The study, ‘Covid-19 induced lockdown - How is hinterland coping’, based on a large survey undertaken by a consortium of civil society organisations undertook a rapid assessment of the impact of series of lockdowns on rural poor households. Of the many coping mechanisms, the most prominent was that over 50 percent of households in rural India have reduced the number of meals, while about 68 percent have reduced the number of food items in the meal ever since the lockdown was imposed.
The assessment focussed on food security, change in expenditure pattern, preparedness for the forthcoming kharif season, drudgery faced by women in the household and asset sales. The collaborating NGOs - Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), BAIF Development Research Foundation (BAIF), Action for Social Advancement (ASA), SATHI-UP, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), Grameen Sahara and Transforming Rural India Foundation (TRIF) have been active in most of the poverty-stricken belts in the country. The survey covered 5162 households in 47 districts in 12 states - Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
The survey was jointly anchored by Transform Rural India Foundation (TRIF), Delhi and VikasAnvesh Foundation, a Pune based development research centre and methodologically supported by Sambodhi, a Lucknow based research firm. In most of the surveyed villages, a large chunk of migrants are yet to return.
Coping mechanism involved less food intake and reduction in expenditures
At a virtual conference held on May 13, 2020, Nirmalya Choudhury, VikasAnvesh Foundation highlighted that the rapid response representative in-person survey was carried out between 27th April and 2nd May, 2020 by the community workers. “The survey results are alarming as a majority of households have very limited stocks of foodgrains available with them mostly from the last kharif and some from rabi. As per the study, more than one third households did not have any surplus from last kharif, another one-third had surplus that would last only till May 2020 and more than half could not depend on rabi crop for food,” said Choudhury.
Usually food insecurity in rainfed areas peaks in July and August, but people have already begun to experience it this year. As a coping mechanism, they have started consuming fewer items and are taking fewer meals a day as compared to normal years. This increases their dependence on food supply through the public distribution system as well as the need to grow a good crop in kharif season.
As many as 40 percent of the households reported lacking seeds and access to farm credit for initiating kharif operations. “More than two-third of the respondents do not have seeds for the upcoming kharif, less than 20 percent have kisan credit cards and less than half can access crop loans. Migrant household members generally return just prior to kharif sowing with cash savings, which is used to finance kharif production. This is not the case for kharif 2020 and there is a need for public support in terms of seed provision and credit,” said Sanjiv Phansalkar, Director, VikasAnvesh Foundation.
As per the study, the workload on women has significantly increased for fetching water and fuelwood and the drudgery shows no sign of abetting. Lockdown and rumours have adversely affected income from dairy and poultry. More than 56 percent of the respondents were involved in poultry and of them 40 percent reported reduction in sales.
According to the study, 84 percent of the households received food items through the public distribution system and 37 percent received take home ration. Also, about 24 percent of the households borrowed foodgrains in villages and 12 percent people received free food.
“The COVID–19 pandemic has magnified all existing inequalities including gender disparity and has disproportionately affected women and. Much of the home-based caregiving work as well as door-to-door information collection, monitoring, surveillance work as a part of the critical healthcare delivery services is done by women, putting them at a higher risk of contracting the disease. The work of preparing masks and sanitisers as well as running community kitchens is being done largely by women for which they will get deferred payments,” said Madhu Khetan, PRADAN.
The study indicates that early signs of acute distress are visible: all discretionary expenses on marriages or similar ceremonies are being cut down drastically. Indebtedness among rural poor is rising and nearly 30 percent of the respondents have already had to borrow from their kin or professional money lenders to meet subsistence costs. Households have begun depleting productive assets with households selling agricultural tools, dry cattle, milch cattle and land.
Most alarming is the fact that children are likely to be withdrawn from schools in 30 percent of the households. They are being left behind as schools are shut due to lockdown, and children are compelled to study on their own, if at all, with no tech aids such as smartphones or laptops connecting them to teachers,” said Lalit Singh, SATHI, Uttar Pradesh.
“Agriculture and rural sector have to be revived, not only for those who are there in villages but also for those migrants who may not go back to urban areas,” said Girish Sohani, BAIF pointing to the need for more such surveys to better assess the ground situation. He also highlighted the need to facilitate smooth harvesting, marketing, storage and improved warehousing arrangements for the rabi and kharif crop.
Based on the experience of BAIF, he said “the dairy farmers have been badly hit due to a dip in demand due to lower out-of-home consumption in restaurants, road-side eateries etc., which have shut down. Despite the demand dipping, milk procurement will likely improve and the livelihoods of the dairy farmers restored once the lockdown is lifted.”
“NGOs and individuals have responded generously and rapidly to the needs of those affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide lockdown. Throughout this crisis, they have worked tirelessly and have been the first responders in terms of delivering cooked food, rations, and protective gear. As the pandemic is moving to the next phase, they need to get more involved in improving economic resilience,” said Anirban Ghosh, TRIF.
A large mass of the people coming back have significant skills and this needs to be kept in mind while designing any interventions in rural areas under MGNREGA. “There is a potential for enterprise development programmes and of service contracting opportunities in rural areas,” said Ghosh.
Referring to Assam, Sarat Chandra Das of Grameen Sahara said that the flood fear worries the state amid coronavirus pandemic. Over-indebtedness could be a major problem that the farmers in the state may face post-floods.
There is a need for the government to step in and ensure uninterrupted and universal coverage of the public distribution system to avoid acute food insecurity. “The government also needs to intervene by ensuring that the ration provides nutrition and not just food security, so that people’s health does not get compromised,” said Ashis Mondal, ASA. He also added that it is critical that the government should come forward and make clear announcements about provision of agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilisers in order to avoid hoarding and also regarding farm credit such as top-up of kisan credit card to finance the kharif crop.
The dependence on NREGA wages for survival is likely to increase and this is one scheme that can effectively reduce rural distress. “The outlay for NREGA should be doubled or tripled and its design and implementation would need some changes. Right now, it is very block-level centric. For effective implementation of NREGA, since block level office is not adequately staffed to support the demand for work and oversee work sites, work should be devolved further to the gram panchayats,” adds Mondal.
State and central governments need to take up timely actions to address the cash crunch to finance the kharif crop and ensure that the preparatory work for the season is done well and farmers get a fair price for the produce. A number of steps are needed such as revamped NREGA, direct income support, procurement at the doorstep to bring the production system on track and ensure food and income security for all.