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Migrant workers given starring role in Indian festival tribute

CHENNAI, India, Oct 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - I ndia’s millions of migrant workers, whose plight under lockdown moved the country, will receive a unique tribute at a festival celebrating the Hindu goddess Durga which starts this weekend.

Shocked by television pictures of jobless migrants trudging home to distant villages, artist Bhabotosh Sutar decided to pay homage to them with a migrant-themed pandal - a kind of marquee that is decorated each year for Durga Puja festivities.

“Migrant worker is a new term that has been added to our vocabulary this year,” said Sutar, who has been designing pandals for the festival in the eastern city of Kolkata for the last two decades.

Thousands of pandals are fashioned out of bamboo and cloth every year to house idols of the goddess during the nine-day celebration, and designers increasingly reference everyday realities in their colourful creations.

This year, Sutar said it was only fitting to honour the migrant workers in every way possible - from musical compositions to special displays spotlighting their struggles during the coronavirus pandemic.

He has also hired unemployed migrants from rural areas to build the pandal, which along with an estimated 10,000 others in the city will be visited by tens of thousands of people during the festival - the biggest in the state of West Bengal.

Hosting religious activities, food stalls and music events, the pandals are paid for by local cultural groups and the state government, which this year doubled funding for the festival.

“This year so many people lost their jobs. We wanted to not only give employment to some of them but also remind people of the hardships they face to earn their daily wages,” Sutar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

An estimated 100 million migrant workers were among the worst hit by India’s strict lockdown between March and early June, which triggered a mass exodus from city jobs in garment factories, building sites and brick kilns.

Migrant workers took to the roads en masse and walked back to their villages, their hardship unfolding live on television and prompting an outpouring of voluntary efforts to help them.

‘MY PRAYERS WERE ANSWERED’

Anup Mondal, 26, lost his job as a driver during the pandemic and was desperately looking for work when he heard that the Naktala Udayan Sangha, a social club in Kolkata, was hiring people to build its pandal.

“It was like my prayers had been answered,” Mondal said over the phone after a 14-hour day for which he earned 1,000 Indian rupees ($14).

“There is a lot of despair in my village with so many workers returning home empty-handed and struggling to find work. This job means a lot to me.”

Mondal is among 60 migrants hired by the club to construct the pandal designed by Sutar, which tells the story of how migrants traveled home when their city livelihoods dried up - many walking, others crammed into buses or on top of trucks.

The organisers opted for low-cost materials this year, allocating more of their budget to the workers’ wages instead.

Sandip Dasgupta, a member of the Naktala Udayan Sangha’s festival organisational committee, said the theme of this year’s event was waves - a metaphor for life’s ups and downs.

“Central to that theme is the journey of the workers, all of whom had one destination - home,” he said.

Several other local organisations have also hired migrant workers or women from low-income families to help build and decorate their pandals, marking a bright spot in a painful year.

"It all looked bleak this time till I got this job," said Mondal, the 26-year-old driver. "I feel lucky that at least my family will have enough food on the table and we will celebrate that." ($1 = 73.2699 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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