Ring-fencing Bharat

| Updated on May 16, 2021

The Centre and States must work together to combat the pandemic in rural areas   -  The Hindu

The second wave can badly hurt rural India and the economy, requiring pre-emptive measures

Even as overall test positivity rates dip and recoveries rise, the pandemic seems to be putting down firm roots in India’s hinterland. SBI’s Ecowrap finds that even as active cases in the worst-affected cities are declining, rural India is seeing an upsurge in new cases, accounting for 48.5 per cent of the case load in May against 36.8 per cent in March. This is indeed cause for worry. Even the best-equipped metros have struggled to cope with demand for testing facilities, oxygen supplies, essential drugs and critical care infrastructure. Rural India is woefully short of such facilities even in the best of times, housing just 37 per cent of government hospital beds and 20 per cent of doctors, despite being home to two-thirds of the population. Heading off a catastrophe in rural India thus calls for swift action from the Centre and States to scale up testing and contract-tracing, put up makeshift critical care facilities and re-orient oxygen and essential drug supplies before the situation becomes unmanageable.

The human impact apart, India can also ill-afford the economic fallout from a hit to rural incomes at this juncture. As the economy limped back last year, it was resilient rural demand for a range of goods from tractors to two-wheelers and cement to steel which cushioned the GDP and precipitated a tentative rebound. Should rural demand give way this time around, double-digit growth rates being projected in FY22 could turn out to be a mirage. While IMD’s prediction of a normal monsoon offers hope that the agriculture leg of GDP will sustain 2-3 per cent growth, this won’t be enough to keep the economy chugging. The fortunes of rural India today no longer hinge on the farm sector’s fortunes, with agriculture contributing less than 40 per cent to rural GDP and non-farm employment and remittances from the cities, being its mainstay.

Three sets of measures may help rural India weather the second wave of the pandemic with relative resilience. One, the Centre and the States need to act immediately to prevent the trickle of reverse migration from turning into an exodus. This time around, the Centre may need to flag off its income support schemes with informal workers in the cities, rather than farmers in villages. In this context, one hopes that work on the Aadhaar-seeded migrant worker registry kicked off last December is making good progress. Two, States implementing lock-downs need to minimise disruptions to the construction, retail and hospitality sectors, which employ most of the migrant workforce. To create productive employment in rural India, the Centre will need to step up allocations to rural-centric infrastructure schemes such as PM Aawas Yojana, Jal Jeevan and Gram Sadak Yojana. Allocation to MNREGA, which was slashed to ₹73,000 crore in the FY22 Budget (FY21 actuals of ₹1.11 lakh crore) may need shoring up again.

Published on May 16, 2021

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