Manoswini Sarkar, Associate - Reducing Inequalities Program
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives in a multitude of ways, but the ensuing nationwide lockdown in India has disproportionately impacted the poorer sections of the society, especially the people living in rural areas, who constitute about 65% of the total population in India. Due to the dominance of the informal sector in the Indian economy accompanied by poor social security, the abrupt stoppage of economic activities throughout the country has adversely affected the lives of many people. As a result, millions have lost their sources of livelihood and have been forced to migrate back to the rural areas. In addition to putting a massive strain on the already debilitating rural economy, this has increased the possibility of spreading the virus to the rural areas which can now become the new hotspots of the virus. The pandemic also stands as a major obstacle on the way of India’s development and a significant threat to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To address these issues, more than structural changes that need to be taken in the long run, there need to be immediate actions taken which can help people deal with the crisis right now. At a time like this, there are three main areas that need to be focused on to help the people in rural areas ameliorate economic distress, general uncertainty and hopelessness. These are food insecurity, employment opportunities and health facilities.
1) Combating Food Insecurity
Despite 70 years of Independence and 20 years of sustained economic growth after the 1990s liberalisation, India still accounts for the highest number of undernourished people in the world. The three main safety nets based on food distribution run by the central government include the Public Distribution System (PDS), under which millions of people are provided subsidised food grains and other essential household items; Mid-day Meal Scheme (MDMS), which provides daily nutritious cooked meals to children from classes 1 to 8 in government and government-aided schools throughout the country and the Integrated Child Development System (ICDS), which provides cooked meals and take-home rations to children below 6 years and lactating mothers.
In response to COVID-19, allocation of food grains has been increased under ICDS and the Ministry of Human Resource Development has issued guidance to all states and Union Territories, who bear a part of the cost of the MDM scheme, to continue providing mid-day meals. However, with the nation-wide lockdown, schools and community centres being closed throughout the country and children, both between 0-6 years and school-going ones, and lactating mothers have not been able to get their meals through the MDMS or ICDS.
The respective state governments need to think about alternatives to address this issue since both nutritious, cooked food provided under MDMS and ICDS constitute a vital part of the children’s food intake every day. They could learn from the experiences of the government of Kerala which has made provisions for the mid-day meals to be delivered to the homes of children. Other innovative initiatives by states that include the Anna canteens in Tamil Nadu, the Aam Aadmi Canteen in Delhi, Mukhyamantri Dal-Bhat Yojana in Jharkhand and the Annapurna Rasoi in Rajasthan, which is mainly for the urban poor, however, can be extended to the rural areas of the respective states and other states can emulate it for their population as well.
Cooked meals being served to children at an Anganwadi under the Integrated Child Development System (ICDS) in Jharkhand, India. Source: Manoswini Sarkar
There have also been reports of women’s self-help groups setting up community kitchens in rural areas to feed stranded laborers and migrants in rural areas. The role of women is of crucial importance here as this shows how they can lead many initiatives like these and coordinate their efforts in a sustained manner in the management of various schemes.
A temporary non-Aadhar based universalisation of food distribution should be ensured so as to take into account the ration cards that were cancelled due to Aadhar-related reasons. In the long run, ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme seems to be a good move in this direction to encompass migrant labourers gain access to subsidised essential items under the PDS, but it should only be implemented after consultation with activists, academicians and the civil society organisations who have been working on ground with the people.
Due to the termination of all economic activities in the urban areas due to the lockdown, there has been a large scale reverse migration with millions of labourers leaving cities and returning to their homes in rural areas throughout the country having been rendered jobless. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that around 400 million Indians working in the informal sectors are likely to be pushed into deep poverty due to COVID-19.
At a time like this, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) can come to the rescue as it provides 100 days of guaranteed unskilled or semi-skilled labour to every household with people above 18 years of age. In case of failure to receive employment, the labourers are liable to receive an unemployment allowance which keeps increasing with the number of passing days. It is especially favourable for women as under MGNREGA, one-third of the beneficiaries of the work provided is supposed to be women with no distinction in the amount of wages between men and women and there is also a provision of childcare services at the worksite. With millions of jobless migrants returning to their villages, loss of wages and livelihood, the demand for rural employment will increase massively and MGNREGA can help fill this vacuum and be considered as an employer of the last resort. The scheme was initially suspended in several states due to a risk of community transmission and state-imposed restrictions but now that it has resumed, the health of the labourers needs to be prioritised along with following physical distancing norms. Shanti Murmu*, who oversees MGNREGA work in some of the villages of Dumka district in Jharkhand reports that MGNREGA has been going on in full swing now in various villages with the labourers following rules of social distancing and putting a cloth or gamcha over their mouth as there is a lack of masks available. In some other rural areas of the state, women’s self help groups have been stitching masks and producing hand sanitisers to address this scarcity..
In the longer run, if the migrant labourers choose to stay back in the villages due to the lack of work in the urban areas, the demand for rural work will increase exponentially. The wages under MGNREGA are also abysmally low with several payments pending as the respective state governments do not have enough funds. Even though the central government has increased wages under MGNREGA from Rs 182 to Rs 202, the wage increment was only done as per the routine yearly process of wage notification. The wages need to be increased even further, at least up to the agricultural minimum wages of the respective wages. This can be only done by increasing funds by increasing the budgetary allocation to MGNREGA. MGNREGA also needs to be expanded beyond the 100 days of guaranteed work, at least up to 175 days so as to balance out the lack of work currently in the urban areas due to construction work stopping and many small scale industries closing down, which has led to labourers migrate back to the rural areas in the first place.
MGNREGA work in progress (before the lockdown) in Orissa, India.
Source: Manoswini Sarkar
3) Rural Health
India has a tiered healthcare system with the Service centres which is followed by Primary Healthcare centres, Community Health Centers and finally the District Hospitals at a rural and peri-urban setting. The healthcare system in urban areas is under a lot of stress due to the pandemic. But this pandemic has also exposed the disparities present between the urban and rural healthcare, the latter of which is reeling under inadequacy of proper infrastructure. There aren’t enough hospital beds, specialists, medical personnel, medical equipment and adequate ambulances available in rural healthcare centres. The reverse migration of people to the rural areas will put additional pressure on the already crumbling rural healthcare infrastructure. Adding to it is the risk of increased possibilities of the spread of the disease.
According to the MoHFW infrastructure guidelines for COVID-19, the district hospitals need to dedicate a 10-bed isolation ward of about 2,000 sq ft, along with appropriate ventilation and negative pressure facilities. However, due to the lack of hospitals, workforce shortage and poor infrastructure and quality of care, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tackle public healthcare emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.
What could immediately be done is the utilisation of community halls or schools, which are closed at the moment, as isolation wards for the patients or containment of the people suspected of carrying the virus. In addition to that, there need to be awareness programmes and stronger surveillance systems to track and reduce the spread of the virus. However, in the long run, there needs to be large scale investment in healthcare facilities and preparing healthcare personnel to deal with emergencies like these.
Medical outreach in rural India. Source: Trinity Care Foundation
The Way Forward
The exodus of migrant workers from cities to rural areas has exacerbated the already vulnerable condition of the rural areas, in terms of food insecurity, employment and healthcare infrastructure. However, at the moment we can only wait and see how things pan out and see if the migrant labourers who could manage to return to their villages choose to stay back and look for local employment due to dwindling employment opportunities in the urban areas or will work resume to normal in the cities. In the former case, there need to be major structural changes and an expansion of various other social security nets which can address the needs and requirements of the most vulnerable people of the society, like the adivasis.
Technology needs to be harnessed properly but at the same time it needs to be realised that many people in the rural areas are not conversant with technology, they do not have access to smartphones, money to recharge them and financial literacy is also quite weak. In a conversation with one of the respondents, Sunita Baski*, who resides in a village in Jharkhand said that she has received Rs 500 twice in her account since the lockdown began under the Jan Dhan Yojana but has been unable to withdraw money due to long lines at the bank every day. Issues like hers are commonplace in rural areas where there are very few banks available and are inaccessible now due to the lockdown. Therefore, it needs to be ensured that technological issues do not hamper their access to the government relief packages such as ration entitlements, pensions, direct account transfer under Jan Dhan Yojana or access to free LPG cylinders.
With top global health experts saying that the pandemic is here to stay, we cannot afford to delay measures to help the poorest people of the society, both in the rural and urban areas, who are the most vulnerable and often quite neglected. Therefore, in my opinion, these three areas need immediate attention that can help people in rural areas immensely. Women can play a pivotal role here in leading several initiatives, managing and overseeing them, participating in them which will also contribute towards their overall empowerment, as demonstrated in the role of self-help groups in the rural areas. The role of civil society organisations is especially crucial here to help create awareness within communities and educate people. It will not only help people immediately to battle the virus and the issues related to it but also help society in the long run by contributing to the eradication of inequality and poverty.
*Names have been changed.
Manoswini Sarkar is a final year master's student of Political Science and International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is also a SYLFF research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research. She has extensive experience in non-profit work with several organizations in different capacities.