The first and second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic affected millions of people across India, pushing the rural population and migrant workers into a crisis of survival. With states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh badly hit, organisations working in the social domain face an uphill task to bring the life of those affected back on track and keep their livelihoods running. Several individuals and organisations have come out to extend a helping hand in these testing times.
The two waves of Covid-19 have had varying degrees of impact on rural livelihoods and households. Be it migrants or farmers running agricultural enterprises, all have been affected by the pandemic. “A classification can be made based on whether the household is subsisting, commercializing, or diversifying. For example, landless households are almost entirely dependent on wage labour and migration and have been hit because they couldn’t find wage labour and have had to leave cities and come back home. A household with marginal or small land holding, while dependent on wage labour, also depends on agriculture. Such households couldn’t sell their produce in the market or at the right price, have had limited opportunities to engage in wage labour, and have had to struggle for liquidity to purchase inputs. Then some households run micro-enterprises, like chana shops, vegetable vending shops, Kirana shops etc. Such households have had to shut down and will find it hard to restart businesses at the same level. Larger farmers who run their agricultural enterprises have also been affected and face income stagnation,” said Ashish Karamchandani, President, The/Nudge Foundation.
The foundation began an initiative under the banner of ‘Asha Kiran – the Hope Project’ with a promise to help keep alive the rural livelihoods through various measures. The foundation is primarily working in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand along with neighbouring geographies. The Asha Kiran project will build upon government priorities and programs, to scale high-impact models, in partnership with the government.
Karamchandani says that almost all rural households witnessed a reduction in consumption and had to dip into their savings to sustain and even borrow money to survive.
When asked, how has COVID-19 affected rural women, John Paul, Director, The/Nudge Centre for Rural Development said that women were vulnerable and excluded to start with and the pandemic has only worsened the situation. “Women who worked as textile factory workers, labourers in small enterprises, or as local unskilled labour have all suffered. Women in agriculture conduct only unskilled parts of work – weeding, sowing, transplanting, harvesting etc. The lack of mobility during the pandemic has affected women’s incomes from agricultural labour in a serious manner and women involved in livestock rearing have also found it difficult to sell produce in the market,” said Paul.
He said that since the pandemic, women’s household responsibilities have increased and their consumption, especially in the areas of health and food, has been impacted.
A survey conducted by the foundation indicated that around 95 per cent of the surveyed families reported a decrease in income compared to the last year, with 82 per cent stating that their income was not sufficient to cover their essential needs. The survey indicated that around 60 per cent of the surveyed households were pushed into taking credits to cover expenses.
He added that the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic unleashed even more damage, wrecking the livelihoods of the rural poor. He said that the Government of Uttar Pradesh stepped in to provide swift relief with the help of existing schemes and new measures and Nudge aided in the effort. “Uttar Pradesh has large scale poverty alleviation programs and enabling convergence is important to amplify their benefits for the poor. I’m happy that Asha Kiran is actively partnering with government, private sector and civil society to enable this,” said Shri Manoj Kumar Singh, Additional Chief Secretary, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Government of Uttar Pradesh.
The foundation said that Asha Kiran is acting as a force-multiplier and scaling targeted, high-impact and cost-effective interventions which include enabling access to MGNREGS and PDS, input distribution and kitchen gardens to provide immediate relief in addition to improving agricultural incomes through high-value crops, productivity and market linkages and adding secondary income via goatery & backyard poultry. “Asha Kiran’s investment of Rs 200 crores is likely to unlock 800 crore rupees to 1000 crore rupees worth of benefits for rural communities through access to government schemes and private sector investments,” it said.
But are these livelihood opportunities sustainable and can they stand the test of time amid the looming third wave of COVID-19? Karamchandani said that efforts should be made to strengthen social security. “Livelihoods are an important area of intervention in our program. This includes agriculture, where we are working upstream on enhancing productivity and promoting crops that have better prices and downstream on helping farmers get better prices through market linkages and rearing livestock. We believe that social security is a key area where efforts should be made. Strengthening the social security net is crucial because it helps build a cushion for people to rely on in times of dire need,” he said.
However, reaching out to the people amid the raging threat of the virus is not an easy task, accepts Paul. “As we work on the ground, we brave the virus every day. So, this has been the impact that we have all felt, in the way we function. The virus has affected our near and dear ones; every partner, every team member and their families have been affected. Also, given that we work in rural areas, mobility has been a definite challenge. In these times, the trust that our partners have built with their community has helped, but it has been genuinely harder to work in areas severely affected by Covid-19,” said Paul.