A new study to document the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on lives and livelihoods in rural Bihar has thrown up startling findings with a staggering 94% of the households surveyed experiencing some degree of adverse effect. From the loss of livelihood, inability to access basic healthcare like immunisation for infants or pre- and postnatal care for lactating women, to a sharp decline in access to online education, the findings are an eye-opener.
The study, jointly conducted by the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability (CDES, Monash University, Australia) and the Institute for Human Development (IHD, New Delhi, India), tried to answer two questions – how did the crisis impact the livelihoods and lives of rural households in Bihar, and how far did the declared government support play out at the grassroots. Between October 17, 2020, and January 10, 2021, researchers spoke to 1,613 households over the phone. These households were in twelve villages across seven districts of Bihar- Gaya, Gopalganj, Madhubani, Nalanda, Araria, Purnia and Rohtas. On lessons that need to be learnt, as the pandemic is still on and its consequences deal recurrent and similar blows, one of the authors of the study, Gaurav Datt, who is the deputy director, Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability and associate professor, Department of Economics, says, “One important point highlighted by this study (and similar other studies) is the importance of continued and rapid data gathering to monitor the evolving impacts of the pandemic so that timely support can be arranged for those in need. There is a need to develop a flexible system of support based on ‘automatic’ triggers such that the observance of those triggers activates a set of measures of extra support through various channels, whether it is in terms of extra free food rations, additional cash support, or additional MGNREGA-type employment.”
Datt has a word for the government also, such as incentivising vaccination. “In the specific context of the ongoing Covid-19, the government may also consider cash payments upon vaccination both to incentivize vaccinations as well as to provide direct support to mitigate livelihood impacts. The scope of MGNREGA-type employment could be extended to cover social sectors (e.g. programs to make up for learning losses due to school closures, or remedial programs related to essential health services),” he says.
Along with Datt, co-authors Swati Dutta and Sunil Mishra, both with the Institute of Human Development, identified six sources of livelihoods – self-employment in agriculture, self-employment in animal husbandry, self-employment in non-agriculture, regular wage/salaried work, casual labour and migrant labour. The study found that while rural households, on average, were engaged in two types of economic activities and more than two-thirds of households were engaged in two or more types of economic activities, for 45% of the households all sources of livelihood were affected.
For every nine of the ten households surveyed, the main source of livelihood was casual and migrant labour, with 94% bearing the maximum brunt of the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic forced more than half of the migrant workers to return to their villages, with each one on average spending Rs 3,000 on the return journey. Less than two-thirds of those who returned found part-time work in or around their villages. For those who stayed back in the cities, nine out of ten lost days of work and their remittances back home also reduced or dried up. The study notes that many of the migrants actually returned to the cities after spending nearly five months or 149 days in the village. Worse, a fifth of those who returned to the cities had failed to find any employment. While migrant labour was the main source of income for 51% of the households, casual labour was the main source of income for 18% of the households.
The study also found that on average workers engaged in casual labour lost about 9 days of work every month, which is nearly a third of all their working days, that would roughly translate into a loss of nearly a third of their earnings. Importantly, the study says that the MGNREGA, the government’s rural employment guarantee programme, was the least affected. However, MGNREGA employment decreased by one day every month.
Only 4% of rural households had a member working in the government sector and these jobs were protected. However, a fifth of those households that had a member employed in the private sector with regular salaries experienced job losses. The study also shows that the impact was more severe for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and low-income groups. The findings of the study on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on health, nutrition and education is even more alarming. A staggering 41% of households with pregnant or lactating women could not avail of the ante or postnatal check-ups after the pandemic erupted, 24% of households with infants below twenty-four months missed their children’s immunisation, with the disruption in the mid-day meal programme a meagre 4% of the households with school-going kids received alternative food supplements, and 16% did not receive anything at all, and with schools shut down due to Covid-19 only 7% of households with school-going kids had access to online education. That dismal figure drops to a negligible 2% for households with kids studying in government schools.
Growing evidence of adversity
Asked whether the findings of this study can be extrapolated to the same group nationally, Gaurav Datt replies in the negative but adds that it is consistent with findings of other studies. “This study is about rural Bihar, so it can’t be simply extrapolated to rural India as a whole. However, having said that, many of the findings are consistent with related findings of other studies, as for instance, reviewed by a recent article by Jean Dreze and Anmol Somanchi, ‘The Covid-19 Crisis and People’s Right to Food’. The study is best viewed as adding to the growing body of evidence from different parts of the country on the ground-level impacts of the pandemic and access to government support," he says.
The study’s findings on the amount of government support received by the households during the pandemic is equally, if not more, dismal. The study says that 18% of households had no ration card and were not able to receive the additional free ration of rice, wheat and pulses for eight months, 52% of households were not eligible for free cooking gas cylinders for three months under the PM Ujjwala Yojana while 19% of those eligible did not receive free cooking gas cylinders, 31% of households had no woman Jan Dhan accounts to receive cash transfers and only a fourth of the households were eligible for ex-gratia pension payments to widows, senior citizens or those with disability. The picture is brighter when it comes to exclusion despite being eligible for free food grain and cash transfers. The study notes that among those eligible for free food grain, only 2% of the households reported receiving nothing. However, even in this category, the study says, most received less than the promised quantity of ration with only 51% receiving the full amount. It says 78% of households received less than the announced 5 kg of rice or wheat per person per month, 91% received less than the announced one kg of pulses per person per month with the average cardholding household receiving 75% of its entitlement.
Regarding the other big intervention of the government – around 30% of the households with women Jan Dhan accounts received less than the promised cash transfer, with 22% receiving just one instalment of Rs 500 instead of three, as announced. On whether women were more impacted than men, Datt says, “It is difficult to claim that on the basis of our study. We do, however, have some findings pertaining to women. For instance, 41% of pregnant/lactating women were unable to avail of the medical check-ups since the pandemic. Similarly, we do have some findings on the announced transfers to women’s Jan Dhan accounts. 31% of households did not have Jan Dhan accounts in the name of women, and hence did not receive anything. And of the 69% of households who received any payment into women’s Jan Dhan accounts, about a fifth received only a single transfer of Rs 500 rather than the promised three (The average amount of transfer received per women JD account was just Rs 13 per day over a three-month period).” The same story repeats when it comes to free cooking gas and pensions – three-quarters of those eligible for free cooking gas received less than three cylinders, as had been announced.
Not enough government support
Datt says that the study testifies to the meagre level of support received by households relative to the magnitude of the impact of the pandemic on their livelihoods (and their lives more generally). An obvious implication is a need for greater support to households. As the study itself has revealed, Dutt stresses that not only is the amount of support offered by the government meagre, but the actual support received often falls short of what is announced. The reasons for this are many, he says, sometimes because households do not meet the eligibility criteria, and at other times, eligible households do not get the full benefit due to lapses in implementation.
Relaxing eligibility criteria, in general moving to more universal coverage in areas deemed to be badly affected based on rapid monitoring of some observable triggers, ensuring that eligibility for support is portable (especially important for migrant workers), increasing provision of additional employment through MGNREGA by increasing budgetary allocation as needed and greater support through cash transfers, increasing the amount and duration of cash transfers (linked to the duration of the impact of the pandemic crisis), increasing the amount of old-age/ widow/ disability pensions payments beyond the paltry amount of Rs. 300-400 per month to 4-5 times that amount, greater social protection of migrant workers through MGNREGA-type programs in urban areas are some of the steps that associate professor Gaurav Dutt says need to be taken in order to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on rural households.