Home >Opinion >Views >A localized approach to address the economic fallout of covid-19

India now has the second-highest number of covid cases worldwide, and huge dips in earnings have been reported. Yet, these aggregate figures obscure important local differences—across cities and between neighbourhoods. The extent of these differences is illustrated by our ongoing study.

In August, we commenced phone surveys in 20 settlements each in Patna and Bengaluru, selected to reflect the diversity of slum living conditions. With a grant from the International Growth Centre, we are conducting phone interviews with three key respondents in each settlement, consisting of neighbourhood leaders and other well-informed individuals, including at least one woman. We have studied these and other settlements for years. We ask each respondent about conditions both in their neighbourhood, in general, and in their own household. These means of discovery and triangulation have revealed a wide diversity of local situations. Here is what we found.

Sickness is under control in Patna slums: Over the past month, not a single death due to covid (or due to some unknown cause) has been reported from any of its 20 selected slums; no one was sick on account of covid, either in hospital or at home.

Localized concentrations of sickness persist in Bengaluru: The situation is similar to Patna in the majority of Bengaluru’s slums—no deaths and hardly any instances of illness due to covid. In a distinct pocket of settlements in Bengaluru, however, the illness gives cause for greater concern. Consistently over the past two fortnights and into the current one, it is estimated that more than 15% of families living in MV Gardens, Mominpura and Siddhartha Nagar have members sick with the disease, many in hospital. Pinpointed rather than blanket responses will be more effective in this situation.

Mask wearing is common: Across slums of both cities, more than 80% of residents are wearing masks in public. Social distancing, a luxury in cramped quarters, is not nearly as common.

There are contrasting livelihood situations, with an uptrend in Bengaluru and creeping hopelessness in Patna: Most slum women as well as men work for a wage. The average slum household has 4.4 members in Bengaluru and 6.4 members in Patna, and has, respectively, 1.9 and 1.7 earning members.

Even before the pandemic, the average slum household in Bengaluru was better off than the one in Patna. The average monthly income of a slum household was more than 23,000 in Bengaluru and just about 17,000 in Patna.

Very few households in the slums of both cities earned incomes in the first two or three months of the pandemic. Manual labourers, the majority, including maids and construction workers, were least likely to keep their incomes. The few key informants in Patna slums who kept making incomes through this period had the following positions (with monthly incomes in brackets): anganwadi sevika ( 5,500), sanitation worker ( 7,200), sump station worker ( 9,000), lecturer ( 45,000); three local shopkeepers ( 5,000, 8,000, 12,000) and a dairy operator ( 30,000). In Bengaluru, the few who kept being paid through the first three months included the following self-reported positions: a product surveyor for ITC ( 15,000), a sales executive of Paytm ( 22,000), and an executive at Bajaj Finserv ( 20,000). The range as well as the nature of positions is tellingly different across the two cities.

Less well off to begin with, Patna’s slum residents were hit much harder economically. As late as the middle of September, they had recovered only half of prior incomes, while Bengaluru slum residents had recovered more than two-thirds. More than 80% in Bengaluru report going back to their old jobs, but only 30% in Patna.

Making ends meet is the principal challenge facing more than 90% in Patna’s slum, whose situation is typified by a household of four persons in a slum known as Chitkohra Pul ke Neeche or Jagjiwan Nagar. The father used to work as a gardener ( 8,000), and one of the sons worked as a dance teacher ( 10,000). Neither has seen any income since April. They sold two goats, cut back on food and other essentials, and are negotiating a loan from a neighbour at 5% per month, an interest rate that was commonly reported.

Dwindling assistance: In the early part of the pandemic, most slums of Bengaluru reported receiving subsidized food rations from the government or political parties; about half also received gas cylinders. Neighbourhoods where informal social networks and local leaders were more active were more likely to receive assistance, not those with the greatest need or the highest disease incidence. Hardly any assistance is being received currently, even though people’s situations continue to be difficult, particularly in Patna. Women’s groups have played important roles in both cities, arranging for cash and essential commodities and resolving disputes.

Diminishing hopes in Patna: A longer and harsher lockdown in Patna has gone together with a diminished incidence of the disease and considerably greater economic hardships. Because of the unrelenting hardship they have faced, an overwhelming majority in Patna’s slums expect that three months, or even six months, from now things will still be worse than before the pandemic. The corresponding share in Bengaluru is less than 10%.

Ramping up the pace of job recovery in Patna is urgently needed. Rekindling hope will require changing the experience.

Sujeet Kumar and Anirudh Krishna provided assistance for this column.

Harlan Downs-Tepper and Emily Rains are PhD students at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University.

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