06/22/2020, 16.24
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Coronavirus will create new poverty in India

by Frederick D’Souza

About 25 million migrant workers have left the cities for their rural villages, where all cannot find work. The pandemic could create 354 million new poor people. The Church should organise people so that they can participate in decision-making processes.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Fr Frederick D’Souza is an economist and former director of Caritas India. For him, agriculture will not be able to absorb millions of migrant workers who left urban areas because of the COVID-19 to return to their rural places of origin. In addition to economic problems, the pandemic will increase social discrimination. However, the crisis could be an opportunity in disguise to create an egalitarian society in India. Fr D'Souza’s analysis follows.

We, the urban dwellers have been enjoying the roads, flyovers, stadiums, and metros among many other advantages, all these years. We wake up every morning to see someone bring to our doorstep milk, newspaper, vegetables and many other necessities of life. These ‘city makers’ who built the luxury apartments in which we live, the schools for our children, the hospitals for our treatment are migrant labourers. In the last few days, we have seen the images of thousands of migrant labourers and their children going back home with their meagre belongings; in some cases, elderly and the infirm as well. Some did not make it were killed by speeding vehicles; others were run over by trains; some died of heat and exhaustion.

It is estimated that 25 million migrant labourers from 64 districts, predominantly from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha are returning to rural areas.The strong ‘push factors’ like unemployment and underemployment that contributed their migration into the cities are forgotten as they face a sense of insecurity, disowned by the very city they built. While they were in the city, they no doubt were able to earn money and support the education of the children back home, care and support the treatment of their aged parents, pay for house repairs and the wedding of their daughters. While a typical worker in rural areas earns Rs41,000 per year, the same worker can earn Rs98,000 per year in a city. Obviously, the ‘pull factors’ were equally strong, as most investments and infrastructure creation took place in urban areas, making it attractive because of better job opportunities.

India however lives in her villages: 70% of the population lives in the villages. The huge influx of people back to the villages will further burden the economy, which was already under stress due to underemployment and unemployment. There has been decline in the investment in the agricultural sector over the years. Some other policies like demonetisation and gradual shift from agriculture to manufacturing production played a role; the transition was taking its time to settle. Under these scenarios, the scope of absorbing returning migrant labourers will be very difficult, giving rise to a huge new poverty. It is said that the 71% of the total work force in India is in rural areas. One can only imagine the problem adding so many millions of them over and above them. The rural economy is predominantly agriculturally based and by its very nature lacks diversification, and so cannot absorb the new influx of labour. Though there is manufacturing and construction activities in the rural economy, they are too small to absorb the newly arrived labour.

While we all agree that there will be a new poverty, the debate is how many and how to count them. the International Labour Organisation claims (April 2020) “that about 400 million workers from India’s informal sector are likely to be pushed deeper into poverty due to Covid- 19.”[1] Many people in the cities, urban areas and semi-urban areas, who worked in the informal sectors, on a daily wage basis, or contractual basis, will lose their jobs. Some may lose permanently as they may not be able to resume their services. In a cash dependent economy like in urban areas, it’s very important to have cash in hand for survival.  Poverty will be visible in both urban and rural areas. Drawing on the study by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and Planning Commission data, Financial Express analysed and concluded that, “in summary, we can infer that due to covid-19, (i) poverty will grow with India adding about 354 million more poor people and (ii) inequality will worsen.”[2]

The consequences of this newly added poverty will be manifold. There will be serious implications on the education and health of the new poor. Children in urban areas pulled out of schools and taken back to the villages will seek admissions in the rural hinterlands. Migrants who lived in the cities, who got used to ‘comparatively’ better medical facilities will now find it extremely difficult to access treatment in rural areas. The rise in unemployment means more and more people approaching money lenders in agriculture and fulfilling other social and economic obligations. One can only anticipate a rise in violence, of petty crimes due to various reasons. We can expect a lot of land-related disputes and crimes; family-related issues like domestic violence, violence against women and children and human trafficking could be all on the rise.

There is fear of social stigma at least in initial stages that the returnees are carriers of the virus. This will add to the problems of existing social discrimination like caste system among people. There are reports of people being looked at suspiciously and denied access to villages and places of job opportunities.

The Government of India has announced many schemes for the different sectors in order to reach out to the poor. The government is going to spend 35 billion Indian rupees on food alone, which is a very welcome move. There is plan to register the migrant workers for various schemes and minimum wages. Direct bank transfers to farmers have been put in place. While all this is very good, we need to actually see how the people benefit from these schemes. It is too early to comment now.

The Church is always conscious of her diakonia, her call to serve. During the pandemic and the lockdown, the Church in India has served millions in an unprecedented way. From opening of health and other facilities for treatment and quarantine to working as frontline workers providing food and survival kits to migrants and needy families, the church has done it. From the parish level to the national level, everybody was on the lookout to reach out. However, the mission is far from over because the worse is yet to come. We confront two issues: to get over the pandemic as soon as possible and work on the economic recovery. The Church should play a role in both.

As I write this, I hear the news that migrant labourers are arriving back in Punjab. The states of Punjab and Haryana are India’s wheat and rice granaries. Migrant labourers are the backbone of food production in these states. The good news is that migrant labourers have arrived this time to much better working conditions. They were taken by bus from Bihar for almost double the wages like Rs. 4,000/ to 4,200/per hectare of sowing, which was less than half previously. In other words, migrant labourers will eventually go in search of these jobs as there will be excess labour in the villages. Both the ‘push’ and the ‘pull factors’ may work in different ways, but will be there. So, the Church can play the role of organising people, raising awareness, creating different fora for better and just wages. The movement of people even within the country for labour needs regulation. Creating accountability at different levels and creating access to resources and entitlements should be the distinct role of the Church.

Generating livelihoods, whether in rural or urban areas, is of paramount importance. Gainful employment for the poor, whether through self-employment or daily wage earning in an informal sector, any activity that brings cash for the poor, is required. It is cash that ultimately gives them purchasing power. In other words, there is lot of scope for skill development, training, and credit to create alternatives. All this should be regenerated on new terms and conditions based on the principle of equity and fair redistribution of resources. What was happening prior to COVID-19 was far from normal; it was injustice and oppression that was normalised or rather made to feel that it was normal. This has come as an opportunity in disguise to create an egalitarian society. The Church should take her social teachings seriously and work on them.

Agriculture plays a vital role in Indian economy, contributing 17% of the total GDP. The Church promotes sustainable agriculture, which in itself is very good, but without fora for producers to take care of the post production, issues like storage and price control, and dialogue between consumers and producers, it has little result.

The establishment and control of supply chain and prices by the poor is an urgent need. These measures will absorb more labour in the rural areas and largely minimise the ‘push factors’ in the villages. Migrant labourers who just returned or are on their way back home, are bringing a lot of skills, which should be retained in the rural areas as much as possible.

The Church needs to be out there to organise people at various levels so that they can effectively participate in the various decision-making processes that affect their lives.

[1] Shweta Saini, “COVID-19 may double poverty in India,” in Financial Express, 30 April 2020 (https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/covid-19-may-double-poverty-in-india/1943736/). Retrieved on 22 June 2020.

[2] Ibid.

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