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A nightmare for our poorest that we must wake up to

Indians walk on a deserted street in Hyderabad, India, Friday, March 27, 2020. Some of India's legions of poor and others suddenly thrown out of work by a nationwide stay-at-home order began receiving aid on Thursday, as both public and private groups worked to blunt the impact of efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic. The measures that went into effect Wednesday, the largest of their kind in the world, risk heaping further hardship on the quarter of the population who live below the poverty line and the 1.8 million who are homeless. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.) (AP)Premium
Indians walk on a deserted street in Hyderabad, India, Friday, March 27, 2020. Some of India's legions of poor and others suddenly thrown out of work by a nationwide stay-at-home order began receiving aid on Thursday, as both public and private groups worked to blunt the impact of efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic. The measures that went into effect Wednesday, the largest of their kind in the world, risk heaping further hardship on the quarter of the population who live below the poverty line and the 1.8 million who are homeless. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.) (AP)

Covid has widened inequality and pushed many who were reeling after demonetization closer to the brink. Policymakers should act with urgency to shield them from further suffering

Have you experienced a nightmare when you suddenly fall, but before you find yourself in a ditch, you are up and relieved that it was merely a nightmare? I have. Unfortunately, this nightmare is a reality for many individuals and families, including children in the post-covid context. These are the people who anyway lived precariously, with one small push enough for a fall. Especially so in the post-demonetization world. They never had the luxury of a regular job or one that paid them legally- entitled wages or comfortable living conditions, but they at least had work opportunities that gave them some ready cash; children had schools which even at their worst offered peer company and some learning opportunities, and for many girls, the only window to connect with the outside world. At least in the short run, life has changed for a vast majority of such people, and, as Keynes said, “In the long run, we are all dead." This is what most studies, including ours, are showing.

Nearly 80% of more than 3,000 children in the age-group of 10-18 years, surveyed in Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana in July, said that ‘life was better before’ on a question related to school closure and their being confined to homes. Most of these children cited the reason as being meeting friends in school and learning from teachers, indicating that: (i) they felt isolated and (ii) technology-enabled education was not reaching them. This was obvious from other answers as well. While 52% had a TV set at home, only 11% watched education-related programmes. Deep-rooted structural divides came to the fore when a smaller percentage of girls (26%) reported having access to a phone as compared to boys (37%).

Worse still, more than 40% children came across as being uncertain about returning to school when it reopens due to economic distress and social norms. Anecdotal accounts of a smaller number of children returning to school have come from Assam, where schools have opened. Reports of girls being pushed to early marriage are coming from almost all parts of the country. In our own recent field visits to parts of Bihar where we have an ongoing research, we were unable to access most of the boys during the day, as they have started working, and girls were rarely seen outside as they were all working in their homes.

We also surveyed one adult, mostly one of the parents, in these households. An overwhelming majority (84%) said they did not have enough employment opportunities—this was 93% in Bihar, 86% in Uttar Pradesh, 64% in Assam and 54% in Telangana. Sixty-three percent reported food shortages and 58% reported both food and cash shortage. Nearly 8% went hungry at some time, while 9% sold assets to cope, 20% borrowed, and 42% stopped vegetables and milk consumption. Children from households facing financial difficulties had lower access to phones and the internet, and were much more uncertain about returning to school.

The link between the family’s economic condition and schooling was also obvious from the fact that a greater proportion of children enrolled in private schools were uncertain about returning to school. This means that livelihood insecurity will hurt children’s lives and schooling. It also showed public schooling can act as a security against external shocks.

Although some signs of revival are visible, the economy is nowhere close to where it was before demonetization. An economy that was already experiencing a slowdown further decelerated due to India’s lockdown and other pandemic-related measures. A recent trip to mineral-rich Chhattisgarh showed that production has suffered even in the relatively less vulnerable primary sectors such as mining; first because of lockdown and social distancing and later because of slackening demand.

High demand for rural employment-guarantee jobs in many states indicates shrinking employment opportunities elsewhere.

The cascading effects of shrinking demand for a variety of final and intermediate goods on income and employment are yet to be fully comprehended. Most gross domestic product (GDP) and revenue estimates are predicting a contraction. Yet, these may not tell the full story of livelihood losses and the impact on the lives of children, as most information on unorganized sector is incomplete.

In an unequal world, any shock impacts people unequally. So has this pandemic, as was the case with demonetization.

Inequality in India has been on the rise, and with a disproportionate burden of the economic slowdown falling on the poor, they are already facing the worst. We are likely to see major shifts in peoples’ choices, with increased demand for public education and health simply due to the unaffordability of private services, and because of families moving back from cities to their hometowns and villages, where the spread of private services is not as wide.

As state governments prepare their next annual budgets, it is important to pay attention to these. Otherwise, the country may find itself in a ditch in terms of education, health, nutrition and inequality.

Expansion of public education and health services can have high multiplier effects on employment. Hence, it would help in reviving the economy while also ensuring social protection to the poor.

These are the author’s personal views.

Jyotsna Jha is head of Centre for Budget and Policy Studies in Bangalore

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