Doing nothing about the rural poor in India

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Doing nothing about the rural poor in India

The government must take action to help India’s rural communities, writes Nilanjana Bhowmick.


Rajasthan, India. Women in the countryside, on the way to Pushkar. Credit: Ninara, Flickr

In India the government announced a Covid-19 lockdown in the middle of March. It was at night, a short time before the lockdown, and there was panic and confusion all over the country. International media reported the terrible problems of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers as they rushed home from the cities. Most migrant workers returned to the rural areas but the media did not really report on that. In Assam crops were dying because there was little water. In other areas farmers had very good harvests but they could not sell them. On 18 April 2020l, a farmer in Karnataka tweeted a short video asking for help to sell his nearly 100 tonnes of cabbages at a very cheap price. He was not alone. Many others were expecting rotting crops, with no farm workers to harvest them, and transport to markets was very uncertain.

The lockdown started a labour shortage in farming states. The farming states often need migrant workers from other states nearby to bring in harvests. These farm workers were part of the big numbers of migrant workers all over the country trying to get back home. Towards the end of April, the government announced special buses to return them to their villages. And on 1 May they announced special migrant worker trains to take workers home. After they have returned home, they will find few resources.

As the summer heat grows, there will be less and less water. Already in a third of the country there is drought. About 82 per cent of households in rural India do not have piped water. It is impossible to keep washing hands. And it is worse because of the poor state of healthcare in rural India. Two-thirds of the population live in rural areas but there are only 3.2 government hospital beds per 10,000 people. In Bihar there are 0.6.

This pandemic and the badly planned lockdown show that for years Indian governments have not looked after rural communities.

Amar Habib is a farmers’ rights activist in the Marathwada region in Maharashtra, where there is drought. He says, ‘People here know that if there is a big outbreak, no-one is coming to save them. They have learnt this lesson from farming crises and farmer suicides. Over 30 farmers die by suicide every day. There’s no plan to help the poor.’

With the pandemic and no plan, there could be a really terrible humanitarian crisis. To stop this, the government must urgently take action in rural areas. They could make it possible for farmers to get easy loans with flexible repayments to help them in the poor times ahead. The government must also release more food grains and improve its Public Distribution System and give the poor emergency ration cards.

The Food Corporation of India says that by September there should be two-and-a-half times the minimum food stocks ready. Then the country can give extra food grains to the poor. The government also needs to improve social security like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. This gives at least 100 days of paid work per year. They also need to improve pensions for the elderly.

India needs to urgently make Covid-19 plans for its rural areas.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)