“You stopped the work when there were 400 cases. Now there are one lakh cases in the country and you want us to restart work,” said Amir Kumar, gently mocking the Indian government, his eyes lighting up above the flimsy mask he wore. “Is this even safe?”

The lean man from Bihar was standing on the side of the road leading to Panipat railway station in Haryana on Friday. He was trying to leave the city after spending two months of the coronavirus lockdown in a haze of hunger – he had not been paid any wages in April and May. He wanted to leave even though the towel factory where he was employed as a casual worker had finally begun to sputter back to life after the government had allowed industries to resume work.

“How long will this work last?” Kumar asked. “Why should the worker stay?”

Amir Kumar (extreme right) and other migrant workers stand on the road leading to Panipat railway station.

But Pritam Singh Sachdeva, the president of the Northern India Rollers and Spinners Association and the former chairman of the Panipat chapter of Haryana Chamber of Industry and Commerce, dismissed the migrant exodus as irrational. “It is all psychological,” he claimed.

“We gave them rations. We took care of them. We did everything we could,” he said. “But the workers are adamant they want to go home. Unhone zidd pakad li hai.”

Singh estimated that of the 400,000 workers employed in Panipat’s textile industry, the majority of whom were from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, 200,000 had already left. The shortage of labour was stopping factories from resuming production, he claimed.

The deputy commissioner of Panipat, Dharmender Singh, seemed to agree: “labour shortage” was the main reason industries were not operating at full capacity, he said.

Despite knowing this, the government was allowing more workers to leave, even facilitating their return, Sachdeva complained.

“Some days ago, at 10.30 pm, policemen came to the factory and announced that a bus would be leaving at 3 am,” he said. “Now the labour had 50% mind to stay, 50% mind to leave. But when such an announcement happens, you can imagine the reaction. The workers stopped the machines and ran away.”

On the surface, this would seem like a kind of payback: migrant workers were abandoning an industry that had abandoned them.

But it is not worker sentiment alone that is driving the industrial paralysis in Panipat.

Economic actors have made hard-nosed calculations and decided the future is too uncertain to invest their labour and capital, interviews with scores of workers and factory owners show.

In the story of this textile town lie glimpses of the larger fear sweeping the Indian economy.

Panipat lies 90 km north of New Delhi. Once known as handloom city, famous for hand-woven carpets and dhurries, it annually produces Rs 10,000-crore worth of every possible home furnishing: bedsheets, blankets, bath mats, towels, curtains, home linen. Its buyers range from pheriwalas in Uttar Pradesh
to home decor companies in the United States.

Its factories are sprawled all over the city, with chimneys sticking out of nooks and crannies, not just in the neatly-laid out industrial estates. Workers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, occupy different niches in the labour economy. Very few are lucky to have formal jobs with steady salaries and benefits. Most are employed casually and paid on a per-piece basis.

This informalisation of employment was well known but its scale was unmapped, until the lockdown inadvertently generated data. Only about 2,000 units in Panipat are registered under the Factories Act, said Kshitij Kapoor, the general manager of the Haryana government’s district industries centre, but as many as 6,393 factories applied to the state government for permission to resume production.

With many applicants listing their workforce as more than 10 workers, the threshold beyond which the Factories Act kicks in, the labour department shot off notices asking them to register under the law. This provoked howls of protest from companies, wary of compliance costs.

For now, the status of the notices was unclear, said Kapoor. Of the 6,393 factories that had made applications, 4,417 had been granted approval to resume work. Starting May 11, they have been allowed to employ 100% of their workforce. But the actual employment levels continue to be low, she admitted.

Just how low is anybody’s guess.

“Work at my factory resumed yesterday,” said Jitan Singh. “But it lasted just three-four hours.”

The 35-year-old from Purnea district in Bihar, employed in a bedsheet-making firm in Panipat, sat on a charpoy on the terrace of a small house in a workers’ colony, Dalbir Nagar. Five other workers, all from Bihar, stood around.

Among them, Upinder Poddar from Bhagalpur district was the only one who had clocked a week of work in May, after production had resumed. Even his experience was far from smooth. “Our employer is operating under fear. Darr darr ke chala raha hai,” said Poddar. This was because the dhurrie-making factory did not have approval to operate during the lockdown. “Yesterday, someone came for checking, so we were thrown out of the factory at 5 pm itself.”

Fewer hours at work meant fewer earnings.

As machine operators, the men were better off than pure piece-rate workers, whose income depended entirely on the number of pieces they were able to produce. Running a machine fetched them a daily wage, on top of which they were rewarded for their productivity measured in terms of meters or pieces of fabric churned out. For instance, Nitesh Poddar, who worked in a factory producing high-end sofa fabric, was paid Rs 250 per day and Rs 2 per metre fabric, which added upto Rs 12,000 in a good month, he said.

But with factories now operating for fewer hours every day, income was bound to be lower. “Only enough for workers to feed themselves,” said Jitan Singh, his eyebrows knotted, his voice betraying bitterness.

In his case, whatever work he did would first go towards paying off the Rs 3,500 that he had received from his factory-owner during the lockdown “as advance payment deductible against future work”. Other workers had not received any money at all. Some had to even put up a fight to extract their wage payments for March.

Sudhakar Ojha, 35, said he defied the lockdown in the first week of April to organise a protest outside the factory gate. “I wanted the police to come, the media to come, to take note of what the owner was doing to us, but no one came,” he said. Yet, the protest worked: the owner disposed off the pending wages.

Nitesh Poddar, 23, had an even more difficult time: his wages for March did not materialise till the first week of May. To sustain his family through the lockdown, he was forced to lease out their tiny parcel of farmland in Bihar for a paltry amount of Rs 5,000. Poddar eventually went to the labour court, but before the hearing could take place, the wage payments were made. “Only because the owner wanted to resume work and wanted the labour back,” he said, with a smirk.

The Haryana government’s advisory asking all establishments to pay their workers full wages during the lockdown period was flagrantly ignored, said PP Kapoor of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions.

Kshitij Kapoor, the government official heading the District Industries Centre said while her office had orders from Chandigarh to enforce wages for March, there were no orders subsequently. “Perhaps because a challenge was filed in the Supreme Court by a Pune firm, leading to a stay,” she said.

With food distress rising among workers in Panipat, PP Kapoor approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which passed an order reiterating the need for the government to provide food support to those in need. Even this order was patchily implemented, Kapoor alleged. “Every day, I send lists to the administration with the names, addresses, mobile phone numbers, Aadhaar numbers of workers who are going hungry,” he said. “Some get food, others don’t.”

“The migrant workers have lost all faith in their employers, in the Haryana government,” Kapoor emphasised. “Why would they stay?”

But the workers framed their decision to leave the city in more pragmatic terms. “If we were getting full work here, then why would we go back to our village?” said Nitesh Poddar. “The thing is there is not enough work here.”

“And now that work is resuming,” he laughed, “the landlords are crawling out to demand rent. For three months, the pending amount is Rs 4,500.”

Sudhakar Ojha was quick to add that staying home had meant a higher electricity bill. “Rs 1,600 for just operating a fan,” he said.

“The number of coronavirus cases is still rising in the country,” he continued. “If we don’t go back to Bihar now, who knows when there is another lockdown and factories are closed once again. What will happen to us then?”

“Agar abhi khane ke laale padh rahe hai aage kya hoga?” he asked. If we are going without food now, what will happen in the future?

Poddar summed it up: “We are going back because we know factory owners have resumed production only to use the leftover stock. No one is ordering fresh kachcha maal. Once the stock runs out, they will close production.”

Peek inside most factories in Panipat and you are likely to find cardboard boxes stacked up high. Factory owners said buyers had disappeared after the lockdown started, leaving them with unsold inventory.

“Orders have been cancelled,” said Shubham Baweja, the young proprietor of CR Overseas, in a matter-of-fact way. The blanket-making firm has decided against resuming production. “The market is unstable,” Baweja said. “It is not possible to forecast demand.”

Jitender Malik, who runs a company called Garima Carpets, which makes carpets, rugs and bathmats, said three containers of his products were lying in a warehouse in the United States, after Ross home decor company abruptly put the orders on hold and then cancelled them.

For the first time in 30 years as an entrepreneur, he was experiencing debilitating fear, he said.

He had restarted production but with fewer workers. In normal times, his factory employs 200 people, including 100 contract workers. On May 22, just 40 workers could be seen toiling away at the looms, loading boxes, operating machines under tin sheds.

“For now, I have orders from Walmart Canada,” Malik said. “I am making bathmats, but this work will be over in 10 days.”

“Anyone who claims they have not started production because there is a labour shortage isn’t being truthful,” he continued. “People simply do not have orders.”

So why all the focus on the migrant workers’ exodus?

“The concern about labour is that what if tomorrow I get orders then where will I find the labour, if everyone is allowed to go home.”

Jitender Malik at the pitloom shed which is part of his sprawling factory.

A splash of sanitiser, a packet of food, a water bottle, a face mask. And instructions from the police to move.

This was the drill outside Panipat railway station as migrant workers and their families disembarked from a bus and lined up to board a train for Muzaffarpur, Bihar, on the afternoon of May 22.

As the queue surged forward, all that Sonu Chaudhary, 25, managed to say about why he was leaving the city: “Koi suvidha nahi mila.” I did not get any help.

For every migrant worker boarding the train, 40 others were still waiting for transport. The Centre had formally cleared the return of interstate migrants on April 29. Around one lakh migrants wanting to leave Panipat had registered with the Haryana government over the next few days, said Mohammed Shayin, the nodal officer for the district. Of these, 60,000 had already left the city, he said.

This means three weeks later, 40,000 were still stranded.

Amir Kumar, the towel-factory worker, had rushed to Panipat railway station when he heard a train would be departing for Muzaffarpur, his home district. But he wasn’t allowed to enter since his name was not on the list of travellers, even though he had registered with both the states as soon as the process had opened.

In the 44-degree blistering heat, he was debating whether it was time to walk home.

“Wahan ki sarkar lena nahi chahti hai. Yahan ki sarkar bhijwana nahi chahti hai,” he said, summing up the workers’ predicament.

The Bihar government does not want to take us back and the Haryana government does not want to let us go.