Situation in the countryside

Rural distress

Print edition : May 08, 2020

With collected fodder in Harevli, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Courtesy: Foundation for Agrarian Studies

Making baskets at Nayanagar, Bihar, a file photograph. All non-farm activities and sources of income in the countryside were halted during the lockdown.

During paddy transplanting in Alabujanhalli, Karnataka.

At a farm in Hakamwala, Punjab, a file photograph. Relatively better-off landowners are making do with machines and family labour during the lockdown.

A rural dwelling at Palakurichi, Tamil Nadu, a file photograph.

Jhum cultivation, also known as slash and burn agriculture, in Khakchang, North Tripura, a file photograph. For tribal households in the village, the NREGA is in normal times the most important source of agricultural as well as non-agricultural employment. The closure of all NREGA work in the lockdown period was a major cause of distress.

Rubber being processed in Mainama, Tripura,

Standing jute crop in Kalmandasguri, West Bengal.

Weaving a saree in Pahanar, West Bengal. Photo: courtesy: foundation for agrarian studies

A countrywide survey of rural households during the lockdown confirms widespread distress and reaffirms the importance of public provisioning of food and other essentials, and of the urgent need for cash payments to stricken households.

This report is based on telephone interviews of 43 informants from 21 villages across 10 States. Detailed socio-economic surveys have been conducted in these villages during the last decade by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS) under an India-wide programme of village studies, titled the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI).

The project involves the creation of a detailed database on villages of diverse agro-ecological and socio-economic regions of the country. PARI, which began in 2006, now covers 27 villages in 12 States. For the Rapid Assessment Survey to study the impact of COVID-19 on rural India, we covered 19 of the 27 PARI villages.

The list of villages is: Katkuian (West Champaran, Bihar), Nayanagar (Samastipur, Bihar), Alabujanahalli (Mandya, Karnataka), Siresandra (Kolar, Karnataka), Zhapur (Kalaburagi, Karnataka), Gharsondi (Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh), Warwat Khanderao (Buldhana, Maharashtra), Hakamwala (Mansa, Punjab), Tehang (Jalandhar, Punjab), Palakurichi (Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu), Venmani (Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu), Khakchang (North, Tripura), Mainama (Dhalai, Tripura), Muhuripur (South, Tripura), Harevli (Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh), Mahatwar (Ballia, Uttar Pradesh), Amarsinghi (Malda, West Bengal), Kalmandasguri (Koch Bihar, West Bengal), and Panahar (Bankura, West Bengal).

In addition, we have also conducted three telephonic interviews in two villages, Adat and Chittilappilly, in the Adat panchayat of Thrissur district of Kerala. The characteristics of each village is provided here.

The survey team selected two to three informants from each village, making sure to identify at least one manual worker and one peasant household. The questionnaire canvassed with each informant had three broad sections: on health, on household employment and incomes, and on government benefits. Each respondent was informed of the purpose of this exercise, and interviews were conducted after getting consent.

The interview team: Arindam Das, Gaurav Bansal, Ranjini Basu, Soham Bhattacharya, Deepak Johnson, Rakesh Kumar Mahato, Shruti Naghbhushan, Mrityunjay Pandey, Subhajit Patra, Jancy Rani, C.A. Sethu, Shamsher Singh, V. Surjit, and L. Vijay Kumar. The team was coordinated by Sandipan Bakshi and Tapas Singh Modak with support from Parvathi Menon.

TO understand the impact on rural India of the unprecedented lockdown of normal life and work announced on March 24 as a measure to halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS) canvassed a set of questions among 43 residents of 16 villages in 10 States across India. An FAS team conducted the COVID-19 survey between April 15 and 18.

The respondents represented a cross-section of village societyfrom large landlords to agricultural and manual workers, from ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers to individuals engaged in large and small businesses and other non-agricultural activities. The questions sought broadly to understand how a three-week lockdown period, which sought to pare down economic activity to a minimum, impacted the life, work and economic status of rural families.

Rural India not only has been grossly underserviced for decades in terms of civic and social amenities, but also sustains cruel and inbuilt socio-economic disparities of class, caste and gender that in even “normal’ times create unconscionable levels of deprivation for the majority of rural dwellers.

On this low existing base of human well-being the lockdown has come as a body blow. While a total shutdown was necessary to mitigate the impact of a highly infectious disease for which there is yet no vaccine or cure, its impact, as this survey shows, has disproportionately hit those sections whose coping mechanisms have already been rendered fragile.

Any crisis or disaster, let alone the gale-force of a pandemic, throws the working rural poor into further cycles of deprivation and debt.

The FAS rapid survey on the impact of the lockdown on rural India is not the first attempt to turn the spotlight of inquiry on rural households and livelihoods during this phase.

Despite the restrictions on travel, there have been insightful media reports and some valuable institution-led surveys on this issue. However, this is perhaps the first systematic study based on telephonic interviews with select residents of villages already surveyed in detail under the FAS’s Project on Agrarian Relations in India.

Thus, there already exist baseline data that have provided us a picture of the agrarian structure and economy of the villages in which our respondents live. Further, the personal familiarity of the investigator with each respondent has allowed for a more layered interview than cold-call telephone interviews allow for. Despite the limitations imposed on travel and contact, our survey has provided snapshots of lived experiences in these unusual times.

The questions can be categorised under three broad heads. The first relates to information on pandemic-awareness among individuals, and whether a basic health infrastructure to meet the challenges of a COVID-19 outbreak is in place. The second set of questions relate to how the basic needs of households are being met during the lockdown. They elicit information on how families have provisioned themselves for this period, the availability of and access to food, whether they are eating less, the amount of cash they have, whether they have taken loans to tide over this period, and whether there has been any provisioning of food and financial resources by the state or any other institution. The third set of questions relate to incomes and employment. They are on the kinds of jobs that have been lost and why, and how much household incomes have been hit as a result.

The lockdown-impact survey has thrown up much interesting information and some tentative conclusions. Some of these are broad and apply to all States and regions, notwithstanding the regional diversities of crops, cropping patterns and ecological features. We have highlighted such conclusions. The survey has also given us a more fine-grained picture of regional and State-specific aspects of and responses to the lockdown, which we have not included in this write-up.

Covid-19 awareness and preparedness

On health issues, we found that primary information about the pandemic and the lockdown came through TV, the Internet, social media (WhatsApp), and to a lesser degree through the village panchayats and ASHA workers. While there is widespread awareness of physical distancing, the use of masks, the necessity of hand hygiene, the symptoms of COVID-19 infection, and the number to call in case of an emergency, the observation of COVID-19 prevention protocols are not uniform across the country. In Gharsondi village of Gwalior district, Madhya Pradesh, a respondent who is a manual worker was aware of the need for washing hands frequently but said he could only do it “with mud or sand”.

Enforcement of physical distancing is strong in preventing inter-village mobility, although at the village level, compliance is patchy and respondents speak of informal gatherings that are not reported. In some villages suspicions against the returning migrant as a possible source of infection are strong—and in some instances from northern India it is compounded by communal hostility. However, returning migrants in all cases have been quarantined. From the perspective of health care, enabling the flow of information seems to be the foremost strategic response of the state to the disease. Both awareness through information flows and a fear of the unknown have led to the overall success of the lockdown.

In respect of institutional preparedness of the health system, state administrations have used the existing health delivery system to meet the new health challenge. Thus, the strengths or weaknesses of the pre-existing system have determined the robustness of the response. Respondents from 15 of the surveyed villages (in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Tripura, Bihar and West Bengal) said their village had no primary health centre (PHC). In these villages, ASHA workers have performed the task of awareness building: Tripura and West Bengal, in particular, appear to have an active ASHA-based outreach. In Tamil Nadu and Punjab, medical teams from larger medical centres near by have conducted COVID-19 awareness programmes. By and large, the picture that emerges is of inadequate emergency services, including ambulances, even though respondents are aware of the resources they must marshal, including private vehicles, in case of an emergency. An exception to this is the experience of Kerala (see box).

Incomes and employment

Two patterns have emerged in respect of the impact of the lockdown on agriculture. In rain-fed villages, this is normally the lean season and there is no standing crop, so there is little direct effect on agricultural operations and production. In Siresandra in Kolar district of Karnataka, where there is employment in vegetable cultivation during the lean period, Aparna, an agricultural worker, says she would normally have been labouring out “but there is no work now as cultivators are using their family labour”. The cauliflower and tomato crop withered in the fields here as there was no labour to harvest the crop.

In irrigated villages, this is the harvest period, normally the busiest time of the year, and a peak work season for agricultural labour. In such villages, where the harvest is either just over or will begin this month, respondents report a dramatic drop in work, whether on the fields or in non-agricultural activities.

In villages where harvesting is yet to begin, particularly in the wheat belt of Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, landowners use combine harvesters or family labour for harvesting operations. In West Bengal, there is a concern about adequate labour for the harvest of boro paddy due in May.

In Bihar, because workers cannot migrate or have returned to their villages, their numbers have increased in the village labour force, forcing wages down. In Katkuian of West Champaran district, a village with a tradition of out-migration, a Scheduled Caste wage-worker respondent tells us that the piece-rate for harvesting wheat has fallen from Rs.150/cottah to Rs.100/cottah (a cottah in Katkuian is 0.075 acres). In Nayanagar village, daily wage rates for sugar cane harvesting were Rs.200 for men (down from Rs.250), Rs.150 for women and Rs.50 for children. A large landowner from the same village said he faced “no shortage of labour”.

A small peasant and manual worker from Harevli in Uttar Pradesh said he got three or four days of employment after the lockdown on sugar cane planting, where he says there is a decline in piece rate contracts from Rs.500-600 a bigha last year to Rs. 400-500 a bigha this year (a bigha in Harevli is 0.2 acres).

Respondents from West Bengal and Bihar have reported police enforcing the lockdown by not allowing workers into the fields.

Non-agricultural employment collapses

The pre-monsoon lean season is already a period of low incomes, particularly for manual workers. Non-agricultural economic activities that usually absorb surplus labour in the lean agricultural period like construction activity, businesses, brick-kilns, have almost totally stopped. In Kilvenmani and Palakurichi villages of Nagapattinam district, for instance, men and women in manual worker households who worked at different types of non-agricultural labour in nearby towns are now unemployed. “The stone quarries are closed,” said workers from Zhapur, a rain-fed village of Karnataka. In almost every village, respondents from manual worker households had no non-agricultural employment.

In West Bengal, the breeding and sale of fish in village ponds is an income-earner in the lean season. Although there is good local demand for fish, this year this avenue of employment has been restricted severely by movement restrictions and the partial closure of markets.

There has been no daily-wage employment through schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA). With the exception of one respondent from Warwat Khanderao village in Maharashtra, who said that NREGA work took place during the lockdown, although for a limited number of days and involving a limited number of people, there has been no non-farm wage employment activity carried out in the survey villages by any branch of the Central or State administration. For tribal households in Khakchang village of North Tripura, the NREGA is in normal times the most important source of agricultural as well as non-agricultural employment in the village. It is also a major source of cash flow into the otherwise cash-limited upland village economy. The closure of all NREGA work in the lockdown period was a major cause of people running out of cash, according to survey respondents from Tripura.

The class of manual workers and the rural poor has had to bear the brunt of the lockdown on agricultural and non-farm employment. It has not been as severe on landowners or those with alternative sources of regular income. The lockdown was announced when the winter harvests over a large part of India had already been completed. In those States where the harvest is yet to take place, or is currently under way, as in the wheat belt for example, it would appear from our survey that the labour shortage has been managed by large cultivators by the use of harvesters and of family labour.

The massive contraction in employment and incomes for manual labourers in the lockdown period had an almost immediate impact on the quantity and quality of the dietary intake of rural families. It is not just a matter of having less money in the wallet for food. Poor farming families have been hit by the rise in prices of vegetables and other commodities (although in a few vegetable-growing villages, like Muhuripur in South Tripura, and Siresandra in Karnataka, vegetable prices have fallen).

Many respondents from such backgrounds reported eating less, and less healthily. In some families potato or cheaper vegetables have replaced green vegetables, or vegetables in general are less frequently eaten, while meat, poultry and fish are off the menu. Grocery stores, other village shops, and ration shops, from where residents can buy food, are open for a few hours in all villages—if of course they have the money to do so.

The responses we received on the functioning of the public distribution system (PDS) system in general, but more importantly, during the lockdown period, in meeting the requirements of those eligible for rations, reveals a mixed picture. In Bihar, three respondents from one village reported hearing rumours of getting a three-month consolidated ration, plus a Rs.800 subsidy for a gas cylinder free of cost, but said they had not received anything yet.

In Tamil Nadu, which has a well-functioning PDS, ration shops distributed an extra month’s rations free of cost. In Karnataka, too, respondents said they received rations for two months, 5 kg of rice per head per household per month. Respondents in Tripura also received an extra month’s rations. In West Bengal, ration card holders received just two kilograms of rice and two kilograms of wheat per head extra. Some respondents noted problems with the validity of their ration cards, and therefore were unable to gain access to rations.

With a few exceptions, including Tamil Nadu and Kerala, rations in States comprised only cereals. The only two States that reported distribution of cooked meals during the lockdown period were Kerala and Punjab. In Kerala, Kudumbashree-run kitchens have been providing food for migrant camps, while in Punjab the long tradition of langars serving free food has been reinforced during the COVID-19 crisis.

The picture was also mixed in respect of the distribution of dry or cooked food from anganwadi centres and schools to those eligible for it. Respondents from Karnataka and Kerala reported that the share of the infant/child/pregnant or lactating mother who was normally entitled to special food was delivered as dry grain to the family. By failing to ramp up the existing PDS network in terms of its reach, the Central and State administrations have showed negligence towards those hardest hit by the lockdown.

The picture that emerges from the country as a whole is of a weak PDS that distributes non-uniformly across States, with beneficiaries not knowing how much or when they will receive their rations. Kerala has shown that in times of crisis, the number and range of commodities on the PDS basket can be expanded; this is a lesson for all States.

Rise in indebtedness

Income-poor respondents report a widespread rise in indebtedness, mainly to meet expenses on basic needs such as food. Loans are taken mostly from private, informal sources, including grocery shops from where food is bought. Most manual-worker or poor-peasant respondents reported having very little cash in hand when the lockdown was announced. They had to buy essentials for the house, and many took these on credit from the shop. Fewer than half the respondents reported getting sums of money ranging from Rs.500, in their Jan Dhan Yojana accounts, to Rs.2,000, in the case of those with registered land in their names who received the amount under the PM-Kisan scheme. In addition, the Government of Tamil Nadu distributed Rs.1,000 as lockdown relief. Respondents said that they had stopped paying EMIs (equated monthly instalments) and other money due to banks and microfinance creditors.

In the images of thousands of desperate migrants thrown into hunger and hopelessness when their precarious world of work suddenly caved in, we saw the worst of the unequal impact of the lockdown. In rural India, too, it is the differential social impact of the lockdown that emerges as the hard conclusion from our survey. In a situation where social safety nets are not in place, the lockdown has a multi-dimensional impact on the life, work and well-being of the rural poor.

In the light of the social devastation that a pandemic could potentially unleash, the lockdown was unavoidable, and our respondents without exception were in full agreement with the necessity of such a drastic measure.

Large landowning households have not suffered as much as manual workers. In many regions, the major winter harvest is over, and the produce sold. In States where the harvest is yet to commence, as in Punjab, mechanised harvesting and a state procurement agency that has already swung into action will ensure that harvest losses are restricted. In the same regions, however, the impact on poor peasant and manual labour households is drastic. As our respondents have told us, such households face job losses and the collapse of incomes, growing food deprivation, increased borrowings and indebtedness, and rising food prices.

The survey highlights the need for the state to provide adequate public support through cash and food transfers and employment generation while maintaining individual distancing. Kerala presents an alternative experience with respect to meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis –from medical preparedness to social provisioning of food, essential commodities and shelter. That experience offers important lessons to the rest of the country.

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