Covid-19: Rural women in India bear the brunt of the lockdown

Updated on Apr 10, 2020 05:49 AM IST

On the front lines: Nearly 40 million women are supposed to be recipients of relief measures, but many of them remain so on paper.

Women leave bank after withdrawing cash during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Agra, India, April 7, 2020.(REUTERS)
Women leave bank after withdrawing cash during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Agra, India, April 7, 2020.(REUTERS)
Hindustan Times, Ranchi/ Hyderabad/Lucknow/Pune/ Bhopal/Bhubaneswar | BySaurabh Chauhan, Sanjoy Dey and Debabrata Mohanty

On Wednesday, 62-year-old Vandini Devi walked five kilometres from her village in Bokaro, Jharkhand to the bank in order to check if money had been credited to her Jan Dhan account. She was disappointed to learn that it hadn’t. A resident of Chargi village, Devi said she had not received her widow pension since February, either. “We were promised two months’ free food grain, but I was given 5 kilograms of ration for only one month. My younger son works as a daily wager and has had no work due to lockdown. I am in big distress,” Devi said.

India’s rural population has been central to most relief measures announced since the 21-day lockdown began. On March 26, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced ~ 500 will be credited into Jan Dhan accounts held by women for three months, starting April. There are more than 203.9 million such accounts. Separately, many states have also allocated funds to keep the Public Distribution System (PDS) flush with supplies, even as daily wage, manual and agricultural work dries up. At the other end of this are the nearly 40 million rural women who are the purported recipients of these benefits.

With no money in the bank account, and government assistance awaited, 55-year-old Shahjahan in Lucknow’s Asti village has only 15kg wheat and 10kg rice left for her family of five. On March 30, UP chief minister Adityanath announced relief worth ~611 crore to all Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme beneficiaries, following which Shahjahan visited her bank. She said she waited for over an hour but found no cash in her account.

In many parts of the country, work under MNREGS has come to a halt. Crop harvesting too has been affected leading to a break in supply chains, as farmers are unable to send their produce to ‘mandis’.

In Maharashtra, for instance, the lockdown is being implemented rigorously, with police patrol cars preventing farmers from farming activities.

Sulekha Naba, a 40-year-old tribal woman in Badipalli village of western Odisha district of Bargarh queued up like other villagers to get the ~1,000 assistance that chief minister Naveen Patnaik had announced for cardholders under the national food security act. Naba, a landless daily labourer, has been without work since the lockdown. While she did receive three months ration, she worried that the cash assistance would hardly be enough to sustain her family. Odisha has 7.4 million households under Jan Dhan yojana — that’s 99.85% of the total number of households in the state.

Long queues of women to withdraw ~500 from their Jan Dhan bank accounts have been witnessed in almost all rural areas in Maharashtra. Yogesh Warkhede, a ‘bank friend’ appointed by Bank of Baroda at Nampur village in Nashik district of Maharashtra said almost 200 people have visited his home to enquire about the deposits.

To an extent, the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu have been able to manage such crowds through an innovative token system: Each family is given a token with a specific date and time to pick up their rations at the Fair Price shops. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh completed the first phase of distribution of rice and other essential commodities, as well as cash assistance in the first week of April itself.

In Kerala, ration holders are classified on the basis of their economic vulnerability. The state did away with biometric identification on April 1 to aid the process of distribution. It has now started supplying the ration based on SMSes in order to control the rush.

Not all states have been able to use technology seamlessly, however. In Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh, Guddi Bai Lodhi, 58, went to the branch of Gramin Bank to collect her ~500. “When my turn came, the bank clerk said the ‘link’ was not working.”

She managed to get cash and purchase a few grocery items.

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