Long-term Covid response plan would need policy innovations tailored to local social contexts

By Moin Qazi*

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a massive toll on the economy: broken supply chains, record unemployment, failing small businesses. Much the same way it is affecting people with pre-existing health conditions more strongly, so is the pandemic-triggered economic crisis exposing vulnerable communities to greater distress. The pandemic has frozen the wheels of economy and affected every aspect of life. Lockdowns and disease distancing measures have dried up wage-work and incomes. The tragedy is as much humanitarian as economic with its cascading social implications. It is a stress-test of our ability to cooperate, learn and adapt in the face of deep uncertainties and rising risks.

This pandemic has inflicted the greatest pain on those who had already been rendered most vulnerable, spurring great hardship and growing unease among low income families and micro businesses. It has uncovered existing inequities and created new ones.

It has revealed both the fragility of our social security and welfare delivery systems and the need to come up with resilient, long-term solutions and more robust systems. The pandemic shows that our social security and welfare delivery systems are under-resourced and underserved, and we need to build long-term, resilient solutions and robust systems

Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized that the pandemic has taught us that we need to be self-sufficient. “It has taught us that we have to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. It has taught us that we should not look for solutions outside the country. This is the biggest lesson we have learnt. Every village has to be self-sufficient enough to provide for its basic needs. Similarly, every district has to be self-sufficient at its level, every state has to be self-reliant at its level and the whole country has to be self-reliant at its level,” he said while interacting with heads of gram panchayats (village councils) through video conferencing on the National Panchayati Raj Day on April 24.

Economic regeneration

All crises are opportunities for radical reform, for realigning priorities in pursuit of the common good. As the challenges of COVID19 unfold and governments and civil society scramble to provide relief, one recurring idea is to use this disruption to reimagine the economic architecture. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are expected to suffer a mortal blow if we don’t get to grip with the systemic risks of COVID19. Many of our development gains have been jeopardized, and we must now build a new economic world order which is humane, inclusive, and sustainable.

Can the economy rebound fast enough to make life stable again? Long periods of state inaction have their economic and social costs. With thousands of migrant workers having returned to their native villages, it is extremely necessary to create additional employment to stave off social, political, economic unrest.

Leveraging the skill economy

Some of migrant labourers are considered unskilled, but many are skilled or semi-skilled. A large-scale deskilling could take place if they do not find work quickly, because their skills will begin to rust and diminish if not used. It all depends on how fast the state responds and what types of stimulus it uses. The first task for governments would be to map the skills of these returned migrants and then work out a long-term rehabilitation plan that uses these skills through necessary upgradation or reorientation. A marriage between their skills and the business acumen of local entrepreneurs can help a great deal.

The Union government has provided direct cash transfers to more than 300 million people in addition to similar cash transfers to farmers. These efforts are a lifeboat to help businesses survive the coming months, and for households to continue to cope with daily emergencies as normal economic life stutters through the recession.

Indian development context

Development in India has so far been defined by grand utopian schemes that have brought disruption to millions, wrought by the negative consequences of faulty programmes and impractical schemes. Conventional development policy has always been driven by grandiose plans, moving from one big fix to another, one set of best practices and universal blueprints to the next.

What we need instead are policy innovations tailored to local social contexts, economic circumstances and political complexities. Two critical elements are (a) local solutions, particularly in areas like infrastructure – such as local roads and local water storage solutions like check dams, basic healthcare and primary education – and (b) trust in the innate ability and intelligence of the local community to understand and harness opportunities for their social and economic well-being.

Well-crafted development plans flower from the mutual synergy of all stakeholders, and are identified, tested and sustained locally, not by career technocrats using huge sums to assemble and deliver them to “beneficiaries” as a charity handout or dole from on high.

Familiarity with the local context is necessary for a lasting impact and outcomes. Several well-intentioned policies and programmes fail because they are not well grounded, and do not incorporate the perspectives of the local communities, leaving important gaps that cause enduring harm, unintentionally or otherwise.

Any development plan or initiative that seeks to respond to the social and economic damage wrought by COVID19, or to prevent its recurrence, should keep in mind the drivers that made it a pandemic.

Fresh approaches

Tackling the problems of the disprivileged requires a fundamentally different approach: one that starts with the people themselves and encourages initiative, creativity and drive from below. This principle must be at the core of any strategy that hopes to transform their lives; only then that it can be lasting and meaningful.

Approaches to development that respect the inherent capabilities of the people who live in rural areas, and systematically build on their experience, have a reasonable chance of improving their lives. This can include enhancing their capacities to mobilise and manage resources effectively. If people can be given the support, they need to build their own democracies in their own ways, they can do the rest themselves. In doing so, they will not only move their own communities, they will also take the world with them.

The economic reconstruction that will follow the pandemic is the perfect opportunity to provide better nutrition and health to all. The pandemic should spur us to redefine how we feed ourselves, and agricultural research can play a vital role in making our food systems more sustainable and resilient.

Some of the area which can be further activated to achieve better rehabilitation of migrant population are outlined below:

Self-help groups: Self-help groups (SHGs) are India’s most powerful conduit for incubating and empowering women to move from subsistence to sustainability. The pandemic has amplified their social and economic resilience and shown how they can effectively articulate a meaningful grassroots response to such a crisis. These groups have risen to the extraordinary challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been meeting the shortfall in masks, sanitizers and protective equipment, running community kitchens, fighting misinformation and even providing banking and financial solutions to far-flung communities.

As grassroots village-based financial organizations, often comprised solely of women, SHGs have proven to be vibrant, participative, business-oriented and community-based institutions that have the potential to resurrect moribund rural economies. They are playing a crucial role in promoting a shared agenda around education, health, finance and agriculture and making affordable loans available where debt lurks in most rural homes.

Secondary agriculture: Rural India needs to prioritise secondary agriculture through integrated farming activities and a focus on sustainability of production, monetisation of farmers’ produce, strengthening of farm extension services, and recognizing agriculture as enterprises.
To make farming sustainable and resilient, farmers must be encouraged to diversify into allied activities. They can be encouraged and financed to build ponds, bunds and set up horticulture farms. Income- generation activities that use crop residues – paddy straw, fodder blocks and crop residue briquette- can supplement income from primary agriculture. The output from the farm should also be put to gainful use- either as fodder or for mulching. Cleaning, sorting and grading of agri-produce to make it saleable must also be promoted as supplementary enterprise.

Livestock economy: When farming fails, livestock can serve as fall back. Tribal communities already keep backyard poultry, ducks, goats, sheep Bee keeping, mushroom cultivation, and poultry, dairying and sheep rearing can be managed by women farmers in the-family. Unlike more valuable operations on farms in India—crops or cattle, for example—goats and sheep are managed almost exclusively by women. They bring them out for grazing, take care of them when they’re ill, and sell them at the market. And the most critical point is that the money women earn from their goats stays in their hands.

The villages are slowly building a cadre of goat nurses known as “pashu sakhis,” which means “friends of the animals”. Pashu sakhis are poor women themselves who are given basic training in how to vaccinate, deworm, and provide other preventive care to goats in their community.

Forest produce :Another important area is forest produce such as tasar silk which is a stable source of livelihood for many tribals The Forest Rights Act is an attractive law but it is very difficult for tribals to benefit from it on account of red tape and the reluctance of forest department to concede its control over forests. Steps should be taken to make the law more roadworthy.  The tribals in the remoter belts don’t know their rights or how the market works and they get into debt with the intermediaries.

FPOs: One of the powerful ways to mitigate farm distress is through a livelihood and development strategy that collectivizes the smaller primary producers through locally-managed Food Producer Organizations (FPOs) and integrates them into an inclusive value- chain. These FPOs or mutual aid organizations, whose members pool their expertise and part of their savings, help the members achieve more together than they can alone and becomes self-propagating in course of time. It enables members see their work through an entrepreneurial lens and confers economies of scale, better marketing and distribution, greater bargaining power, access to credit and insurance, sharing of assets and costs, opportunities to upgrade skills and technology, and a safety net in times of distress.

This is a very good opportunity for Farmer Producer Organisations to make a significant contribution in rural economy. FPOs can be supported to harness the potential of farm economy extensively now. In the past decade FPO movement has gained significant momentum and has shifted the narrative of Indian agriculture to ‘value-led enterprise’ and empowering farmers through market driven initiatives. While the COVID pandemic has intensified and highlighted the challenges in the agri- value chain, it has also brought to fore new opportunities for growth in agriculture where small farmers FPOs play an important role in supporting the food systems.

If thousands of scattered small farms are systematically aggregated, it would help reduce transaction costs of the farms for accessing the value chains and make it easier for small farmers to access inputs, technology, and the market.

MSMEs: For the non-farming sector, MSMEs should come in a big way to absorb the migrant labourers. Villagers can be trained as para-veterinarians, health workers, solar engineers, water drillers, handpump mechanics, artisans, designers, masons and technicians who support the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Agro-processing needs medium-level entrepreneurs. It’s difficult for farmers with a hectare of land or 50 to 200 mango trees to set up an agro-processing unit. Entrepreneurs don’t want to go to small towns, rural areas, because of inadequate infrastructure, transport, electricity. No bank will finance them either. It is a good time to bring primary processing facilities closer to the farm gates and help producers gather market intelligence and manage the value chain better with digital agriculture tools.

Decentralized responses: Our experience of handling such crisis inform us that community-driven development (CDD) programmes, which encourage people to design their own solutions, can be a critical part of the response to the COVID-19 crisis. We need an equitable, whole-of-society approach to tackle a crisis of this magnitude and scale. CDD programmes are usually driven by such approaches.

During a crisis of the covid type, local governments are normally flooded with demands that cannot be met with their limited resources. In this context, community-driven development (CDD) programmes can play a critical role in providing consensus-driven support to prioritise and optimise the resources.

We also need multiple interventions across sectors to address the different dimensions of the crisis. CDD programmes often complement traditional safety net systems by delivering cash and in-kind transfers as well as basic services such as water and sanitation. They do so through participation from communities, people’s representatives, and local governments.

*Development expert

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