Worst hit, require top priority

Women & Rural Folk

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The grave economic situation will hit women and the rural folk the most. According to a recent report, released by the UN Women and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) titled, ‘From Insights to Action: Gender Equality”, the female poverty rate in South Asia will increase in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will disproportionately affect women, pushing million more women and girls into extreme poverty, reversing decades of progress to lift this demographic above the poverty line.
The report predicted that gender poverty will worsen further in South Asia. Central and southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, home to 87 per cent of the world’s extreme poor, will see the largest increases in extreme poverty, with an additional 54 million and 24 respectively, living below the international poverty line as a result of the pandemic.
While sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will be the most impacted, “significantly more women than men in South Asia will be affected”. In the 25-34 age group, there will be 118 poor women for every 100 poor men in South Asia and that ratio will increase to 129 women for every 100 man by 2030. Though the official report reveals female poverty, the situation regarding males is equally bad, at least in India.
None of the major economic engines – consumption, private investment or export – are in robust health and worse, the government doesn’t have enough money to spend its way out of an all-round economic downturn. Indeed the situation in the country is quite grave, as is evident from various reports and predictions, specially for the current fiscal. The crisis is compounded more so if we analyse the problems faced by migrants that appeared in the media in the last two months, which shockingly the government chose to ignore or worse describe it as fake news.
The obvious focus has to be on generating employment, helping micro enterprises and rural regeneration. This is because the poorer sections have to be brought into the mainstream of life and activity and this can only become possible if welfare programmes are taken up in right earnest with more resource allocations and ensuring monitoring mechanisms.
In this connection, one may refer to MGNREGA programme which needs more resources and involvement of the panchayat institutions. Though the Centre made a supplementary budget allocation of Rs 40,000 crore, there is need for at least another Rs 50,000 crore in the current fiscal. It needs to be mentioned here that Rs 10,000 crore out of the current allocation in the present fiscal had to be spent to clear past liabilities. Moreover, 48 per cent of the total allocation has been spent till August 3, 2020 with about 7.5 months left in the current financial year.
The MGNREGA tracker also revealed that more than 4.5 lakh households have already exhausted 100 days of employment and more than 38 lakh households have worked between 71 and 99 days and are on the verge of exhausting their entitlements. The work demand has been around 60 per cent higher than that of the last year during months May to July. In view of the above, experts believe that the employment programme should be extended by at least 30 days – if not 50 days — keeping in view the employment needs of migrant workers. Another supplementary allocation needs to made for this extended period and social audit needs to be carried out extensively to plug leakages.
There are reports that the government has not taken enough care of micro units and small traders that are spread across the country. Major policy actions such as demonetisation or GST have hurt SMEs, which have an important role to play in boosting overall employment, ensuring equality of income and wealth and supporting GDP growth. Obviously neglecting small businesses has seriously impacted the overall prospects of Indian economy.
One may refer in this connection to deaths of nearly a thousand migrant labourers while returning home during the lockdown and job losses for an estimated two-thirds of the migrants which have been compiled by a research group. According to data provided by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), 216 migrants died of starvation and financial distress, 209 due to road or train accidents, 133 committed suicide, 96 persons died aboard Shramik Special trains and 77 died due to lack of medical care. As many as 49 deaths were reported at quarantine centres, 49 deaths were attributed to alcohol withdrawal and another 48 due to exhaustion. Sadly, the government has no data, neither made attempts to record.
Political analysts believe that the trend of events, specially during the pandemic, has demonstrated that democratically elected governments like India have not worked honestly for welfare of the ordinary citizens. Economic inequality and disparities have become extraordinarily high and labour rights and job security had almost disappeared.
At this juncture, the necessary reformation lies in focused attention of developing the rural sector, specially the infrastructure needs of the backward districts of the country. If there had been proper health infrastructure in rural and semi-urban areas, the spread of the corona pandemic may not have been so serious. In this connection, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, asked the government to provide Rs 6000 for the next 12 months to every poor family and unemployed youth.
Considering the imperative need for gainful engagement of workers in the coming months, the focus has to be on the rural sector and gearing up of infrastructure projects in these areas. Also, as the government is now thinking of another stimulus, small business in rural and semi-urban areas that are struggling due to the pandemic have to be revitalised with funds. The very recent decision of launching the Rs 20,050 crore ‘Pradhan Mantri Matsya Yojana’ for development of the fisheries sector in 21 States, so as to double export earnings and create additional over five million jobs in the sector by 2024-25, has been a commendable decision.
The fight against squalor and poverty has to be fought through plan of action which, at such a time of financial crisis, should concentrate on the vulnerable and neglected sections of society through a plan of rural rejuvenation and revival. The pitiable rural infrastructure has to be the focus of attention so that in the next fiscal, we could see a growth of above 10 per cent to steer the economy on the right path and check squalor and poverty. And also make every effort to reduce the deadly impact of the pandemic pushing women further into poverty. —INFA