Rural distress
FRONTLINE|May 08, 2020
Rural distress
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.

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 categorized under three broadheads. 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.

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May 08, 2020