The outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the subsequent nationwide lockdown measures have accelerated simmering rural-agricultural distress. Migrant workers who have recently returned to their native villages are but another critical dimension of the deteriorating situation.
The dire circumstances are now threatening to undo the last few decades of work in poverty alleviation by pushing families back into poverty. Instances of severe food shortages, amongst families who were already on the brink, have emerged. Now the challenge is not just to stop families from slipping into poverty but devise ways to revive, restore and rebuild the rural landscape.
The big announcement of Rs 20 lakh crore and the subsequent economic packages announced by the finance minister did little to allay fears during the ongoing crisis. In the long term, the impetus to rural infrastructure, steady loans for rural enterprises, connecting agriculture markets and such measures might help, depending on how all of it is operationalised.
Here is a five-point agenda to put rural lives on a path which can revive and restore livelihoods.
The first one, by unanimous consensus, is MGNREGA. Currently, ‘active’ job cardholders are estimated to be around 7.65 crore. Even if all of them get the assured 100 days’ work, the budgeted amount after a Rs 40,000 crore increase is not adequate. There is every likelihood that a higher number of workers would seek MGNREGA employment this year.
The average labour days worked by a household has been in the range between 45 and 50 days per household for the last couple of years. It is amply clear by now that this figure is not because rural households have received the workdays they wanted, but rather because of suppressed demand. By failing to provide sufficient work in the villages, the government has been encouraging seasonal migration.
Hence, there are two ways to repeal earlier injustices to some extent. Labour families who generally get their peak workdays during the summer months lost out on that opportunity this year due to the lockdown. So, they can be compensated by being paid for 20 days of work per household upfront, without any expectation of work in lieu of this payment. This is one effective way to transfer cash to needy families.
Secondly, the demand to increase the number of days per household from 100 to 200 days for this year has arisen. During natural calamities like drought and floods, the number of working days has been increased to 150 days per household. Another approach would be to let families work as much as they wanted to – even if the number of days exceeded 100 – as long as the state average of labour days per household did not cross 100.
This is with a minimalist approach.
Second is National Food Security Act administered through the Public Distribution System. There has been an announcement of higher quota, advance quota and some additional grains like one kilogram of pulses (which is yet to reach after 6 weeks of announcement). The present announcements have also mentioned the ongoing improvements in this program with the ‘One Nation One Ration card’ system.
Though this is not new, it is a work in progress, based on complete digitisation. It remains unclear whether a family with a ration card can split its quota across two places or shops. Additionally, the logistics of quota distribution need a lot of preparation. Some states where the need for food supplies is higher may not be able to comply with the digitisation, which will adversely impact the poor.
A major problem concerns those who have applied for ration cards but the application has been pending for several years with the department. Even after the program has been operational for decades and has been embedded in the Act for seven years, the apathy and inefficiencies in its functioning galore.
Who is to be held accountable if families who had applied have to wait for years for a ration card? Who is at fault if the procedure to change names on cards after people move or die is tedious and takes several visits? Such instances are not stray or exceptional occurrences – this is the reality seen by anyone working at the ground level.
For this year at the very least, there is an urgent need to compensate the poor, for the inefficiencies of the department processes, by giving them their due quota. The SECC survey, conducted in 2011, was to guide the allocation of government benefits. For all of rural India, there are only 11.2% of families who are in the ‘No Deprivation’ category. This means around 90% of the families should be given a ration card.
Third, is the Kisan Sanman Yojana. This is a mere Rs 6,000 per year and an additional Rs 2,000 is given during the present crisis. This does not even partially cover the agricultural expenses of a small farmer growing traditional crops dependent on rainfall. They work only after the kharif season and put aside the money for agricultural expenses. So their wage-earning outside of agriculture gets directly used in farming activity.
This makes for a good reason to increase the amount to at least Rs 10,000 per year per farmer family. The amount also needs to reach all. The first two years have shown that a simple cash transfer has hurdles in reaching all the intended beneficiaries.
Fourth is crop insurance. It has now been made voluntary. This is likely to decrease the volume of farmers applying for it, which may become unviable to the insurance companies. There was potential to make appropriate changes to the scheme to ensure it benefitted farmers. Now the expectation is that small farmers, farming only during the kharif season, dependent on vagaries of nature, have to go looking for banks, customer service centres and banking correspondents to get their premium paid and upload their application.
This will not prove to be an easy task, after the rainfall starts, the electricity and internet connection is unreliable and for the farmer to make more than one visit is expensive. How do the central government and state governments plan to make it simpler and easier for the farmers here? Can the postman, who is now a bank correspondent as well, become a crop insurance agent?
Migrant workers are of different types, some leave their villages for weeks, come back and leave again and undertake this cyclical journey every six months or so. Some leave and return only after six or eight months. Some, who left a few years ago, started living in urban areas. Many migrant workers keep coming back during the kharif season to lend hand farming in their small plots. As per the Economic Survey of 2016-2017, for every five households, there is one household with at least one member who is a migrant.
Currently, most migrant workers desperately want to reach their homes and understandably so. The manner in which they have been abandoned in cities that they lived in has left them with a fear of returning to cities. With uncertainty about whether their accommodation in cities will be available to them upon their return, it is likely that many workers may not wish to go back to work in cities.
They may try to seek out work in and around their villages. While many may have acquired skills during their stay in cities, those particular set of skills may not be useful in rural areas.
The challenge then is to employ their proficiencies and skills which can be utilised to build roads, small warehouses, electricity networks, solar or other types of renewable energy plants, internet networks and other necessary infrastructures. They can repair or redesign schools, primary health centres and other government buildings. Working on these hitherto neglected infrastructure facilities can give a fillip to economic activities.
It is critical to understand one dimension of the migrant workers’ story. Most of them moved to cities in search of work, acquired skills by working as apprentices, struggled to find accommodation, formed slums and were harassed by authorities until their slums were regularised. They lived in cities with no proper houses, no water, no toilets, no electricity, no ration cards and so on.
What assistance did they get from any government? Housing for a very few. Urban services like water, electricity, public transport were always in short supply. Moreover, given the state of government hospitals and schools, they also put their children in private schools and went to private medical centres. The non-availability of basic services by the government has probably led to expenses to the tune of 40 to 50% of their earnings, which could have been saved and utilised during such times of crisis. Given such dire circumstances, isn’t it time the government supported them with cash transfers for at least six months?
These efforts can help in reviving and restoring rural lives to some extent. This can help prevent families from slipping into poverty again.
To rebuild rural landscape, a new perspective is required. Think small. Bring back the watershed programs, bring programs to increase productivity of traditional crops like millets, oilseeds, pulses and encourage crops other than wheat and paddy. Bring back back-yard style animal husbandry, new programs for protective irrigation and focus on small and marginal, rainfed farmers growing traditional crops to get better returns for their land and labour.
As per the Agriculture Census 2011, 85% of farmers own less than 5 acres of farmland and 80% of the land is occupied in growing cereals, pulses and oilseeds. The agriculture budget needs to have a special set of programs for this category – small and marginal, rainfed, traditional crop-growing farmers which is the majority of farmers in India.
An unprecedented crisis is unfolding every day. This crisis may revert the human development milestones that India has attained so far and may again lead to the spectre of persistent poverty.
Ashwini Kulkarni is founder-trustee of Pragati Abhiyan, a Nashik-based NGO, and has been working on rural poverty and rural development for over thirty years.