Asizeable percentage of India’s population is multidimensionally poor (UNDP, 2019). Further, much of the poverty is concentrated in rural areas. Given the fact that various sectors are not able to generate sustainable sources of livelihood for a subsistence level of living, it is indeed important that state initiatives come as a major respite.
The farm sector has reached almost a saturation point. Climate change and water scarcity forced many farms to give up multiple cropping round the year, resulting in a sharp reduction in the scale of activities. Further, mechanisation impacted employment drastically. The rural non-farm sector on the other hand, has not emerged as a major source of livelihood.
On the whole, poverty in the rural areas persists both in the agricultural sector and the nonfarm sector. Mechanisation, water shortage and climate change effects have rendered agricultural labour redundant, and disguised unemployment has been significant.
The lack of demand-induced activities in the rural non-farm sector has led to the supply-push phenomenon. Marginal activities may raise the share of non-agricultural sector, and the process of urbanisation may have been underway, but that does not result in sustainable development and livelihood. The massive growth of the census towns between 2001-2011 is a witness to this fact.
Rural transformation was not accompanied by the growth of demand-induced activities and the emergence of the new towns (not recognised by the government as statutory towns) is rather a misleading process if urbanisation is to be taken as an indicator of development.
The expansion in the city limit and the rural hinterland being considered as a part of the city agglomeration is interesting but whether it is able to create employment opportunities for the rural population is an important question.
A continuous change in the land utilisation pattern has rendered many farm households redundant and jobless. The policy interventions naturally must reflect on these rapid changes that have been occurring over the years.
The organised industry which is expected to generate employment on a large scale for the semi-skilled and unskilled workforce and shift them away from the farm sector, is rather lagging behind.
Adoption of capital-intensive technology tends to restrict the pace of labour demand. The high productivity services sector on the other hand, is also capital and skill intensive, restricting the opportunities for those who are not endowed with skill and quality education. The periodic labour force surveys which have information on households over different sub-rounds within a year shows that some workers do not remain within the same activity throughout.
They keep depending on different activities in different seasons or keep shifting from one activity to another as sustainable livelihood sources are shrinking.
Besides, at a given point in time some workers have to depend on multiple sources of livelihood as one source is not sufficient to provide subsistence level of income.
Some of the workers engage themselves in two or more subsidiary status activities simultaneously while some augment their income by working in a principal and a subsidiary status activity.
The livelihood diversification strategy is beneficial for the households as it helps smoothen the consumption expenditure.
Else, fluctuations in consumption can push some of the households, particularly those marginally above the poverty line, into the domain of poverty and such fluctuations affect productivity of the workers severely.
However, on several occasions, households remain below the poverty line in spite of pursuing multiple sources of livelihood. Due to the lack of gainful employment, they strive hard, engaging in a number of petty activities.
The recent pandemic and the subsequent lockdown wiped away the sources of livelihood, particularly in the urban space, and more so in large cities, which kept attracting the migrants on a significant scale.
The return migration occurred, raising the vulnerability of the workers. The regions which had witnessed lower unemployment rates before the pandemic, experienced a hike. Regions with higher levels of urbanisation and large cities and with higher rates of rural-urban migration are the ones which encountered massive increase in the unemployment rate. The complete closedown of the informal sector forced millions of workers to become openly unemployed and could bring in considerable overlaps between unemployment and poverty.
There has been a severe stress in the rural sector: those who have returned to the rural areas cannot get absorbed in gainful activities as the rural non-farm sector hardly comprises demand-induced activities.
On the other hand, the agricultural sector has already been in a state of excess-supply of labour. In this context the rural employment guarantee programmes came as a major safetynet. From the periodic labour force survey data (2019-20), the April-June quarter in 2020, which exactly coincides with the first phase of pandemic-hit lockdown period, shows a massive decline in the work force participation rate in the urban areas.
However, the annual average figures for all areas (rural and urban combined) do not unravel such adversity. This is precisely because of the implementation of the rural employment guarantee programmes at an unprecedented scale.
Without the employment guarantee programme Indian labour market indicators would have been miserably poor even prior to the pandemic.
In fact, given the effectiveness of MGNREGA, an urban counterpart of this programme has been envisaged as a safetynet for those engaged in petty and residual activities.
On the whole, given the bleak employment prospects in the labour market expounded by the sluggish growth in labour demand in many sectors, MGNREGA works as a matter of last resort without which many households would have slipped into abject poverty.
In addition, the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) which was launched in 2011 and later renamed as Deendayal Antayodaya Yojana (DAY-NRLM) in 2015, aims at empowering the rural poor by helping them access financial services that may contribute to the augmentation of the household income.
Keeping in view the multidimensionality of poverty, the housing aspect needs immediate concern. In the rural areas particularly, given the paucity of income, it is difficult for the households to generate surplus resources which can be invested on the construction of housing. In this context, PMAY-G which was restructured in 2016, is a major break, helping millions to build shelters of durable quality.
The primary goal of PDS is to distribute essential food commodities like rice, wheat and kerosene at highly subsidized rates to those below the poverty line, addressing the issue of food insecurity in the rural areas of India.
In spite of the criticisms against the programme and the quality of food grains distributed to the poor, its effectiveness in reducing the consumption poverty cannot be denied.
The reduction in destitution and the intensity of poverty will have to be attributed to the existence of PDS.
While pursuing our field work in the villages of Odisha in 2017 under a ICSSR-sponsored project on climate change and rural livelihood diversification, the comment we received from a layman who in his personal capacity tries to help the poor households in that area, is commendable, “people would have simply died out of hunger had PDS not been in place.”