As the 21-day national lockdown, in the face of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, plays out, reports from different parts of India have reported on the predicament of migrant workers. Walking long distances or crammed into whatever mode of transportation they can still find, hundreds of these individuals are desperately looking for a way to get home.

A region that sees a significant influx of migrant workers is Ladakh. Migrants come in from Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and other parts of the country, working in extreme weather, usually without proper protective gear or insurance. But the sparse livelihood options back home make migrating the more feasible choice.

I first travelled to Ladakh in 2011 and have since been documenting the migrant workers and their living situation. Over the past decade, they may have acquired more construction tools but overall, their conditions haven’t changed much and their struggles remain the same. Many of them still live under canvas tents, several crowded into cramped rooms. The lack of safety gear means they use cloth instead of masks for protection. And they still have to carry heavy loads on their backs in the low-oxygen air at this high altitude.

After Ladakh was declared as a separate administrative and revenue division, this has opened a path for builders to invest in the region, starting with the construction of new hotels and hospitals, creating demand for construction workers. I believe this would have resulted in an increased flow of migrant labourers to Ladakh for infrastructure development.

In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, these workers’ situation is going to become even more fragile, even as they face an economic slowdown. Travel to and from Ladakh is going to be a challenge since many of them come from the interiors and will have limited access to transportation. The basic cost of travel might also increase. The construction season usually begins in April, while the country will still be under lockdown. Because of this, the work season might get shortened, severely impacting their livelihood since they are daily wage earners.

Given the uncertainty of this time, what is certain is this: the crisis will affect a vulnerable population in multiple ways. The following images are a visual record of my time in Ladakh, documenting migrant workers over the years.

1

Most of the road construction workers in Ladakh have migrated either from Bihar or Jharkhand. From summer to late autumn (May to mid-October) they can be seen across the Ladakh district working in inhospitable conditions.

2

Migrant workers pour granite in a vending machine in the Leh main market area for an upcoming hotel for tourists.

3

Sometimes, all the members of a family migrate together in search of better income and opportunities. In this photo is Surita Devi who came from Madhya Pradesh to Hanle, a border village close to China, and is working to build a school.

4

My conversations with the workers revealed that many of them can’t continue professions like farming to earn a livelihood because of issues like flooding induced by climate change. “I lost all my crops because of the monsoon flood and to recover my losses I had to look for an alternate option and become a worker," said one worker from Bihar.

5

A worker waits for the arrival of a truck carrying drinking water from Rongo village, Ladakh. They store water in oil drums after washing them.

6

A labourer, wrapped up in winter clothing, is standing next to a giant mixer. The thermals are often provided by the Indian Army to support these workers.

7

Workers build roadside walls on a slope in an area prone to frequent mudslides.

8

A group of workers near Rongo village is taking a lunch break. Rongo is located in the Changthang plateau, almost 12,000 feet high, and cold even during the summer.

10

Bhuban Das is a worker from the Siliguri district of West Bengal who came to Ladakh in search of better income to support his son’s medical expenses as the child has a chronic heart illness.

11

An emergency phone number of the team leader is marked on a black board outside a makeshift camp. Fatal accidents are not uncommon for these workers.

12

In a brick factory near the Thiksey monastery, a worker laughs out loud as I take her photograph.

13

A group of workers heads back to work while yaks are grazing nearby.

Banner image: In Hanle village, a migrant worker fixes an electrical wire without any protective gear.

Copyright © 2020 Firstpost - All rights reserved