In continuation with the ongoing discussions on the Rural Realities around the country, the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Orissa Economics Association, Odisha organised a Panel Discussion on “Rural Realities | Odisha Practitioners’ Experiences in Tackling the Second Wave in Indian Villages” on May 15, 2021, as the second wave of coronavirus pandemic is engulfing the length and breadth of our country, India, and hitting the heartland of our country which is the rural areas.
To set the tone of the discussion, the moderator of the event, Dr Amalendu Jyotishi, Faculty, School of Development, Azim Premji University, spoke about the very limited information we have about the ground realities of the country given the magnitude at which people are dying daily. He further emphasized the fact that even the realities are far from the information available in the public domain.
The chair of the session, Prof Surjya Narayan Tripathy, President, Orissa Economics Association, Khurda, Orissa,spoke about how the second wave silently and slowly devastated the hinterland of India. The second wave has penetrated into the rural pockets of Odisha as well which is adversely affecting the people over there. This pandemic has already caused a detrimental impact on the rural people of Odisha.
From a historical perspective, Odisha has a surplus of labourers and the Ganjam district is considered as the hotspot of migrant labourers but because of the pandemic and increasing poverty, these labourers have started to migrate to other Indian states. He emphasized that quick recognition of the symptoms and immediate actions can save lives and prevent the spread of the virus. The second wave has necessitated the proper usage of resource planning, covid management, successful protocol of hand sanitisation, maintain social distancing to tackle the spread of the virus. Further, the team of IMPRI presented an overview of the conditions of Odisha state.
From the Practitioner’s point of view
Migrant Labourers and their Livelihood Issues
Mr Umi Daniel, Director, Migration & Education, Aide et Action International, Bhubaneswar
Out of the 10 million migrants in India, 10 lakh migrants came back to Odisha in February 2021 with the highest percentage in the Ganjam district with 20%. NREGA which was supposed to provide household work to 4-5 lakh people during normal month jumped to 14 lakh and then fell to 8 lakhs in March 2021. In April 2020, 20 lakh people were added, and the government did provide financial support, but the distress condition was huge. In conclusion, the data which was collected by the government of Odisha, during 2020, when people came back was done beautifully but when few labourers went back during September 2020 no data was recorded. Hence, in the second wave, one can’t say how many labourers came back. That’s a very big loss even though Odisha has a strong Panchayat.
In the year 2020, 12000 temporary medical centres were opened but this year only 500 is there. Last year the government of Odisha was much more prepared in terms of medical centres and data collection but during the second wave, not much focus is given to these things. Because of seasonal migration, a lot more labourers are expected to arrive back in Odisha in the coming month, so, the government should start to provide a lot more medical assistance and equipment in the medical centres as the migrants will be coming from the deadlier states where the coronavirus rates are much higher.
Current Livelihood Scenario
Mr Pratap Chandra Panda, Thematic Manager, Gram Vikas, Bhubaneswar
An assessment was done by Gram Vikas recently which covered 15000 households in 246 villages. It was found that around 7% of households showed positive symptoms of COVID-19. What’s more astonishing is that less than 10% of the households got vaccinated! Another assessment with regards to the impact of the pandemic in terms of food, livelihood and health, was done, which covered 13000 households.
Around 74% of households were found to have an increased vulnerability to Covid which is relatively higher than the previous year. Moreover, around 10% of the households did not even have an MGNERGA card. Nearly 39% of families have no work done under the schemes for the last two months. Around 12% of the households depend on migrant workers for their day-to-day survival. This shows not only the vulnerability of the health system because of less manpower but also the reluctance to get vaccinated because of the attached stigma.
Both the Positive & Negative Condition of the State
Ms Swapna Sarangi, Regional Co-lead- East, Foundation for Ecological Security (FES)
Odisha has a surplus of oxygen supply even so much that it has been supplying oxygen to other Indian states. Odisha is also the first state to talk about the global tender to get vaccines to vaccinate as many people in the state as possible. The chief minister also declared to add another 5 kgs of rice to the PDS scheme. Most of the districts have dedicated covid hospitals which are managed and supported by big MNCs though it has fewer units.
She further says that even the ASHA workers who help the rural people, themselves are not fully aware of the covid symptoms. They are not even provided with PPE kits and basic medical equipment, so how they are going to know the extremity of the situation of the people who shows symptoms of covid. When it comes to the vaccine, people in the rural areas either don’t have access to the internet or don’t know how to use the Cowin website, hence, the majority of the rural people are unable to get vaccinated. In the rural area, not only virus exist but taboo also exists.
Micro evidence with Macro picture
Dr Pankaj Naik, Assistant Professor and Head, PG Department of Economics, Vikram Dev College, Odisha
Odisha is a very popular state when it comes to policy understanding, overwhelming rural population, which is 85% of the total population of Odisha, and otherwise. Even the lockdown was implemented first by the state of Odisha. Though the government said that there are 4198 covid hospitals in the state but these are disturbed in a skewed manner as in Western Odisha there are fewer beds as compared to the population over there. And, even if there are beds then the oxygen support is not there in these remote areas. Though Odisha has done well in terms of poverty eradication, the number is still very grim for the marginalized groups as 63% of the tribal population are still poor. Moreover, the per capita doctor population has gone down drastically in the last decade and two whereas the in-patient ratio has gone up. Most importantly, the western area which inhabits the majority of SCs, STs population and is the biggest poverty spot of the state lacks all necessary health infrastructure.
A candid assessment of the Young population
Mr Malay Padhan, Director-Programmes, Patang, Sambalpur
He begins by talking about the young people, below 45, who are getting the most affected during the second wave. We are undermining the young people who stay in the rural areas as some ASHA workers said that in whichever house, they are going for a checkup session, most of the houses had covid patients. But the data shows something else, which is lesser than the actual number of cases. To worsen the situation, in most of the blocks the beds in the temporary medical centres are not working. People in certain remote blocks are even travelling to 40-50kms to get the basic medical facilities. Though Anganwadi workers are going for regular check-ups, people are unable to get the right amount of nutrition for their sick body and even more, so it is affecting pregnant and lactating women. He further says that since the harvesting period is delayed, it is creating a burden on the farmers as they are unable to earn any income and pay off their debts.
Macro Realities of Odisha
Dr Amarendra Das, Secretary, Orissa Economics Association; Faculty, National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER), Odisha
At the National level, agriculture is the only sector that experienced positive growth of about 3.4%. But the Odisha’s agriculture sector experienced a 6.7% decline in the agricultural output. Already 33% of people fall below the poverty line (BPL) and agriculture contributes 20% to it. This will further have serious implications on the farmers as more people will fall BPL. Some regions also experienced a fall in the poultry sector and a fall in the price as farmers are unable to sell their outputs. Talking about the price mechanism, a Minimum Support Price should be ensured to the farmers. In conclusion, agriculture should be revived to provide a livelihood to all.
Overview of the Condition of Odisha
Prof Bijayalaxmi Nanda, Acting Principal, Miranda House College, University of Delhi
The discussant of the session says that she was alarmed to observe the ground realities in Odisha because the information is not available in the mainstream media. An immediate response is needed not just in terms of discussion but also from the state. Digital inclusion has not happened in all the areas yet as young students have been left out of the loop in terms of education and community outreach. She emphasised that there seems to have emerged “covid fatigue” to the government missionary as they are unable to understand what is happening in the fields. Hence, the government need to respond to the voices there. There’s not only vulnerability towards covid but also to a range of health issues.
Strategies needed to adopt to tackle the second wave of coronavirus
Prof Nanda says that a multistakeholder meeting should be held to set up a health and livelihood plan for short-term goals. For long-term objectives, a sustainable community health plan is required along with rural areas in mind. Mr Daniel says that saving lives and livelihood should be the priority of the government. New temporary medical quarantine centres should be set up. A decentralised approach is needed to reduce the distressing migration and to tackle this situation as well. MGNREGA should be merged with agriculture as well.
Mr Panda said that the local government should provide Covid equipment and spread awareness in the remote areas. Screening for covid centres and essential medical kits should be provided to village level households with sufficient stock to health workers. Socio and psychological counselling sessions for the mental health of the children are also needed. Ms Swapna Sarangi said that people should voluntarily come up to spread the word regarding vaccination and save the lives of people in rural areas. One should make sure that people can access the infrastructure and get benefitted out of it.
Dr Pankaj Naik said that the tribal pockets should be checked and protected by setting up quarantine centres at the panchayat level. Steps should be taken to tackle structural poverty and death both at the interstate and intrastate level. Mr Padhan said that psychological support is needed to be given to the young masses. Cash should be advanced to the people in the village areas who are unable to earn income. Basic medical necessities such as thermometer, medicines should be provided door-to-door to the most vulnerable people.
Dr Das said that support should be provided to the agriculture sector, particularly farmers, as it is directly linked to the rural economy. An alternative plan for employment, particularly skill-based employment at the panchayat level, is needed in the advanced districts of Odisha as there is very little demand for MGNERGA. There’s a need to create Panchayat level enterprises as well.