was 18 at the time, a petite young woman with big dreams and a yearning for adventure beyond her village of Bero in neighbouring Ranchi district.

The year before, she had grudgingly obeyed her father when he asked her to drop out of Class 12 to work on their five-acre paddy and fodder farms. Agriculture was not very profitable, and she knew her parents needed her labour.

“But I hated it,” said Simran, her voice soft and musical despite her vehemence. “I never wanted to be a farmer. I wanted to stand on my own feet, earn lots of money.”

In February 2019, a friend told Simran about a tailoring course run under the Saksham Jharkhand Kaushal Vikas Yojana, a state-level skill development scheme for youth. Since it was a free course, Simran’s parents reluctantly agreed to let her sign up and live in a hostel in Gumla for two months. At the end of it, they assumed they would be able to invest in a sewing machine so that Simran could run a tailoring business from home.

“But we did not have enough voltage to run a machine,” said Simran. “And the training centre was offering jobs in Tamil Nadu, real jobs that could pay Rs 15,000 per month.”

Simran was immediately excited – Tamil Nadu sounded like a distant, exotic adventure. Her parents immediately put their foot down – it was too far away to send their girl alone.

In Adivasi villages across Jharkhand, it was common for men to migrate out of the state for daily wage labour. Wives and children sometimes travelled with the men, with the entire family taking up jobs in construction or brick kiln factories. But young, unmarried women rarely migrated alone for work. Those who did travel to take up domestic work in cities were often tainted with what Simran called “tarah tarah ki baatein”, or unsavoury gossip, back home.

But Simran did not care. “Logon ki soch hi galat hai,” she said – people’s mindsets are wrong. As several of her batchmates accepted placements at a garment factory in the city of Tiruppur, she made a spontaneous decision.

That week, on the pretext of visiting a friend in Gumla, she packed a small bag and took off on a three-day train journey to Tiruppur. She called home when she reached there, apologetic but defensive. “I know my parents were very scared when I disappeared, but I told them I had got a good job,” she said, flashing a sheepish smile. “I wanted to see the world.”

Now, over two years later, Simran is back home, unemployed. She no longer wants to travel or seek solo adventures. The day I met her in late July, she was stoically doing the work she loathes – labouring in her family’s farms.

“I don’t feel bad that I ran away,” she said. But now, her ambitions have changed. “I am willing to work within Jharkhand, somewhere near my home, but I will not work outside again. I don’t want to be stuck in another lockdown.”

Most Indians are likely to remember exactly where they were at 8 pm on March 24, 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced, with four hours’ notice, the first national lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Anita Kumari was in the packaging room of a garment factory, somewhere in the sprawling city of Chennai, more than 1,700 km away from her family in Jharkhand’s Bokaro district. Her hands were busy executing a well-practiced series of motions – pick up t-shirt, fold, pack in plastic, repeat. But every muscle in her body ached for the end of her 12-hour shift, and her mind was immersed in the only thought that had consumed her all week: would her employers approve her application for temporary leave to visit home?

Like Simran, Anita had also done a two-month tailoring course through the state’s skill development scheme in January 2018. Her parents, too, had been reluctant to let her work far away from home, but Anita persistently spent a year and a half to convince them. In July 2019, she and her friend Manti Tudu travelled to Chennai, joining the growing number of Adivasi women from the predominantly rural state of Jharkhand in eastern India who were migrating to the industrial hubs in richer South India, home to a burgeoning garment industry.

Anita Kumari (left) and Manti Tudu did a two-month tailoring course through the Jharkhand government’s skill development scheme and worked in a garment factory in Chennai. They are now back home in Bokaro.

But within weeks of their arrival, the Adivasi women invariably received a rude shock. The work was physically strenuous, the hours were gruelling, the pay was always less than they were promised and they received no reprieve when they fell sick. To make matters worse, they had to live cloistered in hostels that gave them no freedom of movement.

In January 2020, Manti managed to trick the factory managers with a ploy used by many before her: she applied for a few days of temporary leave to visit her ailing mother, and when the leave was approved, she returned to Bokaro and never went back. Inspired by her friend’s successful escape, Anita waited for two months and then put in her own application for temporary leave to visit home.

She never had a chance to find out if it was approved. On the night of March 24, the Covid-19 lockdown was announced.

“They told us the factory was going to close down for a few weeks, and we had to wait till it reopened,” said Anita.

Among women like Simran, Anita and Manti, the lockdown triggered a wave of panic. Eighteen young women in rural Jharkhand that interviewed in July had the same story to share: with work halted, their pay was stopped and the women were confined to their hostels. They were given little or no help in finding their ways home. They were essentially prisoners, and most of those who reached home only managed to because they were rescued by activists and government officials.

The experience left them so traumatised, with scars that run so deep, that they have clipped their own wings, choosing to stay close to their families even if it means dropping out of the workforce.

This compounds an existing problem: the number of women in India’s workforce has been on the decline for many years. Barely 26% of Indian women aged 15 and above were part of the paid workforce in 2005, and that number had fallen to just 21% by 2019. In China, by comparison, 61% of women were engaged in paid work in 2019, while 54% of Japan’s women were in the workforce that year. Bangladesh, too, had a higher women’s labour force participation rate the same year, at 36%.

Economist Dipa Sinha attributes the decline in part to the increasing mechanisation of agriculture since the 1990s, and to the general decline in job availability in the country in recent years. One recent study by economists Ashwini Deshpande and Jitendra Singh suggests that the fall in Indian women’s labour force participation is “likely to be a consequence of low and declining demand for female labour, rather than supply-side constraints keeping women indoors”. The study also points out that while India’s working age population (people above the age of 14) increased by 9% between 2016 and 2019, there was only a 0.7% growth in employment.

“When there are fewer jobs, men are prioritised over women,” said Sinha. “Women are employed in more limited sectors – largely agriculture, and within manufacturing it’s textiles, apparel, tobacco.”

Given that, what women like Simran and Anita were doing was novel, almost revolutionary. They were showing that with the right opportunities, Indian women had the will to migrate great distances for work, and contribute towards building a manufacturing-based economy.

But that will was crushed by India’s ill-conceived and poorly executed lockdown, which had a dramatically disproportionate effect on women’s employment.

A study by the Azim Premji University found that compared to men, women were seven times more likely to lose jobs during the 2020 lockdown and 11 times more likely to not return to work after the lockdown. Another analysis published by the university found that while 7% of men lost their jobs during the lockdown and did not recover them by December 2020, 46.6% of women lost their jobs without recovering them during this same period.

While some research indicates that the job losses were often involuntary, and that women were pushed out of paid work, the stories of the Jharkhand women suggest that in some cases, even when jobs were available, women were unwilling to return because of what they had suffered in the lockdown.

Ensuring that women are able to return to the workforce requires understanding what made them leave – and what can bring them back.

This story is part of Common Ground, our new in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

The institutes where the young Adivasi women learnt sewing are part of a larger network of skill training centres first put in place by the Manmohan Singh-led Congress government in 2008 under the aegis of the National Skill Development Corporation. Their aim was to create a pipeline of workers equipped with the skills required by private manufacturing and service industries. In 2015, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government expanded the programme and renamed it Skill India Mission. Under it, multiple schemes at the central and state government levels offer short skill development courses to the youth.

Crucially, as part of these schemes, the government also helps young people with placements where they can gain work experience. When institutes are contracted to run various courses, they are typically supplied state or central funds in three tranches: the first 30% when a new batch has completed its first week of a course, the next 50% after a course is completed and students are tested, and the final 20% only if 70% of the students are placed within jobs and complete three months of paid work.

These placements do not necessarily have to be outside of one’s state, and course completion certificates cannot be withheld for students who choose not to work. But on the ground, some students like Anita and Manti have been misled by their training institutes. Unlike Simran, who went to Tiruppur purely to fulfil her desire for travel and independence, Anita and Manti went to Chennai because they had been told they would not get their course certificates unless they worked for three months outside their state.

The work, and the working conditions caused the women great distress. In Chennai, Anita and Manti felt cheated on their very first day of work.

“Our training was in stitching clothes, but the company made us work in the packaging department – we did not get to use the sewing machines at all,” said Anita. “Every time we asked the manager sir to let us use the machines, he would say, ‘later’.”

When employees expressed a wish to quit their jobs and return home, Anita claimed that the company would pressure them into staying on. “Company kaam nahi chhodne deta tha,” she said – it would not let them leave.

Anita, Manti and Simran also had to contend with culture shock throughout their stints in South India. When Simran first arrived in Tiruppur in April 2019, she found that the food was different from anything she was used to, that everyone spoke only Tamil, and that she had little idea of what was going on around her. The factory she found herself in was large, with hundreds of workers – mostly women – bent over sewing machines, rarely glancing up or taking a break. Simran was assigned a machine where she had to simply stitch together the shoulder and side seams of 800, maybe 1,000 t-shirts a day.

This, according to trade unionist Sujata Mody, is a common feature of the apparel industry, where the overwhelming majority of workers are Adivasi and Dalit women. “In their training, they are taught how to use a machine, but not how to tailor full-fledged clothes,” said Mody, president of the Garment and Fashion Workers’ Union in Chennai. “At the end of their careers, many of these women say they can stitch only pockets, or only sleeves.”

As Simran began to make more sense of her situation, she was hit by a sense of disillusionment.

At the training institute in Gumla, she had been told she would have to work eight-hour shifts. At the Tiruppur factory, however, 12-hour shifts from 8 am to 8 pm were the unwritten norm. “Sometimes they would make us work the night shift, but we still had to begin work at 8 am the next morning.”

Simran and her batchmates had also been promised salaries of Rs 15,000 a month. “But they actually paid us just Rs 7,000 a month, because they used to cut money for the food, hostel and travel they provided,” she said. Simran was most indignant about the company’s attitude towards sickness. “If you take the day off, they cut Rs 500 from your salary, but if you work overtime, they give you only Rs 10 per hour,” she said.

None of this was unique to the company that Simran worked with. All the 18 women that met in Jharkhand recounted the same experiences and the same working conditions, in other factories and other cities, such as Bengaluru and Coimbatore, as well. Some were promised a salary of Rs 8,500, but were given just Rs 4,500 in hand. Others discovered that if they felt ill, their manager would give them a mere 10-minute break from work.

“If anyone felt sick, they would tell the nurse in the factory to give us medicine or an injection. Then we had to get back to work,” said 20-year-old Pramila Kumari, from Burmu village in rural Ranchi, who also worked in a factory in Tiruppur.

When Simran completed her first stint of three months at the factory in Tiruppur, overworked, exhausted and frustrated with the company, she decided to quit and return home just as spontaneously as she had run away.

Back in Bero, Simran no longer wanted to work in tailoring. She also did not want to meet the prospective grooms that her parents were lining up for her, and joined a private beauticians’ course in the village instead. For a few months, she worked part-time at a local beauty parlour, but soon grew restless.

“There is no money to make in Jharkhand,” she complained. “At the beauty parlour I was getting just Rs 150 a day, and that too not every day. The factory in Tiruppur was paying less than I deserve, but at least it was better than this.”

And so in January 2020, despite her mother’s pleas and her own reluctance, Simran took off for Tiruppur again. She worked at her old company for another three months, trying to save as much of her salary as she could.

“And then the lockdown happened and everything shut down,” she said.

Three months after she ran away from home, Simran Oraon returned, disillusioned with factory work in Tamil Nadu. But with no opportunities in Jharkhand, she chose to go back – only to get stuck in the lockdown.

Garment manufacturing units across south India seemed to have a common reaction to the 2020 lockdown. As factories temporarily shut down, workers’ wages were stopped abruptly, and women workers were asked to stay put in their company-run hostels until the factories could reopen.

Just as the 18 women met in Jharkhand had similar accounts of working in garment factories, their stories of how their employers treated them during the lockdown were also nearly identical.

“The company had said they would pay us during the lockdown, but they did not. Instead, they made us pay them Rs 1,500 for the hostel and food,” said Anita. The lockdown, which was supposed to end in three weeks, was repeatedly extended, adding to her despair. In Bokaro, her parents were sick with worry, but there was no means of transport to take her back.

“Every day, I would cry to my mother on the phone,” she said. “I just wanted to go home.”

Across the country, stranded migrant workers were taking drastic measures to return to their villages. Lakhs took to walking on highways for hundreds of kilometres, in the summer sun, in a bid to get home. Images of their despair defined the first wave of the pandemic in India, and forced privileged Indians to recognise just how many poor daily wage workers keep urban economies running. Many migrants bought overpriced tickets to return home in private buses and trucks; others waited till May 2020 to board the Shramik Special trains that the central government launched for stranded interstate migrants.

Getting a ticket for a Shramik Special train was hard enough for ordinary migrants – they had to register with the police, submit a variety of documents and wait for weeks before they were assigned a ticket. But for many migrant women stuck in hostels run by garment companies, even stepping out to apply for a train ticket was impossible.

Women’s hostels in the garment sector have long been run in a stringent, paternalistic manner, with strict wardens overseeing every aspect of working women’s lives. On weekdays, women are typically ferried to and from work in company buses. On weekends, most hostels allow women to step out for shopping or leisure, but only if they are accompanied by a warden or supervisor.

“In our hostel, if we wanted to just sleep on Sunday, our warden would scold us and say we were lazy,” said 19-year-old Balmani Kumari, from Latehar district’s Kadima village. Balmani was one of the women working in Tiruppur with Pramila.

During the lockdown, these hostel rules became even more oppressive for women workers like Pramila, Balmani and Simran. They were not allowed to leave the hostel to purchase train tickets or find other ways to go home. The companies effectively held them captive.

Pramila Kumari (bottom right) and other Jharkhand women workers were help captive in a factory in Tiruppur until the Jharkhand government rescued them.

In May 2020, one of the women in Simran’s hostel desperately reached out to a relative, who works in the Jharkhand police, for help. Through him, Simran and her friends were able to contact a migrant workers’ helpline set up by Jharkhand’s labour department, which finally helped them leave Tiruppur on a Shramik Special train.

The Jharkhand government also rescued Pramila, Balmani and 20 other women in their group, but not until October 2020. By then, garment factories had re-opened and Pramila and her colleagues claimed they had been made to work “zabardasti” – forcibly. Pramila heard about the migrant workers’ helpline through the father of one of her colleagues, who had sought help for his daughter and had shared the young women’s phone numbers with the helpline staff.

“The control room called us, heard our stories and then started calling the company,” said Pramila.

At the control room, helpline staff from Phia Foundation, a non-profit organisation that runs a helpline for migrant workers for the Jharkhand government’s labour department, first urged the garment company’s administration to let the women from Jharkhand leave. “When they did not agree, our partner NGO in Tiruppur visited them,” said Shikha Lakra, a programme officer at Phia Foundation and the head of the helpline. “We had long talks with the company through various mediums, and eventually they let the women leave. Our partner NGO sponsored their return.” In early October, Pramila and 21 other women from Jharkhand finally boarded a train home.

Anita was luckier. Her company in Chennai did not object when she wanted to book a train ticket for herself in May, and on May 29, 2020, she was finally able to have a tearful reunion with her family.

In the aftermath of the lockdown, activists and government officials have noticed a marked hesitancy among women workers to travel for work.

India has no comprehensive data on the number of interstate migrant workers in organised and unorganised sectors, or the ratio of women among them. In February, the union Ministry of Labour and Employment claimed in Parliament that there were 1.14 crore interstate migrant workers across the country, of which 5.3 lakh were from Jharkhand.

But these figures seem to be a colossal undercount. According to Phia Foundation, at least 10.47 lakh migrant workers from the state registered their names with the helpline’s control room between March 2020 and December 2020. Another 3.8 lakh migrant workers registered with the control room from January to June 2021.

“There are many other migrant workers from Jharkhand who have not registered with the control room,” said Johnson Topno, the head of Phia Foundation in the state. “My estimate is that there must be at least 30 lakh migrant workers from the state.”

The state government helpline was set up soon after the announcement of the 2020 lockdown, with the aim of providing information and assistance to workers stranded in other states who wanted to return to Jharkhand. According to Phia Foundation, the Jharkhand government had helped at least 6.7 lakh of the registered migrant workers return home from other states up till July 2021, of which 14% were women.

In subsequent months, as lockdown conditions eased, workers started heading back to distant states to pick up work again.

“Only 30% of the workers registered with our control room informed us that they were returning to work outside the state,” said Topno. “Of course, many workers have left without informing us, but there is a drop in the numbers of workers going out of the state after the lockdown. Especially women workers.” Topno attributed this hesitancy to the insecurities triggered by the experience of the lockdown.

NK Mishra, the assistant director of employment in the Jharkhand government’s labour department, also pointed to this trend. “There are jobs available outside the state in many sectors and there is a demand from the industry for skilled workers,” he said. “But among workers, the desire to go out of the state and work is lower now, particularly among women.”

The difference between the genders, according to the women met, was obvious. Men had suffered the trauma of the lockdown too, but as the primary breadwinners of the family, they had no choice but to set aside their fears, step out and find work wherever they could, migrating far away if necessary.

“Men in our village are also afraid of being stuck in a lockdown if they go out to work,” said Seeta Kumari, a 21-year-old from Kulabira village in Gumla district who had worked at the same factory in Tiruppur as Simran. “Par ladkon ki baat alag hai” – it is different for boys.

Many migrant women who did return to South Indian garment factories were in a similar position as men. “These were largely single women, who had either lost a parent, or left their husbands, or were homeless or resourceless,” said Sujata Mody, the trade union activist. “They were the primary breadwinners for their own families, so they were the most desperate to return to work.”

The return of such migrants has been vital for the garment industry after the lockdown. In December 2020, Tiruppur saw a surge in orders for the export of seasonal clothing abroad, particularly after several countries halted business ties with China, where Covid-19 originated. “There is still a huge demand for migrant workers in garment and textile factories here, because they are willing to work for long hours,” said I Jayaseelan, the founder-secretary of the non-profit Rural Education Environment Development Service in Tiruppur.

In Gumla district, too, women who were working in garment factories in Tamil Nadu came back home and now don't want to return. Among them is Seeta Kumari, a 21-year-old from Kulabira village (extreme right).

But other women, who were not in dire straits, had more room to act on their fears of the lockdown and keep away from migration.

“The job in the factory was bad, but the lockdown was worse,” Anita said. Her biggest fear, that there would be another lockdown, was confirmed in the second wave of Covid-19, which peaked in April and May across India this year, and during which several states did, in fact, impose lockdowns. “Last time we all thought corona was over, but then there was another lockdown this year, wasn’t there?”

Despite these very real fears, some women chose to leave the state during the pandemic. Among them was 32-year-old Susanti Murmu.

A Santhal Adivasi from east Jharkhand’s Dumka district, Susanti did not have to fight or plead with her parents to let her travel to Tiruppur to work in a garment factory. Her struggle was more complex.

Susanti had been married at 15, struggled for years with an alcoholic husband, and finally left him four years ago to return to her parents’ village of Daldangal in Dumka’s Ranisar block. She was now a single mother to three children, aged 16, 12 and 8, and knew that support from her father or brother would not be enough to raise them.

For years, she had tried and failed to find a good job in her vicinity. “But it is hard to get work that pays well in Dumka or Ranchi,” said Susanti, an oval-faced woman with a piercing gaze.

In December 2020, she heard about training and work opportunities for women in a garment factory in Tiruppur. The monthly salary on offer sounded promising: Rs 9,000 for the three months of training, and Rs 12,000 after that.

“I needed the money for my children, but as a mother, it did not feel right to leave them alone and go so far away,” said Susanti. “Eventually I decided to go, so that I could at least send them to good schools.”

In January 2021, Susanti migrated to Tiruppur along with four other women from Dumka – all of them Santhalis who had separated from their alcoholic husbands. At the factory, they did not, of course, get the Rs 9,000 wage they were expecting. They were paid just Rs 6,000 in hand, and Susanti’s savings were too meagre to allow her to set aside anything for her children’s education.

When the second Covid-19 wave began and a lockdown was imposed in Tamil Nadu, Susanti wanted to get on a train to Dumka right away. But she was denied permission to leave the company’s hostel. “The factory was shut, there was no work, and no pay. I needed to go to my children. How could they stop me?” she said, her voice brimming with anger.

In June, Susanti and her four friends were brought back to Jharkhand after they called the migrant workers’ helpline. Like Simran, Anita and Pramila before her, she too has now decided not to risk working outside the state again.

Susanti Murmu (bottom right) went to Tamil Nadu because she wanted to earn enough to send her children to good schools. But as with other women workers, the trauma of the lockdown has soured her dreams.

Back home, most of the women are now confined to domestic and farm work. The only exceptions are Pramila and the 21 women who were rescued with her in October 2020. Since their rescue had made news in local papers, the Jharkhand government offered all of them placements in one of the few garment factories in the state.

The women began work at the factory, in Ranchi’s Ormanjhi town, in November 2020. There are no hostels to accommodate them, but Pramila claims it is much better to be able to rent their own rooms in a nearby village, travel on their own, and cook for themselves. “There is not much difference in the money we make here, but at least we are free,” said Pramila. “And here we are close to our families – we can go visit them any time we want, even if there is a lockdown again.”

The other women interviewed in Jharkhand have had no such luck. All of them made it clear that they still wish to work, earn for themselves and be independent. But because they have chosen not to be interstate migrant workers anymore, they feel trapped by the lack of local opportunities.

This is, in fact, an old problem. In their research paper on women in the workforce, Ashwini Deshpande and Jitendra Singh pointed out that in national-level surveys, women have, for years, repeatedly reported their willingness to work if work is available at or near their homes. After lockdowns for two years in a row, women are laying this condition down even more strongly. In response, they want more investment from the government in generating work locally.

“For girls, the government should now create more jobs inside the state, so that we don’t have to leave,” said Seeta Kumari.

Jharkhand government officials candidly admitted that the state has had very limited opportunities for skilled workers, but had little to say about plans to change the status quo, develop local industry or create more local jobs.

Rakesh Prasad, a joint commissioner in the labour department, claimed that Jharkhand did not have “the right climate conditions” to set up some kinds of industries, like the garment industry. “Any government would want its people to work within their state, but migration happens everywhere,” he said.

Officials claimed that the state had put in place a number of measures to make the experience of migration easier for both men and women. Setting up the migrant workers’ helpline during the lockdown was one of them.

Earlier, in 2019, the state had also announced plans to set up migration support centres in seven cities across India, including Tiruppur and Chennai, where Jharkhand’s workers migrate in large numbers. The centres were supposed to help workers through counselling services and temporary accommodation, while coordinating with employers so that workers’ documentation, the setting up of their bank accounts, and wage payments were done smoothly. “Unfortunately with the lockdown, the centres did not take off,” said Rajan Kumar Srivastava, the finance and administrative manager of the Jharkhand Skill Development Mission Society, the agency set up to implement various Skill India schemes in the state.

Now, labour commissioner A Muthukumar claimed that the state would soon launch an initiative for “safe and responsible migration”, under which the welfare of migrant workers leaving the state would be monitored. “We will sign MOUs [memorandums of understanding] with other states where many migrants go, to ensure that they are not exploited and they receive all social welfare benefits,” said Muthukumar.

Whether this initiative will successfully persuade women workers in Jharkhand to migrate back to garment factories in South India remains to be seen. But for now, as they resist migration for paid work, many women are losing out on income. For young unmarried women, staying out of work also often means giving up on dreams of being their own people, rather than just being wives and mothers.

Some of the women met were starting to face pressure from family members to get married after their return from the factories. Some, like Seeta Kumari, are not being pressured, but only because of continuing economic distress. “Right now, there is no money in the family to have a wedding,” she said.

Simran’s parents have been conscious of her strong views on marriage and have tried to be kinder to her since her return from Tiruppur last year. “We are not pushing her to get married,” said her mother Mangri Oraon. “She is looking for work in Ranchi, and we also want her to stay close to us now.”

After a year of local job hunting, however, Simran no longer has her hopes pinned on public or private jobs in the state. Before the second Covid-19 wave, Simran had asked her father for Rs 3,000 to complete an advanced beauticians’ course. Her eyes sparkling, she said she hopes to open her own beauty parlour one day: “If I don’t get a job, I’ll have to do something for myself.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.