The pandemic struck India at a time when the country had been experiencing slower economic growth and rising unemployment; these were dramatically worsened by the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. The number of workers vulnerable to lockdown could reach 364 million or more, including those in casual work, self-employment and unprotected regular job holders. These workers face cuts in working hours, layoffs, furloughs and reductions in income, and for some, this could continue beyond the lockdown. The pandemic had whittled down the Worker-Population Ratio (WPR), which refers to the number of working age people employed from among the population.
Between March and April 2021, the male WPR had fallen from 63.4 per cent while the female WPR had come down from 8.5 per cent to 6.7 per cent. The numbers of pseudo-employment, or work that does not generate any income, had increased among self-employed people. Many of these people have been opening their business units, workshops or production centres, but hardly receiving any customers because of the pandemic and local lockdowns. The slow economic growth impacted rural India disproportionally.
The data released by the Ministry of Rural Development showed a massive spike in work provided under the 100-day job flagship scheme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The wage provided under the scheme is meagre and payments were often delayed, as a result of which it is the lowest on the preference list of the rural workers. The usual discussions on the Covid-19 pandemic revolve around its impacts on hunger, poverty and inequality. The pandemic has aggravated our inequality to such an extent that it is popularly described as the ‘pandemic of inequality’.
It has played a prominent role in highlighting growing inequalities. Many lost their jobs, some suffered pay cuts while self-employed saw income drops. The losses in working hours have translated into substantial losses in labour-income. Global labour income declined by 10.7 per cent during the first three quarters of 2020 compared with the corresponding period in 2019. The unemployment rate in India has touched a four-month high due to lockdowns. Millions of people in urban areas and even the middle class slipped below the poverty line.
The Pew Research Centre, a US-based think tank, using World Bank data estimated that the number of poor people in India with income of US$ 2 per day (or less in purchasing power parity) has more than doubled ~ from 60 million to 134 million ~ in just a year due to the pandemic-induced recession. Therefore, the number of poor people increased in India by 74 million last year. This means India is back in a situation which can be called a ‘country of mass poverty’ after 45 years. The impact of the second wave on the economy will be worse than expected.
Experts opine that lockdown to contain second wave of the pandemic shall amplify the poverty picture of the country. The pandemic in India has had an unequal impact on women in a number of ways. In terms of economic opportunity, women are losing jobs at a disproportionate rate compared to men, with four out of every ten working women having lost their jobs post the lockdown. Fewer have been able to rejoin the labour force. Levels of unpaid work have risen dramatically, prompting to a sturdy debate among feminists on the desirability of cash transfers for housework.
In India domestic violence is widespread and deep-rooted with 30 per cent of all women over the age of 15 being subjected to domestic violence, both in parental and matrimonial homes. The lockdown led to the increase of in the scale, frequency, and intensity of violence against women in their purportedly ‘safe’ homes. During the lockdown period victimised women’s ability to escape violence or access help from relatives and well-wishers was restricted by constraints on mobility and paucity of transport, all compounded by the constant presence of the abusers at home.
Such violence on women during the pandemic period has been termed by the United Nations as a ‘shadow pandemic’. The World Economic Forum (WEF) designed an index named Global Gender Gap Index to measure women’s disadvantages compared to men. It is hardly surprising that India has fallen 28 spots to rank 140 among 156 countries as per Global Gender Gap Index Report 2021 when compared with the 112th rank held in 2020.
The lockdown quite ironically also witnessed displacements like never before. In India, some 10 million informal workers returned to their villages and towns as the economy collapsed. In terms of numbers, the displacement was only matched by the movement of people during Partition. In April-May last year (2020), the returning workers were the only people on the highways across the country. The unprecedented global social and economic crisis triggered by the pandemic poses grave risks to the nutritional status and survival of young children in the low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs).
The crucial point is the unanticipated increase of wasting malnutrition (low weight-forheight) due to steep declines in household incomes, changes in availability and affordability of nutritious foods and, above all, sudden halt in all public health, social protection services and nutrition interventions, mainly Mid-day meal or hot cooked meals at anganwadi centres and other supplementary nutrition programme under ICDS. The Covid-19 pandemic has its origins in microbes carried by animals and its emergence has been driven by human activities.
Over the past 70 years, more than 300 zoonotic diseases have been observed. Despite the mounting threat, there are no global comprehensive surveillance efforts that proactively monitor the emergence of potential pandemic viruses. Scientists today know of just 0.1 per cent of potential zoonoses. We are ignorant of 99.9 per cent of potential zoonotic viruses. However, to prevent future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases we must become more deliberate about protecting our natural environment.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer)