Rural and urban women hit hardest by Covid-induced unemployment

It is well-nigh impossible to obtain accurate information in a country where data is routinely fudged or camouflaged, be it the number of deaths due to the killer virus, or, be it the tragic index of poverty and mass unemployment. However, some figures have been trickling in from various sources, and from this scattered realm of statistics one can figure out the magnitude of the crisis which stalks rural and urban India, in these Covid times.

The case of the ‘missing women’, i.e. women dropping out employment, that has worried political observers and demographers, so abjectly brazen and transparent, is one such example. The consulting firm, Dalberg, in a rare survey, discovered that almost 43 per cent of the labour force of women had simply disappeared from the unorganised informal economy. In terms of labour force participation, even in the capital of India just about 5 per cent female labour force was participating in the market as compared to almost 60 per cent of men.

The survey also found that women are eating much less in terms of their daily food intake, because of severe and persistent economic scarcity, even while their labour at home and in the field has increased manifold. In a scenario where the health infrastructure had all but collapsed in the country, especially during the second deadly wave of Covid, it became really tough for working and poor women in both urban and rural areas. Almost 15,000 women and 2,300 men from low-income households in 10 Indian cities were surveyed in this sample.

COVID Response Watch LogoThe current regime in Delhi, which came to power in 2014, had promised to upscale employment opportunities and economic development across the country, claiming to be competing with China. During the Covid period however India marked a depressing state of stark joblessness not witnessed in the last 45 years. Unemployment during the first phase of the lockdown in the country is estimated to have touched almost 100 million people.

At the current rate, it is possible that almost 140 million people have no jobs, and this includes professionals in the affluent corporate sector in urban areas. Unemployment has sharply risen to almost 12 per cent in recent times due to the pandemic and its devastating consequences. The Centre has left the people to their fate, even while the states have been given the sole responsibility to handle the current crisis.

The Sage Journal reported in October 2021 that the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on poverty has been huge. ‘‘The economic tumult caused by the pandemic over the past two years has the potential to double the nation’s poverty, erasing the decade-long gains from the fight against poverty and inequality. Our calculations show that around 150–199 million additional people will fall under poverty in 2021–2022; a majority of which are from rural areas, owing to the immiserate nature of the rural economy. Further disaggregation reveals that the SC/ST, casual labour and the self-employed are the most impacted groups. Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha are the most affected states facing poverty ranging from 50 to 80 per cent in the rural areas and 40 to 70 per cent in the urban areas. Our analysis also identifies the rippling effect of poverty on the inter-group disparities in India.’’

The journal has reported that in India, ‘‘the lockdown accentuated crisis caused several industries to collapse and shut down, leaving millions of informal workers stranded. A telephonic survey of 4,000 workers across 12 states by the Azim Premji Foundation (2020) in collaboration with the Centre of Civil Society shows that 80 per cent of the workers in urban areas reported employment loss, while 50 per cent of the remaining reported income losses or even no salary disbursement. The adverse effect was rather magnified, coming at the back of an industrial sector experiencing a declining trend in growth and value since 2017–2018. The biggest loss in jobs has been suffered by the non-farm workers (11.6 million) followed by salaried employees (4.2 million), daily wage earners (4.2 million) and businesspersons (3 million)’’.

A survey by the Pew Research Center discovered a ‘deep recession’ in 2020; the middle class had stunningly depleted by 32 million, pushing them from their reasonable comfort zones into the hard margins of low income groups. Almost 75 million people have fallen into poverty in India, mostly migrant and unorganised labour, a majority of them without fundamental rights, while most of them are Dalits, adivasis and extremely poor Muslims. Of these people on the margins, the majority are women, invisible, ghettoised, and now compulsively pushed outside the economy. Just about 19 per female workforce have jobs in the current scenario, while almost 50 per cent have been rendered jobless. They constitute the large number of unaccounted missing women.

According to the Pew study, it was earlier estimated that almost 100 million Indians would join the global middle classes in 2020. However, one year later, the figure reads 66 million, even while the number of poor people has increased to 134 million.

“The number of individuals who lie below the national minimum wage threshold (Rs 375 per day as recommended by the Anoop Satpathy Committee) increased by 230 million during the pandemic,” said the report, titled ‘State of Working India 2021: One Year of Covid-19’. The report has been authored by researchers at the Azim Premji Foundation.

As per the Oxfam Davos report of 2022, the rich have increased their wealth massively during the global crisis, while the poor are staring into an abyss. India added as many as 40 more billionaires to the figure of 142 in 2021, even while mass cremations were being done in the open in some cities, and the dead were floating on the Ganga in UP. Their combined fortune is worth a gigantic $720 billion.

Industrialist Gautam Adani, known to be close to the BJP regime in Delhi, amassed huge and unprecedented wealth, the fifth biggest in the world. He added $42.7 billion to his fortune, which now stands at almost $88.5 billion making him the richest person in Asia, displacing his fellow Gujarati Mukesh Ambani from that position. Ambani’s net worth climbed by over $13 billion last year and now stands at $82.5 billion.

While the deadly killer disease moves from  pandemic to  endemic mode, yet another pandemic has come to haunt the country – that of stark poverty and joblessness. While some sections of working class and rural women eat one meal a day, a new and terrible spectre has come to haunt India – that of hunger and slow starvation. This is inevitably going to bring a new crisis of mass suffering and despair across India in the days to come.

Is there a solution in sight – not in the current circumstances. At least, as long as this insensitive regime rules the roost in Delhi.

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata

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