Vignettes of Covid-induced economic misery

“So, Durga Puja is coming, it is not even 14 weeks from now…”.

“The days are so tough, we are almost forgetting the taste of fish or meat” said Mahesh, speaking while working on a paddy field, not his own.

“But other delicacies are there. Buy mustard oil for 10 Rs and some dried chili, fry deep and dry, keep it in a tin. Take out a little and mix with smashed potatoes. That’s great. You can pluck some saag (leaves, usually cooked) if you find, gugli (small snails). Sometimes we can afford onions, vegetables; eggs are costly though. But now potatoes are becoming costlier too.”

This year too several of his Muslim neighbours will not be able to offer qurbani, during Eid-al Adha, barely a month away.  Hindu, Muslim everyone is hit hard by the rise in prices of essential commodities.

“I told you sir I would take up honours, but sorry, I did not”, said Sagir, “you know sir honours in science stream is so costly. And my elder brother is unhappy that I am still studying. I am also ashamed. All boys after 14 or 16 years of age are working whatever job they get, whereas I take my bicycle at about 8 in the morning, go 17 kms to college, and return in the evening. Rarely do boys go to school after class 10 now. Only two or three of us from these villages here are going to colleges. But I really want to complete graduation and sit for exams for better jobs. Though jobs are less, let me have a try. What do you think, sir? Am I selfish or idle?”

One of his friends left home before a year disgusted and distressed; could not tolerate any more almost daily altercations and privations in the family. Nobody knows whether that boy got some job anywhere or not.

“Adjustment is difficult, but what else I could do” said Sagir, whose family elders took away the mobile phone he got from school which the government distributed free for online learning. After much effort for months there was a plan: he would get the phone after evening 7 pm.

“But before the Covid lockdown both my father and elder brother had their own phones. Later they could not keep their sim running.”

COVID Response Watch LogoAbout 200 miles (300+ kms) north from the southernmost parts of the state lies the capital of pre-British Bengal. Murshidabad. It is also one of the most populous and most densely populated districts, renowned also for migrant masonry/construction workers and many thousands who perform various other work, including silk weaving and bidi production by thousands of piece-rated workers in work-from-home mode.

Moti Sheikh became a migrant worker at 52, which was not usual though. His agricultural land was less than 2 acres but more than half was already mortgaged. His son left home years ago and did not send any money. His wife worked hard both at home and also in the fields. His daughter was studying.

He was elated hearing he would earn Rs 9000 a month working in Kerala as a migrant worker. That was in late 2018. During the Covid lockdown he and his colleagues were living like caged animals with paltry food at the factory. When the lockdown continued for months with no foreseeable end, somehow some workers managed a transport, all the way from Kerala to Murshidabad. The cost was high, almost Rs 3000 each. He came back home. But within weeks he died.

At Ernakulam, Kerala, 22 years old Asif of Domkal, Murshidabad, committed suicide. He lost his Rs. 400/day job at a brick kiln and was very depressed. His younger brother, also was a migrant worker at a tile factory in Kerala, also unemployed due to the lockdown. In the last call he got from his brother, a couple of days before the suicide, he felt his brother’s pain, but could never imagine such a shock.

Their father, a 60+ years old worker who lost his job as gardener (contract worker) in a tourist-spot in Murshidabad, was languishing in a hospital when the news of the death of his migrant labour son reached him. Villagers of Siropara, Domkal, met and decided to collect Rs 1 lakh and 32 thousand to hire an ambulance to carry the ‘body’ from Ernakulam.

“Well, in 2020 January-February my daily gross income was Rs 1800 minimum, many days I got Rs 2000. But now my income has not yet touched Rs 1350-1400 a day, usually it is Rs 1200”, says Ajit. He runs an auto rickshaw in one of the busiest auto-routes in Kolkata. “Don’t ask me how I managed the lockdown months. Those were unmanageable. I cannot tell you”.

“No good days are in sight till now,” says Alam who works in a spectacle-shop, “Before the first  Covid lockdown I used to earn Rs 12,000 a month in a south-Kolkata shop. Now I got a job in central-Kolkata, I am experienced, and still, they give me 9000 only. The duty hours are such that I have to stay nearby and cannot commute from home. I cannot contribute home as much as I did two-and-half years ago.”

Rouf got a job at an IT company in their web division after completing a degree in computer applications. That was in 2019. He bought a motor-bike. And lost his job during the lockdown. He is now a bike-cab driver in an app-driven company. His family could survive the tough months because his father was in an ‘emergency service’.

“He is a dairy worker in a private company. Their wage does not increase, no dearness allowance like sarkari-babus, but the job did not go at least,” he explained.

Anish lost his job as a manager in an event-management company and he is also doing a bike-cab driver’s job now. He is earning 50-60% or less than what they earned two-and-half years back.

Samar is a delivery worker. Except for some months they worked all along these years. But their income has stagnated while all prices have gone up. He is thankful to his wife. She started a little ‘evening business’ after the first lockdown was over, besides managing two kids; making and selling roti from home. But all of the above are luckier – they are not slum dwellers who are in a more troubled world.

Wage-depletion and or wage-stagnation in this pandemic did not only happen in towns and cities. Bablu has been working in a rice mill for many years. He is a ‘contract worker’ and he does not figure in any official list for state benefits. The mill is in Bardhaman district while Bablu is from neighbouring Bankura district. He bicycles 12 km to work. His wage was Rs 175/day before the pandemic hit. During the pandemic there were some necessary changes he heard. Unions, parties, owners decided that to make the business viable in these tough times it was necessary to slash wages. So, Bablu started getting Rs 155/day.

That wage still continues. Agriculture is becoming a difficult venture for farmers even with 2 hectares of land whereas Bablu has only 0.2 hectare. Cost of inputs are 50% higher than what they were in 2019. Bankura is a poorer district, the weather here is also harsh. In 2007 the ‘ration-revolt’, when people protested cheating at fair price shops, started from some villages in Bankura and quickly spread to hundreds of villages.

Previously labourers of Bankura and Birbhum got some employment opportunities in agriculture in neighbouring Bardhaman district. But mechanisation reduced that job opportunity. Bablu and people like him are in a fix: how to reduce consumption, how to make both ends meet. The 100-days-work guarantee scheme is there but nobody gets more than 40-50 days job from that scheme each year!

Bablu’s family last year got less than 30 days of work. His son worked as he had to go to the mill. “But my son’s health is weakening. He is only 23, we were far stronger at that age.” However, Bankura and some other ‘west zone’ districts have an ‘advantage’ Bablu explained. Once those were ‘disturbed’ areas, and so they get more in free-rations. Poorer the family, the more dependent they are on these government handouts.

Going further north of Bankura a sadder picture emerged. “We are not telling you that this sudden spike in infant-deaths is mainly due to nutritional deficiencies of pregnant mothers, as I cannot prove that correlation. Moreover, mind that, we have not told you anything,” said two medical students at a Medical College hospital. “Even infant-mortality data won’t reveal anything. But you know, in families, it is usually women who sacrifice their nutrition. And this increases when the times are difficult”.

In some studies the picture of this ‘nutritional deficit’ has emerged. A study[i] from Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, Cornell University, USA, title “COVID‑19 and women’s nutrition security: panel data evidence from rural India” released in July 2021 showed that women’s dietary diversity – the number of food groups consumed – declined during the lockdown compared to the same period in 2019.

Most concerningly, the drop was due to decreased consumption of foods like meats, eggs, vegetables, and fruits, which are rich in micronutrients that are crucial to good health and development.

“Women’s diets were lacking in diverse foods even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has further exacerbated the situation,” Soumya Gupta, who co-authored the study was quoted as saying.

Sandeep Banerjee is a researcher based in Kolkata, West Bengal

[i] Gupta, S., Seth, P., Abraham, M. et al. COVID-19 and women’s nutrition security: panel data evidence from rural India. Econ Polit 39, 157–184 (2022).

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