Challenges & Effects of Pandemic on Livelihoods, Essentials and Interventions: A Case from Jharkhand

By Priya Patil and BitiyaMurmu

People residing in the blocks of Kathikund, Dumka and Shikaripara of Jharkhand are dependent on forest and forest produce. They depend on forests for their basic needs of food and fuel along with livelihood as they prepare leaf plates from the leaves collected from forests. The region comprises of mining sites, hilly regions and plains. The Pahadiyas living up the hills are categorised as‘Primitive Tribes’ by the government.A substantial part of the population works as daily wage workers in farmlands, factories, running small shops/enterprises and collecting Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP). Most of the farmers practice jhoom cultivation.

Villagers live in remote locations which creates issues of physical accessibility to essential goods. Also,they sell all their produce to local traders or middlemen. The Pahadiyas were stranded in the hills during the pandemic.Traditionally, the tribal population does not have a culture of accumulating assets which is why many households do not have significant preserved assets to fall back on during the lockdown and now they are struggling to survive. As the local haats (market) are closed, it has become even more difficult to sell the produce due to restrictions on mobility and they do not have any alternative system in place through which they can continue their livelihood.

Scope for NGO Interventions:

The region has ample opportunities for intervention, but the existing misunderstanding with respect to the image of NGOs/CSOs needs to change. On the one hand they are seen as supporters of Government by Naxals while on the other hand they are perceived as Naxal supporters by the Government. The current scenario has to change for a win-win situation.

The region needs interventions across many issues- “Waha kaam karne ka jyada jaroort hai kyu ki uss jagah jyada sansadhan ya suvidha nahi hai na”. Initiatives must be taken to bridge this gap. During the pandemic people living in the Red Corridor were most vulnerable due to lack of information and facilities. Amidst lockdown, CSOs/NGOs could not function without district administration's permission which led to other issues like marginal people suffering because of hunger and yet nobody could do anything until ‘permission’ was granted. Getting permissions during the lockdown – when the offices were mostly closed – posed many challenges to the NGOs and CSOs working here.

As per the findings of India – Covid Assessment and Response Dashboard (I-CARD) survey for May, the block region covered by various NGOs/CSOs doing active Covid-19 related work varies. On a scale of 1-3, (with 1 representing a coverage of less than 1/3 of block area and 3 representing a coverage of more than 2/3 of block area) 10 out of 15 surveyed blocks have a coverage of less than 2/3 block area (Figure 1). The surveyed blocks include Itki, Khunti, Goilkera, Shikaripara, Dumka, Sanua, Kathikund, Raidih, Palkot, Namkum, Madhupur, Karaon, Margomunda, Bero and Chakradharpur.

Figure 1. Block region covered by NGO/CSO doing active Covid-19 related work

Thus,there is scope for increased interventions by NGOs and CSOs.

Challenge of Physical Access:

Closure of local haats due to the pandemic has forced a lot of families to struggle hard to get their groceries from the market by walking for 15-20 km. Most of the families do not have even a bicycle. In such a situation, pregnant women, the elderly, persons with disabilities and families whose family-head is stuck in other location during the lockdown are the most vulnerable groups since their chances to access any resource are particularly low. Community kitchens also function at the Panchayat level but they are out of reach of vulnerable groups due to distance. People are unwilling to travel 7-8 km only for khichdi (dish made up of rice and dal). There is one Panchayat for approximately every 10 villages. The block is sparsely populated and Panchayats are designated by population size without considering the distance between villages, making it difficult to access Panchayat-level facilities.

The survey findings of I-CARD show that access to PDS shops in blocks of East Jharkhand - Shikaripara, Dumka, Kathikund, Madhupur and Karaon require attention. Also, access to essential groceries from private shops remains low across 9 of 15 surveyed blocks (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Access to ration from PDS shops and basic essential grocery items from private shops

Loss of Livelihoods:

Farmers practice Jhoom cultivation and farming is mostly rainfed. They grow leafy vegetables, brinjal, mango and jackfruit. The crops were damaged due to pollution near mining sites.Farmers could not sell their harvest in the local market (haat) as it was closed.They could not sell it to traders as there were restrictions on mobility and some of them managed to sell part of their produce locally at lower price. People who used to make leaf plates or were involved in small-scale textile-making using handlooms were severely affected due to loss of demand and market. All the construction work got interrupted due to bottlenecks in supply of construction material and there were no new projects in the region, so labourers were forced to sit idle in their homes.

The frequency of incidents of exploitation is very high in this region.There are cases of daily wage labourers being exploited at the mining site, suffering from chronic respiratory illnesses like asthma.Mining activity has affected the quality of ground water as well as the air quality in the region which results in poor crop quality and losses for local farmers. There are cases of traditional houses getting damaged sooner due to the mining activity.

As per the I-CARD data, there is high income loss of small and marginal farmers and informal workers across the 15 surveyed blocks of Jharkhand (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Income loss of Small and Marginal Farmers, Craft workers, Self-employed and Non-agricultural wage labourers

Increased demand for borrowings:

The returning migrants do not have enough credit available with them, they have started approaching the moneylenders (mahajans, typically those running local businesses). They cannot access loans from formal banks due to multiple issues like the amount of time required in processing, documentation involved, distance of the bank, lack of creditworthiness, etc. The mahajans are exploiting the tribal during the ongoing pandemic.They harass them, threaten them for money, ask for assets or crop or at times even sexual favour.

The I-CARD data shows that there has been an increase in people availing credit/loan across blocks, particularly Shikaripara, Dumka and Kathikund (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Increase in Availing Credit

The Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS) has tried to intervene in parts of these blocks but the access is mostly limited to the plains. The Red Corridor is out of their reach even today. Even MGNREGA has not been effective in these blocks with the issues of lack of awareness, the people in power retaining the bank passbook and job cards of the workers, use of machines, delayed payments and high rates of discrepancy. The I-CARD data suggest that the number of workdays available under MGNREGA per person per week is less than 4 days for most blocks (Figure 5).

Most of the migrants who had left the blocks way back still have their documents with dalaals.

Figure 5. Number of workdays available per person per week under MGNREGA

Towards Increasing Awareness:

The local system is highly deprived of a linkage between the local administration and the community. The gap is wider as we ponder upon the aspects like access to education, communication system and transportation mechanism. A strong leadership combined with the lack of political will to develop the region in an organic manner can be clearly noticed. The vulnerable populations are unaware of the concept of community kitchen, they are unaware of the measures being taken by the government or NGOs.

Support is not going to a large part of the needy population due to lack of access and information. Many people do not know which facility is meant for whom and why. There is a lack of effective guidelines to the local administration which is resulting in some asymptomatic Covid-19 cases in the migrants not being tested at all as they are not showing any symptoms, people are being kept in quarantine centres without their family members knowing about it for days which is adding on to the stress factor for them.

The migrants who had migrated with their entire family are struggling the most now, as they lack any kind of asset. Most of them do not have access to shelter.Once they are out of the quarantine centre, they do not have access to regular food, no social capital, no land (in most of the cases), high rates of depression and cynicism. The recent cyclone Amphan has added to their agony and left them in miserable conditions.

The government must thus ensure that the entitled quantity of ration is reaching the people. Further, livelihood opportunities must be created at the local level by promoting local haats where the villagers can come and sell their goods. Also, road infrastructure and transportation facilities must be provided to reduce the challenge of physical access.

Further, if the local population becomes aware of their rights, then it might function as a community-based monitoring system for the local administration. The narratives have shown that most of the challenges emerge because there is a significant lack of information and failure of public administration. The region needs an intervention with respect to better and cheaper public transport system and grievance redressal cell/centre which is accessible for all and has no power structures in it in order to avoid any potential exploitation.

Priya Patil is part of the I-CARD team and Bitiya Murmu is the Block Expert from Dumka.

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