Covid-19 crisis: Urban centres need more relief

Published: July 30, 2020 4:30 AM

Capital-intensive manufacturing emerged as the most vulnerable to the pandemic; with reverse migration, MGNREGA has to be a focus too

NGOs have to play a role in imparting skills for alternative occupations and linking local products to the national and global markets. NGOs have to play a role in imparting skills for alternative occupations and linking local products to the national and global markets.

By Indranil De, Mubashshir Iqbal & Rooba Hasan

The daily spikes in Covid-19 cases in major cities, along with the virus spreading in smaller towns, raises questions regarding the prospects of urban dream of Indian middle-class. People have migrated from rural to urban areas, especially to metropolis, for a better future. However, whether urban areas, driven by capitalist production process in manufacturing and services, are resilient enough to absorb the income shock and keep the hope alive in times of a pandemic, is an open question. This question is now more important as there has been a massive reverse migration and there is a need to develop employment opportunities for these people. Should we encourage them to go back to cities or develop employment opportunities in their native places? We attempt to find answers through in-depth telephonic interviews with the affected people.

A 28-year-old lady, master’s in psychology, pursuing her career as a professional child therapist/developmental psychologist in New Delhi, drew Rs 40,000 per month salary before the lockdown. Post that, she faced a pay cut of 50% in the initial two months, and 65% in June. Before lockdown, her family used to earn Rs 25,000 as house rent, but which stopped post lockdown. As a result, she can spend only on basic household needs.

The condition of a migrant from Mehsana (Gujarat) to Noida (Uttar Pradesh) who used to work as a BPO executive is much worse. He lost the job he had joined six months ago. He used to earn Rs 25,000 per month. His father also lost his job at the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), where he used to earn Rs 6,000 per month. His mother is a diabetic. She needs her daily dose of insulin and other medicines. He returned to Mehsana during the later phase of the lockdown. His father’s job has resumed but he is uncertain about getting any employment in the near future. He and his family are under mental distress as his mother’s health is deteriorating.

The plight of a 40-year-old lady from Pune is different. She works in a reputed international school as a helper (aaya). Although she gets Rs 9,780 as monthly salary, she has to return Rs 3,000 to the employers. Post lockdown, there is no role for her in the school. Therefore, she has to return Rs 4.890 (50% of salary). Although the effective reduction of salary is not very high, she faces the danger of job loss. The school has said it will reduce staff strength. She has started engaging with stitching and other embroidery work, and earns Rs 1,500-3,000 per month in her new occupation.

It is worth exploring coping strategies of households in rural India. A 48-year-old illiterate from a village in Coimbatore district in Tamil Nadu used to earn Rs 6,000 per month before the lockdown as agricultural labour. But now her income has reduced to Rs 4,000-5,000 per month. Another woman from the same district lost her job in coco peat cottage industry, where she used to work at a monthly salary of Rs 20,000. Her income reduced to zero as the industry was shut down, but her husband continued to earn Rs 4,000 per month as agricultural labour. Both these women are willing to work as MGNREGA workers. However, the former has a job card while the latter doesn’t. The former also considers coconut-leaf stick-making as a fall-back option.

These case studies raise questions about the resilience of the economic system. The capitalist development process encourages factory mode of production, such as work in factory, firm, school, etc. Factory mode of production is based on economies of scale and capital accumulation, which also drives urbanisation. People need to come together to work in the same place. But this is antithetical to social distancing norms. That’s why the capitalist mode of production is the worst affected. As a result, urban centres are more affected by income shocks than rural areas due to Covid-19.

Modes of production where labour is more required, say agriculture or self-employment, are less affected during a pandemic. Self-employment is another mode of production that holds a lot of promise in these difficult times. The previously-mentioned psychotherapist is planning to start own online counselling sessions. The women from Coimbatore are also attempting to cope up with the crisis through self-employment.

Government intervention should attempt in smoothing out consumption and income stream of the affected families. The government should focus more on urban centres, where the crisis is deeper. Guaranteed employment opportunity for unskilled labour in less capital-intensive sectors such as agriculture or public works may be helpful. MGNREGA in rural areas should be strengthened, and must be designed and extended to urban areas. To develop alternative employment opportunities, the skill-mapping exercise by the Uttar Pradesh government for migrant workers is a move in right direction. In the next stage, market linkage of products produced in small towns and villages is crucial.

NGOs have to play a role in imparting skills for alternative occupations and linking local products to the national and global markets. SEWA Bharat, in Phulia of Nadia district of West Bengal, has linked the sarees produced by women to the market through an online platform called the Anubandh. Women are also engaged in production of masks, which are sold through the contacts of NGOs. Instead of looking for livelihood only in cities, people should be given an opportunity to find decent livelihood in villages. Governments and NGOs should work in tandem to fill the existing gaps in supply chain and marketing of rural produce. We should learn how major IT companies coped with the pandemic by winding up their offices and allowing employees to work from home. A transformative approach in modes of production would help in developing a resilient economic institutional structure.

De is associate professor, Iqbal is junior research fellow and Hasan is research assistant, Institute of Rural Management Anand. Views are personal

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