Earappa Bawge, right, a 27-year-old engineer, digs a ditch as part of a rural employment program on Sept. 14. (Niha Masih/The Washington Post)

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 percent 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.

Earappa Bawge, wearing a white, button-down shirt, digs ditches under a public works program after he lost his job as an engineer. (Video: Niha Masih/The Washington Post)

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.”

Slater reported from New Delhi. Mohit Rao in Bangalore and Tazeen Qureshy in Bhubaneswar contributed to this report.

India’s economy contracts by nearly 24 percent, its sharpest drop on record

In one of the world’s largest slums, the fight against the coronavirus has turned into a struggle to survive

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.