The ripples from a rural covid surge

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In April, Beena died, most likely due to dehydration or a sunstroke, after she had spent a gruelling day roaming around villages, pleading with residents to come out for vaccination.

“No one visited her family after her death or to find out how her children were managing,” Kavita, who herself has been working without any pay since January, said over the phone.

While the unfortunate deaths of medical professionals in cities have received at least some attention, women like Kavita and Beena have completely slipped through the cracks. So has the “beyond covid” impact on those who may not have necessarily caught the infection themselves.

Unlike the first wave, which barely touched rural areas, the second wave of the covid-19 pandemic has engulfed India’s small towns and villages. What follows is shrouded in uncertainty, but what is clear is that work from home (WFH) will never be a real option for most rural Indians—many of whom experienced strict localized lockdowns for the first time over the past few weeks.

For now, farmers await the reopening of wholesale markets, small businesses want transport services to resume, and desperate migrant workers who are yet to get a jab—less than 4% of Indians have been fully vaccinated so far—are still looking for a way to return to cities to stave off hunger, even at the risk of contracting covid-19 infection.

Mint profiles five rural residents, whose experiences reflect the broader ground reality.

Ramesh Panghal, 49, vegetable grower, Haryana

“Our suffering is an invisible epidemic,” said Ramesh Panghal, a farmer from Bhiwani, Haryana, after losing close to 40 lakh this season.

Panghal planted vegetables like tomato and green capsicum on his 50-acre farm before the second wave hit in March. As wholesale markets were open only for a few hours every day and local traders disappeared, Panghal was left with no option but to dump most of his harvest.

He tried to transport the harvest to wholesale mandis in Delhi, but he was unable to recover the harvesting, transport and market transaction costs (totalling about 4 per kg). Tomatoes fetched him just 2-4 per kg in the wholesale market. Consumers, however, were paying between 20-30 per kg.

“I have received awards honouring me for being a progressive farmer. I urged many farmers to take up horticulture and now they all blame me. Last year too, we incurred heavy losses due to the lockdown,” Panghal said.

A few days ago, he harvested the capsicum after paying 40,000 in labour costs, only to dump it by the side of a field. That was to save on the nutrition costs and ensure that the plants survive for a future plucking.

Like Panghal, perishable growers down south, in states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, had to weather heavy losses too. Women watermelon growers in Jharkhand have decided to let the harvest rot, since traders are offering a paltry sum of 1-3 per kg.

Data on wholesale crop prices shows the plunge in vegetable prices clearly—the price index’s fall sharpened from an already low -5.2% in March (year-on-year growth) to -9% in April. It is likely to slide further in May.

The plunge in the prices of perishables will dent farm incomes and reduce the income gains from non-perishables like pulses and oilseeds, where wholesale prices were 11-30% higher year-on-year in April 2021, driven by robust international prices.

Mohammad Shakir, 57, casual worker, Bihar

For over a month, Mohammad Shakir has been drawing down on his savings to sustain a 10-member household in Kishanganj district of Bihar. A construction labourer, Shakir did not find a single day of employment in the past one month. Work is at a standstill for his wife and 19-year-old daughter as well, who used to roll beedis to supplement household incomes.

“Beedi contractors from West Bengal have stopped coming after the lockdown was announced in April. So, I withdrew 10,000 from my savings of 15,000 to pay for daily expenses,” Shakir said.

His daughter Sabena, who dropped out of school a few years ago, explained that it takes about two days to roll 1,000 beedis with her mother. The pay is an abysmal 100 for two days of work, yet she is keen to have it back. “We had no money to buy new dresses this eid. To cut down on expenses, we have stopped drinking tea or milk,” Sabena said.

Her father added that every family in the village has a few micro loans to tide over the crisis. “Without these (micro-credit loans), we would not have survived,” he said.

Lockdowns have rendered many like Shakir jobless at a time when farm activity is typically negligible—the winter harvest is over and Kharif plantings are yet to begin this time of year.

According to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), weekly unemployment in rural areas more than doubled from 6.2% at the end of March to a 50-week high of 14.3% in mid-May (and fell somewhat to 9.6% at the end of May).

Even guaranteed work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has plummeted: just about 200-million-person days of work has been generated so far this month (as of 24 May), about a third of the May 2020 level.

“The stalling of the employment guarantee scheme shows that the spread of the disease itself is a major factor in rural areas and the ground situation is far severe than what is captured by the CMIE data,” said Amit Basole, professor at Azim Premji University.

Aaveg Jain, 26, FMCG distributor, Madhya Pradesh

It took Aaveg Jain a decade to establish himself as a distributor of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) in Ganj Basoda, a rural town in Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh. The pandemic months have been the most challenging, even worse than the years of tepid growth which preceded 2020.

“Here, almost all the grocery stores are shut and only home deliveries are allowed. I had to ask three of my seven employees to leave,” Jain said over the phone, adding, “apart from essentials like food products, biscuits, packaged snacks and soaps, all other sales have plunged.”

Jain was clocking around 75,000 in daily sales in January, which has dropped to 10,000 in May.

The young entrepreneur is now frantically looking to get himself vaccinated amid a shortage of doses. “Hundreds have died of the pandemic here, and I am not sure when sales will start looking up. People are scared to step out. Besides, consumers often purchase more non-essential (discretionary) items when they visit a shop… which is why sales of personal-care products are next to nil now,” Jain said.

He is hoping for a recovery in June after the strict lockdown which is in place since 20 April is relaxed. A lot will depend on when business resumes in mandis: farmers are unable to sell their harvest and have little cash in hand. Grocery stores in the villages are open, but Jain is unable to service them. “I have to re-establish my relationship with them,” Jain said.

What Jain is experiencing first-hand is a worrying sign for FMCG companies, which witnessed 15% value growth in rural areas in the March quarter (2020-21) compared to just 2.2% growth in top metros and 7% growth in Tier-1 towns. The spread of infections, coupled with a large death toll, can seriously disrupt rural sales growth, not just for FMCG products, but even big-ticket purchases like two-wheelers and tractors.

Sarama Kayal, 39, microfinance borrower, West Bengal

Last month, when field agents of a microfinance lender came to Ghosher Chawk village in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, only 13 of the 47 women borrowers were able to repay their weekly instalments. “We have told them that if you put more pressure, we will simply die,” said Sarama Kayal, who was among the thirteen who scrounged and repaid her dues.

It wasn’t easy. Kayal sold a part of her paddy harvest to make the payment, and she is left with just enough to survive the lockdown. The self-employed micro-borrower, with outstanding loans of over 200,000, sells saris for a living. Her husband, a porter in the state capital Kolkata is out-of-job since local trains have stopped plying and markets are shut.

“I cannot repay anymore. I sold two bags of paddy for 1,800 to make the payment this week. Now, I am left with just three and a half bags,” said kayal who is not enrolled under the central food subsidy scheme, which entitles poor families to five kg of grains per member per month.

As of 31 December 2020, the microfinance sector served over 58 million borrowers, with the portfolio at risk (PAR)—loans overdue by more than 30 days—worsening to 11%, compared to 2.4% in the December quarter of 2019, a fallout of the first wave of the pandemic.

Vrindavan Ahirwar, 35, migrant worker, Uttar Pradesh

Last April, Ahirwar undertook an audacious journey, walking more than 600 kilometres from his workplace in Noida to his village in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh along with three little children and his wife. Tens of thousands of migrant workers undertook similar journeys after India announced a sudden nationwide lockdown. In comparison, the lockdown this year has been less cruel, but it has still not been easy.

He returned to the village on 24 April to cast his vote in the panchayat (local body) polls. As the pandemic spread in rural Bundelkhand, Ahirwar stayed put.

Almost everyone who was working in other states is back in the village and many are scared to return.

“But with poverty chasing me, I have no choice,” added Ahirwar, who works as a construction worker in Noida on a daily wage of 400. Luckily, his employer has been coaxing Ahirwar to return, asking him to bring at least ten other workers along. Ahirwar has convinced five so far.

The few thousands he had saved over the past eight months is nearly over and the credit at the neighbourhood dairy and grocery stores is piling up. The wheat he harvested a month ago, just about 200 kg, will not last long.

Last year, an estimated 30 million migrant workers had returned to their villages following the first wave of the pandemic. There are no figures to indicate how many of them returned to the cities or the extent of the current exodus, following a virulent second wave in March/April 2021.

The churning, however, puts over 1 trillion of remittance earnings, which flows like clockwork into rural India, at risk. And with little or no cash support from governments unlike last year, men like Ahirwar have no choice but to get back to the city, with or without a vaccine shot.

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