Macro Economy

Tackling rural poverty needs more research and talent

John Paul May 27 | Updated on May 27, 2021

Programs like NRLM do not reach the bottom 5-10 per cent


The current string of lockdowns, necessitated by the second wave and rapid spread of Covid-19, has meant different things for different people. For those on the frontline, it means tireless and courageous work to educate, to vaccinate, to provide humanitarian relief and more. For those away from the frontline, it means caring for family and friends as well as doing their best to care for and support the vulnerable.

Away from the spotlight, the second wave has brought about distress to millions in rural India. While non-profits, who are spread across the country, are doing their best to help the poor, it has not been enough - especially for the ultra-poor who are invisible to the State and market. Ultra-poverty, even in normal times, means living well below bare minimum standards on most fronts; they eat less than 2 meals a day, they suffer even poorer nutrition, they earn & spend about ₹100 a member of family per week and barely save. They survive instead of living. And there are an estimated 70 million in India.

In the current situation, even their survival has become harder than ever. In our work in Jharkhand’s remotest villages, the weekly income of ultra-poor households dropped from ₹769 to ₹180. When we started working with them, their income was ~₹400-500 per week. Their already meagre savings of about ₹1,400 per household are fast depleting. About 50% of them reported fever, cold or cough but 80% have not done their testing. About 70% are unwilling to vaccinate because of a wave of fear. Their nutrition status improves with interventions like nutrition gardens, linkage to social security schemes and livelihood interventions. But during lockdown, only 30% reported eating vegetables, eggs or meat.

For the ultra-poor, a third wave without urgent intervention will spell disaster. Immediate solutions like MGNREGA, nutrition gardens, cash transfers can help some tide over the second wave, but with an uncertain future, we need long-term livelihood interventions which should be focused on three key areas; income, food and social security and health.

Currently, there are programs like the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) which have performed excellently for their target groups at scale, but even these have not yet reached the bottom 5-10 per cent. Poor assets mean the ultra-poor cannot participate in livelihood activities and often need dedicated and intense handholding on life and livelihood skills. Market-based solutions shy away from viewing them as clients and most often, the ultra-poor are located far away from markets and health facilities.

But there are some large scale initiatives focused on the ultra-poor, like the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty in Andhra Pradesh. We also have high hopes from the Targeting the Hardcore Poor program in Bihar by the Bihar State Rural Livelihood Mission. We need these programs to succeed and set an example for the country. The plan is simple. The ultra-poor are highly food insecure and so the program first provides 'breathing space' by ensuring food security and then offers a 'big push' - a substantial investment to kickstart and diversify livelihood activities. In parallel, building a safety net via social security schemes and intense hand holding gradually pulls the family out of ultra-poverty.

However, there is an intense need for scale and mapping of need. Research and pilot programs to showcase success are needed. The model needs to be contextualized and at the same time simplified for the government to adopt it and scale it. Most of all, we need talent and resources to solve this at scale - anyone who is excited by tough challenges and scale should join the movement. It is hard work and commitment too, to work in remote areas and persistence is key.

With a government that is ready to partner with NGOs in this effort, resources, the right design and a talent base committed for the long haul we can go a long way in securing the livelihoods of the ultra-poor especially in times of shocks.

The author is Director, rural development at The/Nudge Centre

Published on May 27, 2021

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