An important strength of India is that about two-thirds of its people live in villages. As the world grapples with life-endangering environmental problems, the rural base of a country can be an important source of resilience in protecting life-nurturing conditions and getting close to self-reliance in terms of meeting basic needs. However in the absence of proper priorities and policies, multiple crises have emerged in our villages , including the economic crisis of farmers which is most discussed. Here we discuss crises of 12 groups of rural India each one of which is important in its own way, and most of the crises have accentuated in covid times.
Firstly there is the crisis of landless farm households, most of whom take up casual farm and non-farm work in and around villages, although some of them still have more regular arrangements with a single , relatively bigger landowner. The number of these households is likely to be more than owner cultivator households. The farm work opportunities have decreased greatly due to mechanization. These households have very low resource base. These households have very low food-stocks and savings to fall back upon in difficult times and employment opportunities in non-farm employment have declined steeply in covid times. These households are often the poorest in any village.
Secondly there is the crisis of migrant workers who are generally among the poorest but in several cases managed to temporarily improve their income from migrant work. However their coping mechanism has broken badly in covid times and they have been experiencing acute distress. Another aspect of these households is that often only small children and/or elderly persons are left behind and life for them can be very difficult.
Thirdly there are additional problems of sharecroppers and tenants, those landless persons or near landless persons who lease in small plots of cultivation land. They are denied several benefits which landowner-cultivators can access, and have to hand over a big share of their meager produce to the landowner, while the sharing of costs is much lesser.
Next there are owner-cultivators or farmers. The bulk of them are small farmers with a low resource base, very vulnerable to weather extremes and other adverse situations. Even in normal times they have many problems relating to getting a fair price for their crop ( often having to resort to distress sale) and accessing announced government benefits. Due to wrong and distorted policies they have faced escalating farm costs in recent times, while deteriorating soil and water conditions and ecological damage have made it very difficult to improve or maintain yields despite spending a lot on inputs. Most of them are indebted and have to regularly make interest payments.
There is a rich diversity of poor rural artisans and crafts-persons in India including potters, weavers, leather-workers and several others who have faced many problems in recent years and their problems have increased in covid times as markets for several of their products have collapsed.
There are several service providers in rural areas like sanitation workers, dhobis, barbers , oil-millers, vendors etc. whose work has suffered from different types of problems, all the more so in covid times.
There are several groups of villagers specializing more in animal related work. Due to various reasons those dealing in cattle, camels, goats , sheep and bees and other species have suffered in recent times and selling of their products like milk and honey has been more difficult, particularly for those outside limited marketing chains. Traditional fisher-folk, whether working in rivers, lakes, ponds or coastal areas have faced increasing problems.
There are several nomadic and semi-nomadic groups who have been generally among the most neglected, but their problems increased all the more in covid times as established patterns of migration and related livelihoods broke down.
Tribal communities have suffered a lot in terms of land alienation, displacement and erosion of forest rights and overall resource base. They have been subjected to many-sided exploitation, including in marketing of non-timber forest produce collected by them.
There are several groups who fall in the category of those facing serious social discrimination which sometimes also takes the form of several kinds of violence. This discrimination can be on the basis of caste and increasingly also on the basis of faith or religion. Dalits and Muslims have suffered the most due to such discrimination.
Women and girls in villages suffer due to discrimination as well as violence. The limited gains made by girls earlier in education have been badly threatened in Covid times. Violence against women has also increased due to increasing alcoholism . While levels of domestic violence are high, opportunities of women in obtaining paid work declined further in covid times.
The increasing number of unemployed youth face very uncertain and troubled times due to a combination f several factors and these intensified a lot due to disruption of normal economic , educational and training work as well as transport in covid times.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.