KAMTHANA, India - On a recent muggy afternoon in southern India, Earappa Bawge hacked at the ground with a pickax, his white shirt pasted to his back. Each dull thud reminded him of how far his hopes had fallen.
Just months ago, the 27-year-old engineer was poring over project files in an air-conditioned room at a factory hundreds of miles away. The job was a ticket out of rural poverty for Bawge's entire family, who had sacrificed for years so he could complete his studies.
Now he was back in the village where he was born, propelled by a wave of economic destruction rolling across India during the pandemic. To survive, Bawge began digging ditches under a public works program. Alongside him were a former bank employee, a veterinarian and three MBA students. At the end of the day, each received $3.70.
"If I don't work, we don't get to eat," said Bawge, flicking beads of sweat from his brow. "Hunger trumps any aspiration."
As India's economy reels in the aftermath of one of the world's strictest lockdowns, a rural employment program has emerged as a lifeline for some of the tens of millions left jobless. The government program - which aims to guarantee 100 days of unskilled work in rural areas - was intended to combat poverty and reduce the volatility of agricultural wages. Now it is a potent symbol of how the middle-class dreams of millions of Indians are unraveling.
The program is serving as a last resort for university graduates as well as former white-collar workers who find themselves with no other safety net. More than 17 million new entrants applied to access the program from April through mid-September. Nearly 60 million households participated during that time - higher than the total for all of last year and the most in the program's 14-year history.
The need is dire. India's economic output shrank by 24% in the three months to June compared to the same period last year, worse than any other major economy. During the nationwide lockdown, more than 120 million jobs were lost, most of them in the country's vast informal sector. Many of those workers have returned to work out of sheer necessity, often scraping by on far lower wages.
Salaried workers were also badly affected. A survey by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy found that 21 million salaried jobs were lost between April and August. The hardest hit group were workers with professional qualifications such as engineers, teachers and accountants.
Meanwhile, there is no end in sight to the pandemic. India has recorded more than 5 million coronavirus cases and is adding more each day than any other country. It is likely to overtake the United States for the most cases in the world by next month if current trends hold.
As the economy has tanked, growing numbers of Indians have turned to a program named after India's independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and launched by the country's previous government.
"We really only expect people to go there when they have nothing else," said Amit Basole, an economist at Azim Premji University in Bangalore.
Figures show that the demand for the program - known by its acronym MGNREGA - was so high that it outstripped the ability of local councils to provide work.
Bawge, the engineer, lives in the district of Bidar in the southern state of Karnataka. More than 11,000 people with university degrees and above have worked under the program in the district since the lockdown began, according to local officials. They've been digging ditches, cleaning lakes and planting trees.
There was a sudden surge in demand for work after the lockdown.
"The momentum is still underway," said Gyanendra Kumar Gangwar, the officer overseeing the program in Bidar. "It's sad that we couldn't provide work suitable for their qualifications."
Bawge is a first-generation university graduate who belongs to an Indigenous tribe, one of the most disadvantaged groups in India. Completing a degree meant sacrificing years of wages that could have supported his family of five.
When his father died during his last year of college, the pressure mounted on Bawge to find gainful employment. Late last year, his future looked bright: Bawge landed a managerial job at a toolmaking company in Bangalore, India's technology capital. He hoped to stay there and ascend the ladder into more senior positions.
Then the factory shuttered during the lockdown. Turning to manual labor was not an easy decision, he said. But as more and more young men came back to the village, they banded together. "I was depressed at first because I felt all the sacrifices made by my family for my education had gone to waste," he said.
In another narrow lane of the same village sits the house of Atish Metre, a 25-year-old with an MBA, who works alongside Bawge. In February, he landed a position in Bangalore at one of India's biggest banks as a home loan salesman. The job paid him $200 a month, enough that he could save a small amount. He loved that the job required him to wear a button-down shirt and formal shoes.
After the lockdown was imposed in late March, however, none of his customers were interested in taking out loans, and he couldn't fulfill the targets set by his manager, who Metre said pressured him to quit. He returned to his village, expecting to stay home for a month or so, then return to the city to look for a new job. But now Metre is worried about going back as cases soar in Bangalore.
"My friends were shocked to hear I was doing this," he said. "They say, 'You did an MBA and now this.' "
The same situation is playing out in other parts of the country. In the state of Telangana, Shankaraiah Karravula, a teacher for 14 years, was forced to turn to the rural employment program when he stopped receiving his salary after schools shut down in March.
"I am ready to do any work," he said.
In the eastern state of Odisha, Rajendra Pradhan, a 24-year-old engineer, recently applied for the program.
"It pains me, but my family is dependent on me," he said. "I can't sit idle and watch them suffer."
While the lockdown was officially lifted in June and the unemployment rate has improved, many economic indicators remain depressed.
Sudha Narayanan, an economist at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai, said she expected the rural works program to remain a critical safety net for the next two years. "It's the fallback option, but there is nothing in the rest of the economy to indicate that the jobs will all come back," she said.
She said there is an urgent need for the government to expand the program's funding and increase the number of guaranteed work days.
For Bawge, this work has kept his family fed. He still holds out hope that the factory will call him back. It reopened after restrictions were lifted, but managers say there is not enough work to reinstate all its employees.
"My father insisted I study so I would have a better future than him," said Bawge, his voice briefly choking with grief. "The lockdown killed our dreams."
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Slater reported from New Delhi. The Washington Post's Mohit Rao in Bangalore and Tazeen Qureshy in Bhubaneswar contributed to this report.
KASHGAR, China - A huge Brutalist entrance gate, topped with the red national flag, stands before archetypal Chinese government buildings. There is no sign identifying the complex, only an inscription bearing an exhortation from Communist Party founding father Mao Zedong: "Stay true to our founding mission and aspirations."
But the 45-foot-high walls and guard towers indicate that this massive compound - next to a vocational training school and a logistics center south of Kashgar - is not just another bureaucratic outpost in western China, where authorities have waged sweeping campaigns of repression against the mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
It is a new detention camp spanning some 60 acres, opened as recently as January. With 13 five-story residential buildings, it can accommodate more than 10,000 people.
The Kashgar site is among dozens of prisonlike detention centers that Chinese authorities have built across the Xinjiang region, according to the Xinjiang Data Project, an initiative of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), despite Beijing's claims that it is winding down its internationally denounced effort to "reeducate" the Uighur population after deeming the campaign a success.
A recent visit to Xinjiang by The Washington Post and evidence compiled by ASPI, a Canberra-based think tank, suggest international pressure and outrage have done little to slow China's crackdown, which appears to be entering an ominous new phase.
For the past year, the Chinese government has said that almost all the people in its "vocational training program" in Xinjiang, ostensibly aimed at "deradicalizing" the region's mostly Muslim population, had "graduated" and been released into the community.
"This shows that the statements made by the government are patently false," said ASPI researcher Nathan Ruser, adding that there had merely been a "shift in style of detention."
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The new compound, one of at least 60 facilities either built from scratch or expanded over the past year, has floodlights and five layers of tall barbed-wire fences in addition to the towering walls.
Satellite imagery reveals a tunnel for sending detainees from a processing center into the facility, and a large courtyard like those seen in other camps where detainees have been forced to pledge allegiance to the Chinese flag.
"This is a much more concerted effort to detain and physically remove people from society," Ruser said. "There aren't any sort of rehabilitative features in these higher-security detention centers. They seem to rather just be prisons by another name."
Some prison-style facilities like the one outside Kashgar are new. Other, existing sites have been expanded with higher-security areas. New buildings added to Xinjiang's largest camp, in Dabancheng, near Urumqi, last year stretched to almost a mile in length, Ruser said.
Some 14 facilities are still being built across Xinjiang, the satellite imagery shows.
The findings support recent reporting from BuzzFeed News that China has built massive new high-security prison camps to create a vast and permanent infrastructure for mass detention.
These detention camps are the backdrop to all Chinese government efforts to control the population in Xinjiang, said James Millward, a professor of inter-societal history at Georgetown University who has been tracking the plight of the Uighurs.
"They exist as a threat," Millward said. "[The authorities] can go to people and say: We want you to move 600 miles and work in a factory, or your father better not object to this marriage that's been set up for you by the party committee, otherwise you'll be seen as an extremist."
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When a Post reporter tried to visit the detention center half an hour's drive south of Kashgar this month, her vehicle was quickly surrounded by at least eight cars that had previously been tailing at some distance. This site was clearly sensitive.
When The Post's reporter and two European journalists headed toward another new camp in Akto, south of Kashgar, they were stopped repeatedly, made to register their passports and drive behind police cars, only to be turned around at a county border. Coronavirus precautions were given as the reason.
Conversely, when they visited several compounds that previously held local Uighurs, authorities didn't bother much with trying to obstruct the reporters.
Those facilities appeared empty. Windows swung open at one former "vocational training" center. Bunk beds lay in piles in the yard at another. Litter rolled past ping-pong tables and over lonely soccer fields.
About eight camps appear to have been decommissioned, and 70 more, almost all of them lower-security facilities, have had their internal fencing or perimeter walls removed, according to ASPI's database. But there are no signs of soccer fields, factories or vocational facilities at the new compound south of Kashgar that would indicate a rehabilitative purpose.
Many Uighurs and people of other ethnic minority groups who have been sent to reeducation camps have subsequently disappeared into prisons. Mayila Yakufu, a Mandarin-speaking insurance company worker, was released this monthafter two years and three months of detention without trial. She had previously been put into a "vocational training" internment camp for 10 months.
When the scale of the human rights abuses in Xinjiang came to light in 2017 and 2018, China categorically denied their existence. But as satellite imagery and testimony from survivors and relatives became incontrovertible, and United Nations experts estimated that 1 million people or more had been incarcerated, Beijing tried to explain away the camps as a necessary program to deal with terrorists.
The region, which was conquered during the Qing dynasty in the 1700s and given a name meaning "new frontier" in Chinese, is home to Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims whose culture and language are distinct from that of China's dominant Han people.
For more than two centuries, people here have protested, sometimes violently, against Chinese repression. Some 200 people were killed in riots in the provincial capital, Urumqi, 11 years ago.
In recent years, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, Beijing has used these protests as a reason to carry out what many human rights advocates have labeled cultural genocide.
People who have been interned in the camps have described being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol; to renounce their religion and pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party; and to undergo what they have described as systematic brainwashing. Women have been forcibly sterilized and the Uighur birthrate has plummeted.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called China's treatment of Uighur Muslims the "stain of the century," and the administration is reportedly weighing a declaration of China's actions as genocide.
Xinjiang authorities did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about the development of the detention system.
But Xinjiang government chairman Shohrat Zakir, the top Uighur official in the party structure in the region, has said that the "reeducation camps" were needed to combat violent religious extremism and that the "graduates" now faced brighter futures.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said this month that suggestions that China was persecuting Uighurs had been "concocted by some anti-China forces" and were "another farce designed to smear and discredit China."
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The shift is part of a chilling new reality here in Kashgar, the traditional capital of Uighur culture, which has been under strict Communist Party controls for three years coinciding with the reeducation campaign.
With the population cowed, authorities recently appear to have let up a bit, secure in their control of Kashgar.
The "convenience" police stations that used to monitor movements at every major intersection have gone. Airport-style security checks at markets and in underpasses have largely disappeared, with only metal detectors in use.
Around Kashgar, Uighurs were palpably afraid to talk to foreign visitors, waving away reporters before they could ask questions.
The Old City, once an atmospheric oasis on the Silk Road, has been turned into a theme park for Han Chinese tourists, complete with light displays featuring Mandarin Chinese characters and kitschy settings that are perfect for selfies.
But closer observation reveals that none of the men in this Muslim city have beards and none of the women wear the hijab. The men chopping fruit and meat in the bazaar use knives that are chained to their stalls.
Many of the historic buildings remain, but an alarming number have padlocked doors and bear signs reading: "Empty house."
There are no working mosques - they have been turned into cafes or museums or closed entirely - and the landmark yellow-tiled Id Kah Mosque stands as a lonely monument to the reeducation campaign.
The Post reporter who visited the mosque on a day its doors were opened for tourists had to register her passport number to be allowed in and was then accompanied through the courtyard, empty but for banks of facial recognition cameras and the smell of bleach.
The prayer hall was locked; a guide told one reporter that prayers were at 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. - times that did not adhere to the Islamic schedule - and another reporter that they had been canceled because of the coronavirus.
Opposite the mosque, a large red banner in Chinese characters thanked President Xi for his loving care.