14 Apr 2020

Start-up Rural India, after Covid19

Most of rural India witnessed an unseasonal reverse migration of its able bodied manpower, who had to return perforce fearing prolonged economic duress. In the backdrop of the Covid19 pandemic, this movement from urban centres to home villages, was undertaken in defiance of a nationwide curfew. 

As this virus spreads its reach, it is quite evident that the risk of disease is heightened in localities with a high population density. When working in cities, these workers (termed migrants), tolerated crowded and squalid living conditions, usually in illegally built building blocks and slum areas that do not even pretend to have basic norms. Typically employing themselves in blue collar jobs and semi-skilled tasks, often as informal labourers, this workforce by now would understand that they are safer in the more open expanses of rural India.

Industry sectors will, when allowed to resume, work on a limited scale - physical distancing will remain the expected norm - until a cure or a vaccine is developed. Hence, demand for labour will renew piece meal, tempered by continued precautionary measures, until this coronavirus has run its course. If infections flare up, repeated lockdowns are possible.<

In light of these events, and the uncertainty with this novel virus on prowl, it is unlikely that the migrant workforce will readily revert back en masse, to crowded urban lives when the lockdown ends. Those urban poor, who remained in the cities, endure conditions that put them at highest risk from this virus. On the other hand, the agrarian landscape is safer in comparison.

All across the country, food security concerns are being managed, to various success, by the public authorities and social enterprises. The food supply chain has become a buzz word, though laymen mostly relate it to logistics, and the machinations to feed cities is made aware to many. Meanwhile, at villages, the food supply chain is short and not as complicated. The rural community is more closely knit and immediately aware of each individual’s health status and living needs (the last census indicates that the average number of households in Indian villages was less than 300, and 80 per cent of villages had an average population of less than 800).

Going forward, the government will have to concentrate on providing livelihood to the large numbers who rushed to rural areas. They may be loath to return with equal haste. Yet, having worked in urban projects, they have exposure to more organised methods and tools. Their presence in rural areas, can actually be opportune and add impetus to rural projects.
There is opportunity to focus on rural development, to bring good cause & results from available human resources & funds.
The government had announced a plan to develop 30,000 GrAMs – village level produce aggregation, preconditioning and dispatch hubs - on the existing land parcels designated for local haats. It also declared that each of these GrAMs would be provided road links vide its rural road development program (PMGSY). Incidentally, these GrAMs are also part of the Rs. 103 lakh crore National Infrastructure Pipeline of the Indian Govt.

The novel coronavirus has brought to fore the need for modern hospitals at rural level, albeit smaller than the 1000 to 5000 bedders in cities. Here too, with construction workers having returned to villages, such necessary development work can be commenced.
The govt. has to spend to provide income to the vast workforce that is currently made bereft due to the pandemic.
The MNREGA program, which guarantees employment, could now include harvesting and post-harvest works on farms. This is going to be important as in many districts, the fields are ready for harvest and await tending. Often, labour cost is touted as a restrictive burden on farming enterprises. Though only a miniscule piece when compared to final value realised on the produce, here is the chance to share some of that cost under MNREGA.

Such works undertaken in rural spaces, will allow more easy compliance in terms of physical distancing. Crop harvesting can be done with 10 feet distance between field workers, the construction of hospitals, GrAMs and linking roads can be easily spaced out.

Lastly, and reiterating from perspective of food - an essential need of the highest priority after water - all those who are not involved in the production and delivery of food are non-productive, and merely a burden on agriculture. In fact, as I have frequently professed, there is no urban living, no technological frills, no developed smart world, no subtle arts or sciences - no living, without direct and assured link with agriculture.
Modern society cannot function without food for the people, fodder for livestock and feedstock for industries.
In this pandemic, food supply became number one priority, and no amount of money doled out into bank accounts would serve any purpose if agricultural supply chain and the involved logistics fails. The next looming predicament is food shortage, if the agricultural sector cannot function. The same applies globally, and many countries that used to import the bulk of their food stand concerned. Money cannot always guarantee food when the supply chain is disrupted.

Currently, national priorities will have to be revaluated, necessarily focusing first on employment generation for an idle workforce, investing capital where resource use efficiency in agricultural sectors gets enhanced, and of course in health services. The private industrial and services sectors will also do well by revisiting any diversification plans.

In India, many and various recommendations to modernise agricultural logistics, which is the backbone on which food supply chains, remain unattended. These must be implemented, for long term wealth creation in rural areas. The gross capital formation in this course, will serve the betterment, empowerment and welfare of those who are the lion's share of India.
The pain and suffering the world has gone through, should not be a wasted learning.
Civilization is reaching a tipping point. Hereafter, agriculture will regain its lost glory, geo-political & geo-strategic strengths will include agricultural prowess, agricultural real estate will be prime and a producer will be the most favoured citizen. All this, will happen, over the coming two decades.

Often we speak of start-up India and stand-up India - maybe ignoring the fact that India is mostly rural. The time is right to Start-up Rural India.

Farm-to-fork delivery models, post-harvest services, secondary agricultural activities, cottage scale and village scale business models, rural entrepreneurs and social enterprises... all must be facilitated and fostered.

It is time to support rural communities in India to have them stand tall and shine!

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