How COVID-19 is Hurting the Aspirations of Young, Broke and Skilled Indians

The novel coronavirus has stopped the world in its tracks. While our doctors and medical staff battle the virus – often without access to adequate measures to protect themselves – another aggressive battle rages on in quiet corners of cramped apartments and under rented roofs.

With companies laying off employees, employment offers being revoked, pay cuts and leaves without pay, a dearth of investment and not enough cash-flow in the economy, a lot of young people find themselves facing a future riddled with uncertainty and insecurity.

“Most of us hail from the middle class. Hunger is not a concern for us, capital is,” a 27-year-old independent filmmaker told me over a phone call, soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown extension.

Towering uncertainty

In a different phone call, a 30-year-old PhD student, who also is a Latin dancer, shared concerns about more than mere capital. She told me about a hip hop dancer who had migrated from Kolkata to Delhi years ago. He had mostly trained himself in the dance-form and worked three jobs to get by. Since the lockdown, he hasn’t been able to work even one of them.

“Full time dancers have it hard as well,” she said. She stressed on the fact that dance is the singular source of income for many people. “They have families to support.”

While some have transitioned to teaching the art-form online, others do not have that option, she said. This is because either the dance-form they practice requires a partner, or they cannot afford the amenities – laptop, speakers, enough space – required to hold an online dance class.

I asked her how she was doing and she said, “It isn’t so bad for me. My scholarship has me covered for this month. I am not sure what will I do in the next.”

About her PhD, she said that all field research has naturally been put on hold and that “from what we know, the UGC is refusing to extend the deadlines”. Another problem, she pointed out, is that there is not enough clarity in the instructions that percolate down to the PhD scholars. This has lead to confusion and uncertainty.

Arbab, a 24-year-old film and communication student at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, also finds himself grappling with similar concerns.

Also read: Coronavirus: Why Sisyphus Comes to Mind As I Struggle Everyday

“My course has been halted and neither the faculty nor the students know what will happen next,” he texted me on WhatsApp. “We have been asked to send some documents to finish the course and be evaluated. But (owing to the lockdown) a lot of us can’t go out to shoot, and therefore, can’t finish the work. No one knows what the timeline is, and how will we be evaluated this semester.”

Arbab was working on a documentary on the ghettoisation of Muslims in Ahmedabad and the rising fervour of protests in the city.

“It was personally something that I wanted to bring forward, being a Muslim and a progressive citizen of this country. Not only have the protests been quenched, but the locations I visited (Bapunagar and Gomtipur) have come into question following the Jamaat incident. It is extremely saddening to see the communalisation of even a pandemic. I’ve lost the hope of finishing the documentary, even though I want to get a certain truth out which has been grossly misrepresented,” he said.

Speaking about what’s to come, Arbab said that they usually seek sponsorship for their graduation projects, “but that seems to have gone out of the window now.” A lot of the students had taken loans which need to be paid, and therefore, are in desperate need of employment post graduation. They’re clueless now, Arbab told me, about who would hire them.

“I personally have no contingency. I only know how to make films and if I’m not able to get a job, I’m essentially doomed,” he said.

An industry caught in a hurricane

Abhay Punjabi, 27, a filmmaker and the co-founder of Ambidextr Studios, feels that this situation is definitely affecting all freelancers and daily wagers on film sets. But he is hopeful that things will turn around.

“Work will flow, online video content will be in greater demand,” he said.

But at the moment, the online media industry is seemingly not immune to the wreckage either. On April 13, digital news-media organisation The Quint sent around 45 employees on Leave Without Pay (LWP), although some of them were called back later. A pall of gloom and fear of what the future may hold has settled, even among those who were not sent on LWP.

“For now it’s not me, but how do I know what will happen next week? It’s not like we saw this coming,” a retained employee of The Quint told me in a text.

The Quint, in an email to the employees being sent on LWP – that has since gone viral on the internet – had said that the unprecedented “double whammy” of a massive health crisis and “the scale of shutdown and lockdown” putting them “in the eye of an economic storm” caused them to take the emergency action. They maintained that such measures were reserved only for ‘rarest of rare’ situations.

Also read: ‘Shit is Gettin’ Real’: COVID-19 Pandemic Reveals Cracks in Celebrity Capitalism

Another retained employee told me that he wished “they had just cut salaries of every employee, even those earning less than 50,000, and retained those they couldn’t afford to pay.”

The Quint, in an email, had informed staffers that the salaries of those earning less than Rs 50,000 would not be impacted in any way.

The Quint, however, is not the only new-media organisation that has had to bear the brunt of this “economic storm”. In what The News Minute described as a “bloodbath” in the Indian media industry, the entire Sunday Magazine team of The Times of India was sacked, while News Nation laid off all 15 members of their English digital team without notice, and Indian Express and Business Standard informed their employees of salary cuts.

A recently sacked employee of TOI’s Life reportedly told Newslaundry, that the exact words of his editor were: “That’s it, game over.”

“We were told that the production of one-pager Life will now be done by Delhi Times and so they don’t need so many people. The HR head will be calling tomorrow and giving us an official notice period of a month,” the former employee said.

What about press freedom?

Loss of employment is a scary prospect for young journalists. But for some, that concern is also coupled with the fear of losing the freedom to tell stories with honesty and independence.

Asmita Nandy, a 25-year-old journalist, talked about how this pandemic could impact the freedom to be critical of the government.

“I fear the situation is so bad that even liberal organisations might have to soon fall in line in order to stay afloat,” she told me.

The independence of the Indian media in our country has already been under the scanner, Asmita said. “With this economic crisis, we’ll have to ensure we are not regularly hounded by court cases or defamation suits for criticising the ruling party, and that’s what scares me the most.”

The pandemic, laced with nationalist furore, can intensify the threat of censorship. The inability to deal with numerous court cases, while coping with the health and economic crisis, can further paralyse press freedom.

What entrepreneurs need

Akshat Singhal, 28, the founder of – a tech enabled legal-concierge platform, told me on the phone, that he feels responsible for his employees’ well-being, and that he’s stressed about the economic dent of the lockdowns and the recession on his company.

“How do I deal with this situation morally and ethically, and also how do I do things for the organisation to survive?” he asked.

He told me that they have no option right now but to cut costs. He also believes that the economy will bounce back eventually. But a more robust, technology friendly global work mechanism is required at the moment, he said.

The toll on the human resource executives, across all companies, is not easy either. An HR executive at a large e-commerce platform told me, on the condition of anonymity, that their company has roughly laid off 200 employees.

“As HR, it weighs heavily on the conscience when you have to call employees to let them know that they cannot continue working in the organisation,” she said.

Twenty-nine year old Vidyarthi Baddireddy, the CEO of Reculta, suggests that start-ups need more help from the government.

“In some of the other countries, you have access to collateral free loans for MSMEs,” he says. “Here, there’s no information about them at all. The extension of the lockdown will make things worse for us, as more projects have been killed, and there has been a cut down on marketing budgets.”

He also believes that opportunities for fresh graduates this year seem pale. “Things have gone completely haywire this time. Many offers, even those of internships, have been revoked,” he said.

Where are the jobs?

Juhi Nishad, a design student of NIFT Mumbai, originally slated to graduate this May, is naturally unsure about what the near future holds.

“The company that I interned with for my graduation project made a pre-placement offer,” she told me. “But given the current situation and the economic crisis, I cannot say anything for sure. It is anyway not easy to get a job in the design industry. I know people who graduated in 2019 and are still looking for work.”

Juhi’s concerns are amplified by the fact that, at this point, she doesn’t even know when will she graduate.

Also read: How Lockdown Helped Me Confront Suppressed Emotions

Shubham Mandhyan is a 26-year-old fashion photographer who has worked with a number of Bollywood A-listers and fashion-models. In my original conversation with him, he told me how living in Bombay is even harder during this period, but he is grateful for the financial security his job as an in-house photographer for a brand brings.

Just a few hours later, he texted me to say that soon after speaking with me, he had received a call from his office telling him that they have discontinued his services and that they wouldn’t be giving him his salary “this month onwards”.

Meanwhile, a marketing communications manager at a 5-star hotel lamented the pitfall of the hospitality sector, and how the hotels have been instructed by their global teams to discontinue their ties with social media and PR agencies. “Can you imagine how many youngsters will be sacked?” she asked me.

Scrounging for silver linings

“There will be better days,” the 27-year-old independent filmmaker told me on the phone, while we discussed a dwindling availability of jobs in the Indian film industry. “Sure, there will be some residual trauma, even after we have a coronavirus vaccine. People will still try and avoid public gatherings, and not watch movies in multiplexes. They will prefer isolated watching of series and films on their laptops and phones. This, however, can work as a catalyst in the shift from expensive and big productions for cinema halls to independent, and more content driven projects for small screens.”

If this does happen, indeed, the Indian entertainment industry is also likely to become more inclusive, more attainable and more intimate. These alone are the kind of silver linings many amongst us are holding onto for dear life.

Helplessness often goes ignored, amid all the clanging of utensils and lighting of candles. However, at least in some places, it is easy for a willing eye to spot financial strain and the helplessness that it brings. You can spot it smattered all over the ghastly facades of development; hungry, on the roads during lockdowns; under the glare of traffic lights on hectic Mondays; on the glossy print of your newspapers; in the after-thought of your leaders.

But helplessness, hidden, scared, often embarrassed, can also be found in the crevices of busy, bustling metropolitan lives. It’s important to prevent more people from slipping into those crevices.

Mekhala Saran is a freelance journalist, poet and a law student. Tweet to her @mekhala_saran.

Featured image credit: Timon Studdler/Unsplash