The Present Situation
As we Indians struggle with the new phenomenon of complete ‘lockdown’ to contain COVID-19, the number of confirmed cases (as I write this blog) in India, as per the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), has risen to 694. This data will increase by the time this blog is online. The situation is grim, scary and of dismay. To a large extent, most of the news that covers the impact of this novel virus is urban-centric. Different pieces of news articles talk about how the pandemic is having significant economic impacts with rattling global stock markets and slowed economic activity. We know very little about how the virus will impact rural India. But for sure, the next hotspot cluster in India will be rural India concerning the spread of the virus and its impact on the lives as well as livelihood of the people in our villages.

The government of India has come forth with their Rs 1.75-Lakh-Crore Package to “…address the concerns of poor, migrant workers and those who need help”, as Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman shared amid Coronavirus Lockdown with a tag line of “No One Will Go Hungry”. A very good package indeed for the present context, but I hope it does not fail people during implementation. I say this because, there are several factors like caste and gender discrimination, inefficient local governance institutions and ineffective service delivery systems. Above all the implementation of the package is silent on the involvement of PRI in the whole process of implementation of the package. If PRIs become just another counter to distribute the services then, in the long run, its efficacy as an institution will be weak. Although today the question is not to assess the PRIs. The concern is the impact of COVID-19 in rural India. It will be a humungous task to check transmission (if we reach the stage of community transmission) due to several factors, including lack of awareness on health and hygiene, limited supply of water (to wash hands), low level of nutrition and presence of the huge number of anaemic women and most importantly, ill-equipped and insufficient public health facilities starting from Gram Panchayat to district hospitals. Hence even if rural India may have food and money: but will it be able to manage both the spread and treatment for this endemic in rural India? Nevertheless, the impact may worsen due to the social exclusion factors existing in rural India like caste and gender discrimination.

Impact of Lockdown on the Rural Population
For the last few days, we have heard how thousands of migrant workers from urban centres are walking hundreds of miles towards their rural destinations. This is because the informal industry in cities being badly affected by complete lockdown. This will impact the livelihood of the income of each household for at least five to six months from now. As per our developmental project baseline data, we have seen that the significant amount of income for rural households for small and marginal farmers as well as landless comes form migrant and daily wage labour works. Hence it is obvious that this kind of forced reverse migration will certainly have a great effect on the rural household and its economy. Besides this, when suddenly rural India will experience such an influx of people in their present population than the issue of food and water availability, as well as the quality and access of pro-poor services like PDS, etc, will be a big concern. Above all, and which is more dangerous is that the risk of spread of the virus will increase to a large extent and we may enter into the stage of community transmission. With the poor understanding of ‘social distancing’ in India and poor hygiene etiquette, where to date we could not convince people to stop open defecation and where we have tremendous water scarcity (as we are heading towards summer) the impact may be lethal.

Uncertain Future
Already a few news that we get from rural India shows feared effects on rural populations have already started to materialize. Take, for example, poultry producers in Jharkhand are highly impacted with the decreasing demand for broiler chickens, with rates falling as low as INR 20 per kg, from the regular rate of INR 90 per kg. As per the Economic Times (Feb 2020) “The misinformation passed on through social media about the spread of the virus through poultry and egg has reduced prices drastically in the last four months,” said the director of leading poultry company in Haryana. (Krar Prashant, ET Bureau, Para 2). Rural haats in Odisha, West Bengal, and Chhattisgarh, and mandis in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are being closed down, making it difficult for smallholder farmers in these areas to sell their produce. (https://idronline.org/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-rural-india/). Vos, Martin, and Laborde (2020, March) in their blog at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) website, state that the spread of the disease associated with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) may bring damage to the global economy, and with it to food security and efforts to reduce poverty. The blog further states that its impact will be very different from previous ones, including SARS, avian influenza, and MERS, which caused direct damage to livestock sectors, leading to food shortages and food price hikes in affected areas.

The next few months are very important for rural India as they gear up for planning Kharif crops. With this lockdown, how will the farmers get their inputs from and how will progress with their agriculture activities. To date, we are not well aware as to how are our PRIs structures and the elected representatives geared up to handle this pandemic at the village level. Till now the management of the situation is mostly centralized and from a very top to bottom approach. Maybe this what can be done in this situation. But when COVID-19 reaches the villages the strategy needs to be relooked and community-led interventions have to be initiated so that this communicable disease can be controlled.

Contributed by:
Anthony Chettri
Lead – Programme Development, Support and Management
Indo Global Social Service Society

Reference:
VOS, ROB, MARTIN, WILL, AND LABORDE, DAVID (2020, March 20) How much will global poverty increase because of COVID-19? International Food Policy Research Institute, Blog Post. Retrieved from https://www.ifpri.org/blog/how-much-will-global-poverty-increase-because-covid-19
Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/markets/commodities/news/poultry-egg-prices-fall-on-covid-19-rumours/articleshow/74234974.cms?from=mdr