In the early period of the lockdown to contain the spread of COVID 19 infections several measures were introduced for the poor and marginalised groups. These included free distribution of food grains under Garib Kalyan Yojana (plan to benefit the poor), free gas cylinders for three months for families already receiving subsidised cylinders and cash transfers of Rs 500 for three months for women Jan Dhan account holders, and eligible farmers. Further, Rs 2500 was deposited in the accounts of registered workers in the unorganized sector and a lump sum deposit of Rs 1000 was made in the accounts of families receiving social security pension.
An employment generation-cum-rural infrastructure creation programme, with a fund outlay of Rs 50,000 crore, of the Government of India, called the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan was operationalised from 20 June, 2020. It was formed with the cooperation of 15 ministries to provide immediate employment opportunities to returnee migrant workers and similarly affected rural population of 116 districts in six states namely Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh where there are more than 25000 returnee migrant workers per district. The main aim of the programme is to saturate villages with public infrastructure and assets and set the stage for enhancing longer term livelihood opportunities.
All these measures are no doubt commendable, but at the same time much more needs to be done to combat the impact of COVID 19 on the disempowered and marginalized people who are facing a disproportionate burden of the fallout from COVID related restrictions. Besides uneven and incomplete implementation of various measures initiated by the government there have been several unintended social impacts. It has been reported that there is an increase in child marriages, child and women trafficking, child labour and violence against women and girls. Easy availability of alcohol despite the lockdown has increased domestic violence on women and children. It is also a matter of concern that only 8 percent of children are availing online education.
A survey conducted in Jharkhand state of 361 thousand migrant workers including 335000 men and 25699 women is quite revealing. Most workers failed to benefit from centrally sponsored health and pension schemes viz., Ayushman Bharat and Atal Pension Yojana. 78.5 thousand were not covered by Ayushman Bharat. Old-age pension, widow pension, Jivan Jyoti Insurance scheme etc. remained underutilized due to ignorance or due to administrative bottlenecks. As many as 1.89 lakh workers did not have a job card under the flagship rural employment guarantee scheme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). One-third of them did not have any bank account under the Jan Dhan Yojana.
According to a UN study, “Data from the rapid assessment surveys also shows that, in all countries, women are more likely to see increases in both unpaid domestic and unpaid care work since the spread of COVID-19.’’ Still, unpaid childcare, adult care and domestic work falls mostly on women.
Going ahead, in light of the COVID impact so far, a few steps are clear. The most badly affected in the aftermath of COVID are the migrant workers. For them it is imperative to get work in their villages. For this the working days and wages under MGNREGA need to be enhanced. At the same time social security in terms of health and livelihood of the migrants and other marginalised groups must be addressed urgently and effectively. The respective state governments need to undertake skill mapping to match skills and livelihoods.
In all discussions post COVID universalisation of income support has emerged as a valid demand for informal sector workers. Proper understanding and provision of housing and other basic infrastructure needs of informal workers in urban areas, if and when they go back from the rural hinterland, is essential if we do not want to repeat the mistakes from past forms of vulnerability and exploitation. Panchayats specifically can ensure that COVID frontline workers like the Accredited Social Health Activists (Asha workers) and Anganwadi (childcare) workers get full support and resources.
Good practices like those adopted in Panchayats in Kerala to provide short term courses to run COVID 19 detection and tracing centres, or community provision for elderly, etc, may similarly be enabled. Supporting self help groups in these trying times is another option for Panchayats. Facilitating and running information Centres to access agriculture markets or to know of government schemes through Panchayats is likewise the need of the hour. Further, for the education of children, Panchayats in collaboration with civil society organisations and concerned individuals can play a catalytic role in providing distance education with physical distancing.
One positive fallout from the pandemic has been the resurgence of trust and acknowledgement of the need for local and state governments to work in tandem with civil society organisations including NGOs. Various proposed and implemented measures will mitigate the situation only if the governance infrastructure can ensure minimal leakages and timely deliverance in the fight against COVID 19. So far, the record has been sketchy with some misses and few hits.
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment is supposed to have decentralised governance with women playing an active role through participation in Panchayats, planning and implementation. With limited resources, NGOs, Civil Society Organisations, Self Help Groups and Women’s Rights groups have done great work with courage of conviction. One hopes that this pandemic helps in building “Strong institutions and partnerships” as envisaged in Sustainable Development Goals 16 and 17 through the Panchayat system at the rural level along with civil society organisations.
This write up is based on the web-based discussion organised by FES India and SOHARD an NGO based in Rajasthan with technical collaboration of NIIT University on July 4, 2020 on the topic “Deconstructing the Economic Stimulus Package for Panchayats”. Professor Vibhuti Patel, a renowned academician and women’s rights activist from Mumbai, was the main speaker. More than 200 participants including activists, Panchayat elected representatives, students, academicians and NGOS participated in the event.
Damyanty Sridharan is Senior Adviser of the Gender and Social Justice Program at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung India office in New Delhi.