Abandoning the rural poor
India’s mid-March Covid-19 lockdown – announced at very short notice at night – led to panic and confusion all over the country. While the plight of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers rushing from the cities made international headlines, the rural areas they were mostly returning to received little attention. In Assam crops were wilting due to disrupted water provision and elsewhere farmers were stranded with bumper harvests. On 18 April, a farmer in Karnataka tweeted a short video asking for help to sell his nearly 100 tonnes of harvest-ready cabbages at a throwaway price. He was not alone; several others faced the prospect of rotting crops, with no farm labour to harvest them and transport to markets uncertain.
The lockdown triggered a labour shortage in agrarian states, which often depend on migrant workers from neighbouring states to bring in harvests. These farm labourers were among the vast numbers of migrant workers stranded all over the country, desperately trying to get back home. Towards the end of April, the government announced special buses to return them to their villages. And on 1 May, special migrant labourer trains were also announced to transport stranded workers home. In the long run, once returned to the communities they had left in order to find work, they will face an inevitable resource crunch.
As the summer heat grows, water scarcity will intensify their problems; already a third of the country is experiencing drought-like conditions. Around 82 per cent of households in rural India do not have access to piped water. Repeated hand washing is an unattainable luxury. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the state of health infrastructure in rural India. Despite over two-thirds of the population living in rural areas, the availability of government hospital beds there is only 3.2 per 10,000 people. In Bihar this figure drops to 0.6.
This pandemic and the ill-conceived, draconian lockdown measures have underlined the apathy of successive Indian governments towards rural communities.
‘People here know that if there is a huge outbreak, no-one is coming to save them,’ says Amar Habib, a farmers’ rights activist based in the drought-stricken Marathwada region in Maharashtra. ‘They have learnt a lesson from farming crises and farmer suicides. Over 30 farmers die by suicide every day. There’s no back-up plan for the poor.’
Against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, this lack of a plan could lead to an unimaginable humanitarian crisis. To prevent that, the government must urgently bolster relief and rehabilitation measures in rural areas. A start could be made by allowing farmers access to easy loans with flexible repayment options to tide them over the lean times ahead. The government must also release more food grains from its stockpile and universalize food transfers, widening its existing Public Distribution System and providing the poor with emergency ration cards.
According to the Food Corporation of India, by September food stocks should stand at two-and-a-half times the minimum requirement. Thus the country is comfortably placed to provide extra food grains to the needy. Social security measures such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (which aims to provide at least 100 days of wage employment per year) and pensions for the elderly will need to be boosted, too.
India needs to urgently shift the focus of its Covid-19 response to its rural heartlands.