Measures for reducing impact of Covid19 on rural Uttarakhand

The economic impact of Covid19 would be immense. But if were to talk about Uttarakhand, it seems the damage is already done. Thankfully some doors are still open. Proactive measures by government and civil society can still save the day.

The livelihood of a large number of people in Uttarakhand is directly or indirectly linked to the tourism industry. Even if things get better by May end, any influx in June is unlikely. July and August is monsoon time which often extends till September. So even if there is some movement in October, we would have already survived six months sans income /revenue. Sadly, this is the best case scenario.

A large of inhabitants of rural Uttarakhand are daily wagers who work as masons, labourers, carpenters, etc. for private and government projects. Many of them are petty contractors. Due to disruption of supply chains and lack of resources, construction projects may not restart anytime soon. Monsoon is anyways a lean period for such work. So this income channel will also remain dry for almost six months, in a best case scenario.

People often relate rural areas with farming. Sadly, it is not the reality of rural Uttarakhand. Focus on industrial modes of agriculture, supply of irrigation intensive seeds to rain-fed zones, lack of supply chains to serve small growers and token gestures of government /social sector over decades has already nailed the coffin

That leaves us with local businesses like shop keepers, tea shops, local restaurants, etc. Without consumers, they too would be left juggling their overheads.

Measures for reducing Covid19 impact on rural Uttarakhand

Overall, the situation does not look very good. Forget earnings, we may be left with people having nothing to eat. Thankfully the doors aren’t closed as yet. Quick proactive measures by the government and civil society can still save the day. Listed below are certain measures than can possibly minimize the economic impact of Covid19 on rural Uttarakhand.

Putting rural employment guarantee act in play

MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act) guarantees 100 days of employment, per financial year, to every adult member of rural households. The provisions of the act often stand misused due to the difference between MGNREGA and local labour rates. This difference is well over 40%. On top of that, the payment is not immediate.

Based on the current scenario, it would not be an exaggeration to say that very soon many villagers will be left with no cash in hand. But if MGNREGA work starts getting executed, payments will come within in a month or so, when one would need that money dearly. Government can also hasten payment processing.

Many friends in corporate sector informed that the industry is gearing up for 30-50% pay cuts. There are rumours that government may also go for pay cuts. In such a scenario, the local daily wage rates may also fall due to which the difference between MGNREGA and market rates may not pinch anymore. The MGNREGA rates will not change as the Government has already announced ₹20 increase in MGNREGA daily wages as part of Covid19 Relief package. Local officials will have to share this reality with the villagers so that they can ‘accept’ the gap and start working for the rainy days.

Systematic distribution of food supplies

Central government announced extra ration as part of the Covid19 relief package. On the ground, this played out as release of already applicable PDS (Public Distribution System) ration in lump sum. Many villagers have already received their three months of quota. The problem is that many of them do not know how Covid19 may impact their earnings. I have been trying to tell my neighbors that ration coming in advance means that you are not going to get any ration for the next three months so please consume cautiously. But they may not. I think that the decision to distribute food in lump sum was a bad idea. The government may have to release extra ration within three months as people may run out of supplies.

Another problem is that only rice (₹3 per Kg) and wheat (₹2 per Kg) is distributed under this scheme. BPL (Below Poverty Line) families get a total of 5 Kgs per unit while others get lesser. Due to the current economic scenario, the monetary situation of BPL and APL (Above Poverty Line) families may end up being the same, Which means that provision of food will have to be made for everyone. We would also have migrants who will return home post lockdown. Many of them would not have local ration cards or voter ID but would need food nevertheless.

Apart from rice and wheat, people also need pulses, oil, salt, spices, sugar, etc. The government may have to make provisions for these as well. To prepare ground, state government should immediately start consultation with central government, non-government as well as private organizations for support. Another option is to request social sector and corporate entities to adopt village clusters.

The PDS network is often accused of malpractices. To plug this gap, government should consider bringing out an ordinance to make the gram pradhan, block development officer, chief development officer, and district magistrate directly and collectively liable for all malpractices so that no one passes the buck.

Motivating everyone to grow food

Government can only supply the basic necessities through its PDS network. But in spite of these supplies, people will still fall sort of food. The quality of PDS supplies is usually sub-standard. Moreover, we cannot expect people to remain healthy only on wheat and rice. To ensure healthy options, we should motivate every rural household, even with no land holding, to utilize every inch of available land to grow food. People with land will anyways grow the usual crops.

The time is ripe for sowing seeds of bottlegourd (lauki), ridged gourd (tori), pumpkin (kaddu), cucumber (kheera), chowlai (amaranth), oggal (buckwheat), etc. Most of these flourish without much inputs. Of all we know, they could save the day for rural Uttarakhand.

The problem however, is availability of seeds. The government should direct their district agriculture officials to distribute seeds on urgent basis. It would be advisable that we distribute local seeds rather than the so-called wonder varieties of our agricultural institutes. We do not have time to fool around.

I shared these views locally but I am unsure of positive action. One of the reasons is that people are unable to visualize the impending economic distress. Other being that the local systems work only when there is an ‘uppar say adesh’ (order from above). That is where the government needs to play its role. One phone call from the CM to DMs and then DMs to BDOs will trigger a chain reaction.

Temporary land lease for cultivation

Migration has been a major problem of rural Uttarakhand. Members of well to do families were the first to migrate due to which larger land holdings are with people who no longer stay here. In these times of crisis, the landowners could have temporarily leased their land to the locals so that they can meaningfully employ themselves. But Government’s inaction regarding chakbandi (reorganization of village land amongst land owners) comes in the way. Due to disconnected chunks of land and distributed ownership, it is not possible to individually work out the lease agreements. To solve the problem, government can proactively reach out to all landowners and ask them to pledge their land for temporary usage.

The pledged land can be allotted by village panchayat to various households on need basis. The landowners who pledge land could be issued bonds /certificates which can be ‘en-cashed’ later as tax /fee rebates. Government’s promise of an early ‘chakbandi’ can also motivate the land owners to pledge their land.

This option needs to be executed urgently because we are already in the sowing season. The least that the government could do is ask its district level officials to urgently explore this mode and find solutions.

Streamlining the logistics

There is an urgent need to address various supply chain and logistics issues that confront us. Most villagers go to local towns to for accessing banking & medical services, payment of bills, sale and procurement of goods, etc. Due to the lockdown no local transport is available. Very few have two wheelers. Technically, villages of Uttarakhand have already hit a bottleneck. Continued restrictions will only make the matters worse.

To address the problem, district officials should do impact assessment for every village and work out unique plans to ease the pressure for each of them.

To illustrate how grave the situation could be, let us consider a scenario where government transfers ₹500 into the bank accounts of all villagers. Most of them will have to visit the nearest towns to access these funds and that would be possible only when the local transport services are restored, post lockdown. If we were to talk about our village, one will spend a minimum of ₹80 to access these funds. That’s almost like paying 16% for an ATM transaction, that too when ₹80 is almost a luxury. On top of that they will also be spending almost the whole day on this.

It is high time we find alternate options. If the local health worker can go to each house with a soap and click a picture of every receipt for documentation, why can’t similar options be explored for delivery of other goods, services and aid money?

As stated earlier, collective liability of various district and village officials can be enforced through a time-bound ordinance to ensure that these system functions honestly and smoothly.

Developing post lockdown SOPs

The moment lockdown restrictions are gone; there may be a huge movement of people. Many migrants would come back to their respective villages. But easing of lockdown may not mean that Covid19 risk is behind us. It would still be there and villages of Uttarakhand would be highly vulnerable.

We have already experienced bottlenecks with regards to check-ups and social distancing measures. The local officials do not seem understand the role of asymptomatic patients. A body temperature check has almost become a Covid19 test. Social distancing measures are not getting enforced. As the gram pradhan is an elected member who plays an executive role as well, he/she is usually not willing to enforce rules if it does not go well with his/her vote bank.

So far, remoteness seems to be saved Uttarakhand. But we may not remain so lucky if the virus creeps in. To ensure safety of our villages, we will have to formulate effective SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and make the village and block level officials liable for adherence. The SOPs should have detailed protocols for tracking returning migrants, tourists and other visitors, keeping log and tracking symptoms of anyone who is unwell, tracking dietary needs of all villagers, etc.

Post lockdown, people will yearn for social gatherings, celebrations, temple visits, etc. Marriage season is round the corner. We may have to formulate SOPs for each and every event that is likely to take place.

Then we have resorts, homestays, craft centres, offices, etc. Unique SOPs will have to be worked out for all such entities. These SOPs would not only be about regular functioning but also response in case of Covid19 outbreak.

We will have to also provision for the fact that central government prefers making pronouncements rather that acting in consultation with various stakeholders. To mitigate risks on that front, the state government officials will have to pre-empt probabilities and detail out SOPs for each of them. It is an extra work but cannot be avoided because officers on the ground have to eventually shoulder the burden.

Mobile medical response units

If Covid19 lingers around anywhere in the world, the risk of a sudden outbreak cannot be ruled out. Lack of access to medical services in rural Uttarakhand means that by the time we find out, the outbreak may no longer be minor. Moreover, villagers are habitual of living with flu like symptoms. A viral outbreak infecting almost the whole village is pretty common.

In case Covid19 outbreak is suspected in a village, it may not be viable to move all suspected patients to a district healthcare facility. Augmenting the capabilities to PHCs (Public Health Centres), or creating temporary PHCs, with the help of mobile units can help nip Covid19 at the bud. Supported by well-trained medical staff, these units can work as mobile labs (for rapid testing) and preliminary care units.

Due to the nature of disease and demographics of Uttarakhand, it is necessary that we have a system of response that cascades upwards. This will not only enable quick response but help limit any outbreak.

Financial relief for individuals and small businesses

The timing of the epidemic is such that it will be almost impossible for individuals and businesses to get out the mess unscathed. Most small businesses cannot afford to carry the overheads for long. The financial impact will also adversely impact their ability to make a comeback.

Many individuals and businesses are under the burden of loans. While it is usual for businesses to avail loan, individuals in rural Uttarakhand also carry sizable personal and group loans. As rural loans come at low interest rates, bank officials entice the villagers with lot of false hopes. Due to lack of financial foresight, most of them look solely at the interest component and fail to realize that the principal amount is also a loan burden. Thankfully banks were on loan recovery /waiver overdrive for past few months due to which the loan burden in my neighbourhood got significantly reduced. I hope it is the case with other villages as well.

In order to provide financial relief, the state government can waive interests on loans for a certain timeframe, defer payment of installments, and provide reliefs on various taxes and charges. On matters outside its purview, government should send early and urgent recommendations to the central government and concerned financial institutions.

The least the state government could do is waive electricity and water bills for rural Uttarakhand for a period of at least six months.

Ensuring a general sense of control and well being

The uneasiness of lockdown, fear of contracting the disease, fear of epidemic reaching one’s village, work and financial uncertainties, concern about friends and family living in Covid19 affected areas, etc. can lead to minor as well serious mental health issues. They may eventually get manifested as interpersonal rifts, domestic violence, child abuse, hate crimes, as well as self-harming actions. It is a reality we cannot afford to brush under the carpet.

As we do not know how long Covid19 is here to stay, we are left with no option but to work towards addressing these issues. Providing professional help is not an option. Even large cities and towns of Uttarakhand lack services on this front.

I think that a good way out would be to plan and deploy government services and relief packages in a fashion that it sends across a message of general well-being and control. What this means is that not only should the government machinery act efficiently but should also be perceived as acting efficiently and honestly. It means providing help/aid at the doorstep rather than making people run from pillar to post. It means delivering PDS supplies in time and ensuring that asha health workers and anganwadi workers are in regular touch will all villagers to ensure their well-being. It means that village panchayat and block officials are proactive in their approach. There should be clear directions for village panchayat and local government officials to act fast for resolution of conflicts and not be mere bystanders. If significant numbers of migrants come back to villages, these issues may get compounded so one has to be ready for that as well.

It is important that government plans well and ensures steady and efficient rollout of benefits rather than going for pronouncements and knee jerks reactions. Government actions should not send across a message of panic and chaos. It is essential for people to feel that the government is in control of the situation. This will also give them a sense of control over their own lives.

Systemic corruption almost exists as a necessary evil. While people usually overlook it, they may react adversely in these tough times. There is a risk of their losing all hope in the idea of a welfare state. Frankly, there can be nothing more evil that being corrupt in these circumstances. It is high time that each and every official, even at their individual level, take stand and raise the flag without fear. If they cannot do it now, they never will. Their actions will give hope to people. These are complicated times and regular institutionalised measures are simply not going to work.

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