Ajit Kumar was 17 when he left his village in Varanasi district to join a cousin working in an embroidery factory in Surat, Gujarat. As the eldest child of his parents, he took on the responsibility of contributing to the family income. For a year and half, he diligently sent his earnings home, minus what he needed to spend on rent and food.

But then the lockdown was imposed.

Kumar stopped getting his monthly salary of Rs 10,000. There was Rs 3,500 to pay as rent. He called home.

“Mummy, paisa nahi milat rehal,” his mother, Usha Devi, recalled him saying. Mummy, I am not getting any money.

The family does not own any farmland. Usha Devi’s husband Mahendra Bind works as a labourer for daily wages of Rs 300. From their meagre savings, they sent Ajit Rs 5,000 every month and eventually decided it was best he came back home.

But the return involved more than just the cost of the train ticket.

When their neighbours heard their son was heading back from Gujarat, among the states reporting high numbers in the coronavirus epidemic, they panicked and insisted the family keep him away from everyone.

“We were ready to keep him at the village school,” said his mother, “but the pradhan had made no arrangements there. No khatiya, no water, nothing at all.”

The couple decided to build a small outhouse for their son. Working day and night, they had it ready in four days.

“Quarantine bana diya,” their neighbour, Arjun Bind, joked. They built a quarantine centre.

But expenditure burnt a hole in their finances: “Rs 13,000 for the bricks, Rs 200 for each bamboo pole, and Rs 500 for the tarpaulin sheet,” said Usha Devi.

This, at a time when they had no income.

What happens when a new virus enters one of India’s oldest cities and poorest regions? We bring you a week of dispatches from eastern Uttar Pradesh, as Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi, finally emerge from two months of lockdown.

Bhola Bind returned from Mumbai to Madhukar Shahpur Gaur village in Varanasi in May. He said he slept 14 nights on a charpoy in the field.

Early morning of May 11, Ajit Kumar stepped off a train in Gorakhpur after a 48 hour-journey on a ticket that cost Rs 1,200. Uttar Pradesh officials were waiting for a thermal scanner and a bus to take the migrants to their home districts. Travelling another 200 km by road, Ajit alighted on the highway near his village Madhukar Shahpur Gaur near Mirzamurad at 11 am, where he was screened again for fever, before being allowed to go home with the advice to follow a 14-day quarantine.

“We did not get to see this boy for 14 days,” said his neighbour, Arjun Bind, vouching for his discipline.

Despite that, when his mother Usha Devi showed up at the work site that had opened under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on May 14, she faced taunts from the other workers.

“Nafrat karat rehan,” she recalled. They viewed me with hate. “Chuat choot karan.” They treated me as untouchable.

But Usha Devi stood her ground. Her family badly needed the work – they had no other source of income. “Even my husband wanted to work but the rozgar sevak said only one member can work per job card at one time,” she said.

There is no such restriction under the job guarantee law, which allows multiple members of a family to work simultaneously as long as they have not exhausted the 100 days of work that is each household’s legal entitlement under the scheme. Neither the employment assistant nor the pradhan of the Gaur panchayat were available to clarify why this restriction had been imposed in the village.

But the bigger problem, said the village residents, was that the work ended on May 17 – it lasted just four days.

The slip given to Ajit Kumar by local officials when he returned from Gujarat advises him to stay in home quarantine for 14 days.

Usha Devi and the other workers were still waiting for their payments when this reporter visited the village on June 6. Ishvarti Devi said she had not been paid for the NREGA work she had done in August 2019, even though other workers had received the wages in their bank accounts.

Despite the payment problems, the workers were clear: they wanted the government to open more work sites. “Even men are willing to do NREGA work,” said Saraswati Devi, who had organised work-demand requests that had been submitted at the block office with the help of the NREGA Mazdoor Union.

Since the wage rate in the rural employment scheme at Rs 202 per day is considerably lower than the market-based daily wage rate in the area, it is mostly women who work under the job guarantee scheme to supplement the earnings of the male members of the family. But the coronavirus lockdown seems to have changed this norm.

Even Ajit Kumar was eager to have his name added to the family job card. “Aur kya karenge,” he said. “Lag jayega to achcha hain.” What else can we do, it would be good to get this work.

Saraswati Devi helped organise worker demand requests in Gaur village.

Six kilometres away, in Bhikharipur village, Baiju Prajapati worked on an NREGA work site alongside his wife, Asha Devi, after a long time. The 52-year-old usually spent six months in Kolkata, making and selling purvas, the small earthen pots used to serve tea. The rest of the year, he cultivated wheat and rice on a small farm that he leased. As a sharecropper, he was entitled to only one-third of the harvest, which came to 4 quintals-5 quintals of wheat, he said.

This winter, he was unwell and unable to work in Kolkata. Even the farm was unavailable for lease.

As a result, when the lockdown came, the family had no food stocks.

Worse, one of their four sons, Deepu, was stranded in Mumbai. An ironworker employed to reinforce steel at a building construction site in Nalasopara, Deepu, 21, had not earned any wages since mid-March. The contractor owed him Rs 12,000, he said. Eventually, he travelled back by road, on money his parents sent him. “Rs 4,000 for the truck to Allahabad, and Rs 800 for the Magic [tempo],” he recalled.

Deepu Prajapati arrived in Bhikharipur on May 14 and went straight to the village school. But the pradhan said the district magistrate had ordered all returning migrants to be home-quarantined. His family allocated one of the two rooms in their house to him. “When you came, you might have noticed,” he told this reporter, “I emerged from that room only. Abhi bhi main udhare padha hun. Even now I am confined to the room.”

The quarantine period was emotionally difficult for his mother. “I used to throw rotis at my child, kukde ki tarah, like you throw feed to chickens,” she said, bending her back to demonstrate the action, tears swelling up in her eyes.

Despite all the precautions the family took, Asha Devi and her husband faced the same stigma and ostracisation that Ajit’s mother Usha Devi encountered when she went to work at the pond-building work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

“They wanted to throw us out of NREGA,” said Asha Devi. “Corona lagega corona lagega.” They said we would spread the coronavirus.

She was shocked at the lack of empathy from her neighbours.

“My child had gone hungry, he had spent Rs 4,000 to travel on a truck,” Asha Devi said. “Aaj wohi mahila log ka bachcha rahat okar saath aisa hoet to okar aatma kya kahat…If those women’s children had undergone a painful experience like this, what would they have felt.”

Eventually, the couple was allowed to work at a safe distance from the others.

By June 6, Asha Devi had clocked an impressive 40 days of work, her husband 32 days.

But, for all their struggles, they were still waiting for their payments.

Asha Devi with her son Deepu who had been confined to a room after he returned from Mumbai.

The day this reporter visited Bhikharipur, the NREGA work had been paused in the village because of a spell of rain.

Nearly 15 workers, both men and women, gathered outside Asha Devi’s house, clutching their job cards. All of them had the same complaint: they had been working since April 25 but were yet to receive their full payments.

“Some have been paid for five days, seven days, maximum 11 days,” said Sanju Devi. “Some have not been paid at all.”

Under the employment guarantee act, workers must be paid within 15 days of completing a week’s work cycle. Failing this, they must be given an unemployment allowance.

The rozgar sevak, or the employment officer of the village, Kailash Yadav, said the wage payment invoices had been entered into the central government’s management information system on time. “Sab ka bhugtan MIS ho gaya hai” – everyone has been paid on the MIS.

But he acknowledged the money was yet to come to the workers’ bank accounts.

This is a long-running problem: the Central government has been passing off invoices generated by the employment officials on the ground as evidence for payments made on time, even though the actual bank transfers take much longer. By doing so, the government has been concealing the extent of delayed payments, and avoiding the possibility of having to pay unemployment allowances.

Such delays were unacceptable, even more so at a time when the lockdown had rendered workers destitute, said Suresh Rathaur, a lawyer and activist of the NREGA Mazdoor Union in Varanasi. “As soon as the details are entered in the MIS, money should come the very next day,” he said.

Given that the Central government had allocated an additional Rs 40,000 crore for NREGA under the Atmanirbhar Bharat package, there was no shortage of funds, said Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan.

While the Central government was squarely responsible for the delay in releasing money, on the ground, complicated procedures were adding to the time taken to generate work and wages.

As Yadav explained, to open an NREGA work site, he needs to upload a demand invoice with the names and job card numbers of villagers asking for work. “The muster roll is generated online on that basis,” he said. But, often, more villagers land up on the site, desperate for work. Instead of turning them away, Yadav allows them to work. Simultaneously, he makes trips to the block office to generate a fresh muster roll, but the process takes at least one week.

Delayed muster roll means delayed payment invoices and delayed bank account transfers.

Suresh Rathaur said the government must allow muster rolls to be generated on the work site, simplifying processes, cutting through the red tape, in view of the current crisis of livelihoods.

The crisis is visible in the sharp rise in the number of workers enrolled in NREGA. In Bhikharipur, nearly 35-40 workers had worked under the scheme in 2019-’20, said Yadav. In April and May this year, the number has shot up to nearly 150. “Earlier, 90% of workers were women,” he said. “But now there are an equal number of men and women.”

Despite the delays in wages payment, the residents of Bhikharipur were clear they wanted more NREGA work.

At a time when there was no other work available, Ram Pyaare said it was their only “aasra” or support. “Band hua to kitne log mar jayenge,” he said. If it closes down, many people will die.

A daily wage worker, Ram Pyaare, said most people were surviving on borrowed money. He, himself, had taken a loan of Rs 2,200.

Baiju Prajapati said: “Kissi se liye hai, laat khayenge, juta khayenge, haath judenge, kal ko milega to denge.” We have to bear the insults of those we have borrowed money from, we have to fold our hands in front of them, until we get our wages and we pay them off.

As their anxieties swelled, NREGA workers pooled in Rs 20-donations and organised a prayer at the temple to the village deity in May. “Dih baba ka pet bhar lein,” said a woman. “Taaki ghar dwar sab ka badiya rahal, corona bhagalal, kaam diyal.” We filled the deity’s stomach in the hope he would protect us, banish coronavirus, and get us work.

The temple of the village deity in Bhikharipur.