COVID-19 lockdown, recession backbreaking for informal workers, survey shows

The survey was done on 1,613 rural households in Bihar

By C K Manoj
Published: Wednesday 14 July 2021

Last year’s lockdown and economic recession due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic had devastating consequences on Bihar's informal sector workers and their families, and a new study has assessed the impact.

The survey covered 1,613 rural households across seven districts in different parts of the state: Gaya, Gopalganj, Madhubani, Nalanda, Araria, Purnia and Rohtas.

The study was conducted by the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability (CDES), Monash University, Australia and the Institute for Human Development (IHD), New Delhi and focused on the first wave of the pandemic.

“The main purpose of the study was to gather ground-level information of the impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods of rural households in Bihar and the extent to which they were able to avail of government support,” deputy director for CDES Gaurav Datt said.

The districts were chosen to represent rural Bihar based on a number of socio-economic indicators decided during an earlier study in 2016-17 by IHD as part of its Bihar Research Programme.

The new study said:

The most widely affected livelihood activities were casual and migrant labour. Every household participating in casual labour was affected. Among those participating in migrant labour, 94 per cent were impacted.

About 18 per cent of casual labour households reported that MGNREGA work was affected, nearly 90 per cent reported casual agricultural labour was affected and 70 per cent reported casual non-agricultural work was affected, it added.

The percentage of scheduled castes and tribes as well as other backward classes households affected (at 95-97 per cent) was a little more than those from upper castes and Muslims (91-92 per cent), according to the report.
Migrant workers remained the worst hit of all. About 55 per cent households had at least one migrant worker and 94 per cent of the migrant labourers were imapcted by the crisis, the report noted.

More than half the migrant workers returned to their native villages when work was disrupted in destination areas. They spent Rs 3,000 on average on the return journey each.

Nine of every 10 workers who stayed back in the area of their workplace lost days of work and reduced their remittances back home, the report found.

Less than two-thirds of the migrant labourers found alternative part-time work on returning to their native village. On an average, each returnee lost over 40 datys of work.

Many of them went back to destination areas after spending an average (median) of 149 days in the village. About one-fifth of them had not resumed work in the destination area at the time of the survey.

The study also documented the impact of the pandemic on agricultural activities. About 59 per cent cultivating households reported disruption of at least one agricultural operation for the planted crop, 43 per cent reported unusual difficulty with ploughing / hoeing / land preparation, 53 per cent with sowing or transplanting and 37 per cent with weeding.

Immunisation, free ration distribution hampered

Children below two years in 28 per cent households missed their immunisation since the outbreaks were reported. Around 41 per cent of households with pregnant or lactating women reported being unable to avail ante- and post-natal check-ups, the survey estimated.

Distribution of free ration and cooking gas was disrupted severely, found the study, the reported highlighted:

  • Only around 7 per cent households with pregnant or lactating women reported they received their take-home ration from anganwadi centres.
  • About 10 per cent pregnant or lactating women were not enrolled at the local anganwadi centre
  • Around 33 per cent pregnant or lactating women did not receive the take-home ration and about half received it only rarely or sometimes
  • About 18 per cent of the households had no ration card and were unable to receive the additional free ration of rice / wheat and pulses for eight months
  • A little over 50 per cent cardholding households received their full normal free ration under the public distribution scheme since the pandemic struck
  • About 52 per cent households were not eligible for free cooking gas cylinders for three months under the Prime Minister Ujjawala Yojana
  • Around 31 per cent households had no women with Jan Dhan accounts to receive cash transfers
  • Only a quarter of the households were eligible for ex-gratia pension payments to widows, senior citizens or those with disabilities
  • About 2 per cent eligible households received neither free ration or cash transfer

“Some received nothing despite being eligible. Around 19 per cent eligible households received no free cooking gas cylinders,” the report said.
Around 78 per cent ration card holders received less than the announced free 5 kilogram of rice or wheat per person per month and 91 per cent received less than 1 kg of free pulses per person per month.

The typical (median) cardholding household received 75 per cent of the entitlement, the report showed.

Around 30 per cent of households with women Jan Dhan accounts received less than the announced amount of cash transfer and about 22 per cent received only a single installment of Rs 500 instead of the promised three.

Similarly, nearly three-quarters of households eligible for free cooking gas cylinders received less than the three cylinders as intended by the announced relief measure.

More than three-fifths of widow pension recipients fell short of entitlements by 30 per cent.

The study was particularly interesting because it was carried out at the end of 2020, many months after the lockdown was imposed but still at that a time when people were living in great difficulty, said Jean Dreze, a welfare economist and social scientist.

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