Even as tragedies stemming from the current wave of Covid-19 pandemic unfold in Indian cities, less visible ones have started emerging in the villages. Rural India is no longer just a receptor for returning migrants in the current wave, it is already a site where resources and coping mechanisms have been stretched. Accounts coming in from the field point to the times of distress that will quickly turn into a catastrophe of unimaginable scale, if not addressed immediately.

An unfolding crisis

Unlike the previous exodus, returning migrants are now more likely to be not only carrying the disease with them but also a very different attitude towards it. They are returning after months with limited or no income and diminished nutrition. Having gone back to cities only recently, they are also returning with far fewer economic resources.

Most surveys have documented the relative disadvantage of migrant households being able to access public safety nets either in their origin villages or destination cities. Throw in the lack of basic health facilities and personnel, test results taking a week to come, lack of oxygen, brittle supply chains that all rural residents face and one can sense the storm, even from a distance.

Civil society organisations working in rural India are witnessing the unfolding crisis daily now and need attention. Despite facing severe constraints, the role that civil society played in responding to the first wave of the pandemic is widely acknowledged. By virtue of their presence in the field, they are often the first witnesses and responders to any crisis on the ground.

As another crisis engulfs, local and national policymakers, philanthropic foundations and the larger public need to hear the voices from the field, be informed by them and facilitate ways to leverage their commitment, knowledge and expertise.

Already reeling under financial pressures from several policy changes (including those concerning the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act and the diversion of funds to PM-Cares), several organisations find themselves operationally handicapped by the disease afflicting their frontline staff or families.

Organisations are also struggling to reach geographies, with villagers creating their own roadblocks to close themselves off in several villages. The issues they have identified as needing interventions include information dissemination, risk mitigation, livelihoods, nutrition, mental health and strengthening the working of government programs.

Unlike the previous exodus, returning migrants are now more likely to be carrying the disease with them. Photo credit: PTI

Working together

A frequent criticism of NGOs is their failure to coordinate among themselves and work together. In stark contrast to this reputation, the Rapid Rural Community Response to Covid-19, a collective of over 60 NGOs, has been working together since the pandemic hit India.

Although predominantly working in the space of livelihoods, these organisations have mobilised themselves to work together on several fronts including a very significant research exercise that has been providing in-depth information on the economic, nutritional, physical and mental health situation among rural residents.

The third round of this exercise conducted between December 2020 and January collected data from 11,766 households, across 64 districts in Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh. Among other things, it points out that around 25% of respondents continued to cut down their food and nourishment even six months to seven months after the first lockdown.

Nearly 70% of households also reported a decrease in income since the lockdown and 28% said lack of funds might compel them to take their children out of school. Among households with no migrants, only 59% wanting work under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act had been able to get it, the number was 49% among households with migrants.

While systematic data are unquestionably important to formulate medium and long term policy responses, field accounts like those shared at a recent general body meeting bring out issues that need immediate attention and ways to respond to them.

Key challenges

One of the key challenges the organisations report is the belief among the communities they work with that Covid-19 is over and that it is an urban disease. Consequently, Covid-19 symptoms are increasingly being interpreted as a regular sickness.

Even more significant than the hesitancy to vaccinate is the hesitation to test. Since testing often throws up positive results even for asymptomatic carriers, it is the test that comes to be attributed to being the cause of the disease. In cases where the administration has set up checkpoints, the response is to try and evade them.

When testing does occur, lack of counselling when someone is tested positive often implies that people are uninformed on what to do with medicines provided.

While the debate on the impact of electoral campaigns on the spread of the disease can go on, Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections, which have not received much attention in the midst of the state elections, have preoccupied sarpanches and gram panchayats.

Consequently, the support that civil society organisations got in the past has not been very forthcoming this time.

With governments often expecting subservience from them, the relationship between civil society and governments are often tenuous. At times like these when even the most committed within governments are facing unprecedented challenges, civil society organisations are quite capable of creating honest bridges between government and people.

For instance, while underreporting of diseases and deaths may well be a reality, only organisations that have their feet on the ground can explain the challenges that some local government offices are facing because the disease has afflicted the local personnel responsible for data entry too. Such information coming from independent credible sources promotes empathy, essential in these times.

Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said, not all expertise sits within the government. In the same way that market actors are often valued for their ability to enhance productivity, the skills and expertise of a responsive civil society needs to not only be tapped into but also be valued and supported at a time when we are facing an unprecedented emergency.

The author teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.