“We have to do what we have to do,” said the mother of a child who is just over a year old in Odisha’s Sundargarh district. “If we have to survive on water, we will.” Since the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 was implemented on March 25, this woman and her husband in Theteiposh village have had to take loans to buy food and meet their other expenses. It means that they have no money to spend on the education of their older child.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district, the owner of a small shop in Bhisure village said he had been giving loans to poor people in his village to help them get by. “There are people in the village, who if they are eating in the morning, are not eating in the evening and if they are eating in the evening, are not eating the next morning,” he said. In fact, he admitted that he had been facing financial hardships himself.

They were among the 115 households contacted in July for a quick phone survey conducted by students and volunteers about the impact of the lockdown and the government support they had received.This was the third round of a survey that had previously been held in March-April, May- July, across Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Deepening recession

These were households that had previously been interviewed in the June 2019 Jachha Bachha Survey of pregnant and nursing mothers, and so were likely to have young children now. The July round focused on young children. The aim was not to quantify the impact of the lockdown but just to get a sense of the problems people are facing.

The survey was conducted against the backdrop of reports of a deepening recession – and the hunger and distress associated with it that was getting much less attention. Under pressure, the government doubled grain entitlements under the Public Distribution System, transferred small amounts of cash of between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 to women’s Jan Dhan accounts and accounts of social security pensioners and allocated Rs 40,000 crores in additional funds for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which assures rural families of 100 days of work a year. But these measures have been inadequate as well as mismanaged.

Perhaps the most striking findings of the survey are the stories of economic distress. About 68% of the respondents reported falling incomes since the lockdown began. This was reported by people across states and sectors. Though this was a small survey, other larger surveys have reported similar troubling findings.

School students in Dandwal village in Maharashtra. Credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

Daily wage workers report not having had work since the lockdown, shop owners say business has slowed, the tourism industry in Himachal Pradesh is badly hit and farmers everywhere are insecure as they report low prices, shut markets and a lack of transport facilities. Many say that there just is not enough work in villages. Going out to try to find work means dealing with poor transport, possible police harassment and fears of contracting the virus. And yet, few have an option.

NREGA is an important source of support for the rural poor and marginalised. Women make up more than half of the workers in the scheme. In spite of its enhanced budget, the implementation has been patchy – only 45% of the respondents said that NREGA work had opened in their villages after lockdown.

For instance, a casual agricultural labourer from Madhya Pradesh said that despite three people in her household doing NREGA work, they have had to take loans. She said that NREGA payments are not made on a daily basis but at longer intervals. This is a problem for those who live hand-to-mouth.

Another respondent from Madhya Pradesh said that his mother-in-law had done eight to ten days of NREGA work in June but hadn’t been paid at the time of the survey on July 10.

Low and delayed pay were cited as reasons for not wanting to do NREGA work. Wage payment delays have long been a feature of NREGA and a robust system of timely payments, geared to the realities of the lockdown is needed now more than ever.

In its current form – a low scale of employment, irregular work, delayed and low wages – it cannot be relied upon to sustain rural households.

Selling durables

Besides falling incomes, about 20% of the respondents had faced some form of economic crisis involving having to sell some of their durables or take loans and mortgages. Some had to sell motorcycles and jewellery. Loans were taken to cover agricultural losses due to the lockdown, ill health and just to get by. The refrain everywhere seemed to be that there is no work and whatever work is picking up isn’t doing so fast enough.

These sobering findings highlight the importance of public services that provide social security to the poor, especially in times of crisis. Take mid-day meals. Pre-pandemic, children attending government schools were entitled to a hot cooked mid-day meal. With schools being shut, this important support has disappeared for many households. In an attempt to ensure continued implementation of this source of nutrition in some form, the Human Resources Development ministry asked states to provide either a hot cooked mid-day meal to children or pay families a Food Security Allowance that would cover the cost of dry rations and cooking them.

Our survey found that this has been poor implemented – only 30% of households with eligible children received any of these substitutes in June. A larger survey done with 7,235 respondents across 15 states and Union Territories by Save The Children Foundation found that only 60% of eligible children received some substitute.

Almost all our respondents reported the substitute to be dry rations consisting primarily of grain. But soybeans were mentioned in Chhattisgarh and eggs in Odisha.

Services provided by anganwadi centres fared much better. About 67% of households received some support for children younger than 3 from their anganwadi in June. For most, this was in the form of take-home rations.

Respondents from Himachal Pradesh were getting sugar, oil and daal along with daliya and grains. Those from Odisha reported getting eggs too. In comparison, respondents in Uttar Pradesh were only getting sattu. A next step for states here would be to diversify the ration they distribute.

Many respondents were apprehensive about the future. A few asked us when the lockdown would end. This is not surprising – months into the lockdown, economic distress continues, pushing households into poverty and forcing the poor to make hard choices between health and economic security.

There is an urgent need to expand and strengthen social safety nets. Among the immediate steps that would help would be to universalise the public distribution system, ensure timely payment of NREGA wages at higher rates, diversify take-home rations in anganwadis and revive hot cooked mid-day meals in schools.

Meghna Yadav is a graduate of the Delhi School of Economics.

This article was written with inputs from Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera and Anmol Somanchi.

The survey was conducted by Sweta Dash, Ananya Jain, Xara Khan, Reetika Khera, Siddhartha Natarajan, Sanjana Patro, Sanmathi Rao, Cheta Sheth and Meghna Yadav.