The shift of balance created by COVID-19 has revealed that urban centres, while important, need not be the sole creator of jobs or economic opportunity
For years, a number of factors drove India’s rural youth to urban areas in search of jobs. These included poverty, lack of adequate social safety nets, decreased farm productivity, overfishing and loss of forest-based livelihoods.
Often, their rural families depended entirely on their income, which allowed them access to basic services and a life of dignity.
In March 2020, a countrywide lockdown was announced to control the impact of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. At the time, over 1.04 crore inter-state, daily wage, casual workers returned home due to lack of livelihood options, highlighting the apathetic conditions under which they worked.
These people formed the workforce of urban India. They ensured offices and homes were functioning, transport running, roads paved and cleaned and utilities delivered to doorsteps.
But they themselves lived in uncertainty, bereft of any employer or administration support, benefits and rights, whatsoever.
Fast forward to September. As the Centre announced its Unlock 4.0 strategy on August 30 and states and businesses began exploring a suitable reopening process, there has been an assumption that the casual workers will gradually return to cities.
Indeed, some have slowly begun heading back to make a living. However, a substantial number may not return, a recent study indicated.
In May, a survey by a land and forest rights organisation, Ekta Parishad, showed that 95 per cent migrants chose to return home despite the uncertainty of financial loss and unemployment during the months of lockdown.
This reverse exodus of the casual workforce should be viewed as a central narrative to guide the country towards holistic growth and societal development, moving away from the current path of progress tilted heavily towards urban centres.
By building resilient rural infrastructure, we can create economic opportunity and well-being where people are and not ‘push’ them into cities in search of livelihoods.
To turn this disaster into opportunity, India must act swiftly and move towards a holistic rural development model that supports human well-being and sustainable growth. Reforms such as these could help:
Education and health are two sectors that have witnessed disproportionate focus in rural and urban India. While both struggled to respond to COVID-19 in its early days, urban hospitals began building capacity and competence to treat patients while rural health centres struggled.
Not surprising, considering rural India depends extensively on public healthcare centres and public expenditure on health has been just over one per cent of India’s gross domestic product for 15 years.
Similarly, the rural-urban gap in school dropout and literacy rates, coupled with the ‘digital divide’ and lack of electrification of schools (36 per cent of schools in India are unelectrified to date) impact health, family, and livelihood decisions.
In response to COVID-19, the Centre in April 2020 began refocusing on its rural employment schemes.
Nearly 44 million households sought work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in June 2020, the highest since its launch in 2006. Some work sanctioned under this scheme has led to the creation of livelihood assets that can generate income for individuals and the community.
The Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan aims to work with 12 ministries on 25 public infrastructure works such as construction of rural roads, housing and anganwadis. MGNREGS is also being used to build assets under the Jal Jeevan Mission, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Swachh Bharat Mission. Such convergence is crucial, given that workforce is available and needs employment.
Health and education departments, though vital for improving quality of life in villages, don’t figure in employment schemes today. Now, there is an opportunity for the workforce to contribute to building and restoring schools and health and community centers.
However, to operationalise this social infrastructure, skilling programmes must be provided simultaneously.
Similarly, schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan can be combined with Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana to train workers to promote, install and maintain solar pumps for efficient irrigation.
This would also call for skilling and training programmes for the employees. Agriculture in India is largely dependent on the monsoon, with farmers’ incomes relying on rain-fed crops.
Solar-powered pumps combined with water-efficient irrigation systems can help farmers diversify, improve cropping intensity, become energy-neutral and reduce use of fertilisers.
Before COVID-19, 16 per cent horticulture produce and 10 per cent of oil seeds, cereals and pulses were wasted due to mismanagement and lack of basic cold storage facilities. India has a cold storage capacity of 31.82 million tonnes but around 70 per cent of it is utilised for storing potatoes which contribute to only 20 per cent of the agricultural revenue.
When cold storages are powered by decentralised renewable energy, it has been observed that farmers are able to stock their supply for longer periods, reduce losses of perishable commodities and sell at more competitive prices.
For example, in Uganda, solar-powered refrigerators have increased farmers’ incomes by 20 per cent. Storage further needs to be complemented by sorting, grading, packaging, local processing, as well as last-mile transportation and refrigeration of perishable produce.
The Agriculture Infrastructure Fund announced in October, can provide financial support to create post-harvest management infrastructure like cold storage and processing units.
NABARD, along with state livelihood improvement schemes, can support training of rural entrepreneurs (including women) to operate this infrastructure and its supply chains efficiently, in coordination with the Farmer Producer Organisations (FPO) and Self-Help Groups (SHG).
One of the cornerstones of climate resilient agriculture is the use of Climate Information Services (CIS) for decisions such as when to sow, irrigate and spray pesticides. Basic CIS services are available via text messages on mobile phones and more complex services which cater to specific regions and crops, via applications on smartphones.
The Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre’s Varuna Mitra has benefitted five lakh farmers through its weather advisories. The ability of the younger workforce to learn and apply this information can help improve farm productivity.
Trainings on watershed and farm management can be amended to include use of clean energy for efficient irrigation and cold storages along with CIS, to build supply chain resilience.
The shift of balance created by COVID-19 has revealed that urban centres, while important, need not be the sole creator of jobs or economic opportunity.
A recent CMIE survey estimated that over 60 million job losses in April were in the age group of 20-30 years. A revival of rural economy can be backed by convergence of schemes and interventions that support resilient livelihoods, while offering high-quality jobs and benefits to the youngest workforce in the world.
The writers work with the Energy program at World Resources Institute India. Views expressed are their own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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