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It is not yet dawn but Yeroor village is long awake, the hum of productivity floating over 'Gulf Street', a lush green boulevard named for the thousands of workers who leave the southern Indian state of Kerala every year for jobs in the Middle East.

But now the workers are back, from machine operator Sudheesh Kumar, who has been forced into manual labour in Yeroor to make ends meet, to former banker Binoj Kuttappan, who has taken up dog breeding in state capital Thiruvananthapuram for a living.

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Binoj Kuttappan plays with his dogs at the breeding facility he has set up in the backyard of his house in Thiruvananthapuram, India, February 18, 2021. Kuttappan, a banker in Abu Dhabi for over a decade, returned to his hometown in Kerala last year during the pandemic and started a dog breeding business with plans afoot for air-conditioned kennels, a garden for dogs and a pet accessories shop. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

In the single biggest reverse migration in more than 50 years, workers from the Gulf have streamed back to the coastal state of Kerala in the past year, propelled by a pandemic that deflated dreams of overseas riches and changing family fortunes.

Whilst once they came home wealthy and revered, bearing gold, sunglasses, clothes and funds to buy homes, now they have returned sheepish and penniless.

"Prior to COVID, they were celebrated as heroes. Now they have nothing," said Irudaya Rajan, a professor who has studied migration patterns in Kerala, India's southernmost state.

"This is the first time they have returned empty-handed and will end up borrowing and selling assets," said Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala.

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Sharif Khan lifts stones at a quarry in Yeroor village, India, February 17, 2021. Khan worked at a mall in Qatar but returned to his village jobless last year during the pandemic. He starts from home at 5am every day to beat the rush of people seeking work at the stone quarry. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

Kerala is one of the states that sends the most workers to the Gulf, accounting for about 2.5 million of 6 million Indians there. Kerala received about 19% of $78.6 billion transferred to India from overseas workers in 2018, the highest state tally in the country that is the world's top recipient of remittances.

But more than 1.1 million people have returned in the last 10 months, 70% having lost their jobs as domestic workers, builders, waiters, chefs and more, official data shows.

This has upended workers and their families' lives, and destroyed businesses dependent on the India-Gulf migration.

The evidence is plain to see in the 13,000-strong population of Yeroor.

While Gulf Street is lined by rows of neat, whitewashed bungalows built with money earned overseas, a nearby stone quarry is billowing out clouds of dust as workers start drilling and digging even before the sun is up.

Sharif Khan lifts stones with his co-workers at a quarry in Yeroor village, India, February 17, 2021. Khan worked at a mall in Qatar but returned to his village jobless last year during the pandemic. He starts from home at 5am every day to beat the rush of people seeking work at the stone quarry. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

Kumar, 50, spent 22 years in the Middle East, with his final job in Saudi Arabia operating machines at Jeddah airport's waste water treatment where he earned triple the average Kerala wage.

In March 2020, he flew home - briefly, he thought - but  flights were grounded in a bid to contain the new coronavirus.

Now the father of two splits his time between farm labour and the stone quarry, a reversal of fortunes he'd never envisioned when he first ventured overseas.

"I had planned my life when I left 22 years ago. I had any ordinary man's dreams - a house, good education for my children," a deflated Kumar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside his house, sweat beading his brow.

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Sudheesh Kumar and his daughter pluck vegetables in their small kitchen garden in Yeroor, India, February 17, 2021. Kumar worked at the Jeddah airport and returned last year to his village, and now seeks work at farms and the local stone quarry to repay loans he took to build a two-storey house for his family. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

Kumar has been forced to sell his car and farmland to pay off a loan for his four-bedroom home in Gulf Street.

Now he is earning 400 rupees ($5.50) a day compared to a fixed monthly 20,000 rupees in Jeddah with overtime on top.

"My heart pained the first day I lifted stones 22 years after I had left it all for a better life. I have no shame in doing hard labour, but how did I land here? Where did I go wrong? Was building this house a mistake?" Kumar said.

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Sudheesh Kumar poses with bananas he plucked from his farm in Yeroor, India, February 17, 2021. Kumar worked at the Jeddah airport and returned last year to his village, and now seeks work at farms and the local stone quarry to repay loans he took to build a two-storey house for his family. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

During the Gulf War 30 years ago and the 2008 financial crisis many workers were forced back to Kerala, but this time the numbers are far higher number and the job market tighter.

State officials say they have already helped 1,000 people with subsidised loans to launch their own ventures.

A nationwide initiative linking returnees with jobs has notched up more than 30,000 registrants, about 80% of them from the Gulf States of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman, according to a government release.

Shamna Khan, 30, whose right leg is badly swollen by lymphoedema, never needed to work because her husband Shafir sent enough money home from his job in a glitzy Qatar mall.

The couple turned their mud and clay house to concrete, laid tiles, built an indoor bathroom and got help for Shamna's leg.

Shamna Khan poses for a picture at a rubber plantation where she is employed under the rural scheme in Yeroor village, India, February 17, 2021. Khan took up work for the first time despite her swollen right leg due to lymphoedema after her husband returned jobless from Qatar during the pandemic. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

But after Shafir returned jobless last March, Shamna registered for India's rural job scheme for about 300 rupees a day that guarantees a minimum 100 days of work in their village such as building roads, digging wells and trenches at farms.

"I am happy to work as I can support my family, but my leg is prone to infections," said Shamna, as she dug a trench at the village's rubber plantation.

Sharif, who works at the quarry, worries about the looming uncertainty, his unpaid loans - and Shamna's health.

"All I wanted was to provide for my family, get my wife treated and send our son to a good school," Sharif said. "There is no other work here."

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Sharif Khan lifts stones with his co-workers at a quarry in Yeroor village, India, February 17, 2021. Khan worked at a mall in Qatar but returned to his village jobless last year during the pandemic. He starts from home at 5am every day to beat the rush of people seeking work at the stone quarry. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

More than 90% of Indian migrant workers, most of whom are low- and semi-skilled workers, work in the Gulf region and South-East Asia, according to the United Nations.

Connecting them with jobs are recruitment agencies and travel firms which match workers with employers and book them on flights - a hectic business that Ajimon Mak, 45, nurtured for 14 years in Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram.

"Ticketing was my main business, it was a passion and I was always busy. During the lockdown I saw it all go down to zero," said Mak, lifting a tuna by its tail from the freezer in his newly-opened fish shop in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala's capital.

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Ajimon Mak loads fresh fish into the freezer at his fish stall in Thiruvananthapuram, India, February 22, 2021. Mak overcame family resistance to start the fish business after his travel company shuttered during the lockdown last year. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

To fill the gap Mak moved into fishmongering, initially taking orders online and running home deliveries but then also renting a shop.

"People will always need food," he said.

Former banker Binoj Kuttappan, 40, also forged a new path after returning to Thiruvananthapuram from Abu Dhabi last year following layoffs at his financial service company and decided to turn his passion for dogs into a breeding business.

"I would have never done this if not for the pandemic," said Kuttappan, showing off seven dogs - a golden retriever, a labrador and a Great Dane among others - that he bought for 150,000 rupees.

Binoj Kuttappan bathes a puppy at the dog breeding facility he has created in the backyard of his house in Thiruvananthapuram, India, February 18, 2021. Kuttappan, a banker in Abu Dhabi for over a decade, returned to his hometown in Kerala last year during the pandemic and started a dog breeding business with plans afoot for air-conditioned kennels, a garden for dogs and a pet accessories shop. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

With plans for a pet accessories shop, a garden for dogs and air-conditioned kennels, he has no plans to return to the Gulf - but others are counting the days until they can go back to higher earnings.

At a slum in Thiruvanthapuram, Kala Malliga earns 300 rupees a day by making and selling up to 1,000 paper bags after her husband lost his job as a salesman at a local market. She hopes he finds work in the Gulf some day.  

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Kala Malliga walks with her handmade paper bags to deliver them at Thiruvananthapuram, India, February 24, 2021. Malliga took up work for the first time after her husband lost his salesman’s job at the local market declared a COVID hotspot. Her earnings have made her “feel like an equal” at home but she hoped her husband finds work in the Gulf some day. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rakesh Nair

Shafir Khan plans to seek work at Lulu Mall that is being built in Thiruvananthapuram, while Sudheesh Kumar has started calling up agencies seeking work in the Gulf.

"My savings for our future are gone and now our future looks bleak," said Kumar. "I no longer think of making a profit. I only think of surviving the day."  

This photo essay is part of the series “COVID-19 The Bigger Picture” supported by the Omidyar Network. Photographers of the Livelihoods in Limbo series are winners of a competition to capture the most powerful images of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on everyday people. To find out more about the photographers and competition click here.

($1 = 72.9580 Indian rupees)

CREDITS
Reporter: Roli Srivastava
Photographer: Rakesh Nair
Text editing: Lyndsay Griffiths and Belinda Goldsmith
Producers: Amber Milne and Dan Phillips

Photography by Rakesh Nair

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