How is Covid-19 playing out in rural India?

HS Shylendra | Updated on May 25, 2020

Even if the incidence of infection is not high in rural areas, its affect on rural-urban migration has debilitated livelihoods

Even as India has reached a new level in Covid-19 with over one lakh positive cases, there is no clear idea yet on the incidence of the disease in the rural areas. Irrespective of any such incidence, rural areas have also come to bear a major brunt of the lockdown imposed since March 25. With hordes of migrants returning to rural areas, there could be the double-whammy of the spread of Covid-19 and the worsening of the socio-economic situation. The large-scale reverse migration that has been witnessed under the duress of lockdown is an unprecedented tragedy which needs to be understood well.

Rural incidence

Before assessing the impact of the lockdown, let’s look at the prevailing incidence of Covid-19 in rural areas, as can be discerned from official sources. The top five Covid-19 cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Pune and Chennai alone account for nearly 53 per cent of India’s cases. If the other towns/cities from elsewhere are clubbed with these, urban areas would account for an overwhelming proportion of Covid-19 so far.

With regard to rural areas specifically, the official data of States like Maharashtra and Karnataka give some clues. In Maharashtra, the leading Covid-19 State with over one-third of the cases, 27 municipal corporations contributed about 94 per cent of the cases. Villages and small towns put together accounted for only 6 per cent. Similarly, in Karnataka, all cities and towns contributed 92 per cent of the State’s cases, with rural areas showing a share of 8 per cent.

The story seems to be similar across other States, with rural areas accounting for only a small share in the number of Covid-19 cases reported. We should note here that the number of tests done so far is relatively low in rural areas, which may be partly concealing the true incidence. With relaxation in the lockdown and the return of migrants, there could be some reversal of the scenario.

Reverse migration

While the lockdown has affected broadly three kinds of activities in rural areas — viz agriculture and allied activities, local non-farm sectors and rural-urban migration — it is migration that has been severely affected. According to the Working Group on Migration (2017), about 28.3 per cent of the total workforce is constituted by migrants, many of whom hail from vulnerable rural areas. As rural-urban migration has become a key source of income and employment for many, the lockdown-induced loss could have a severe impact on rural livelihoods.

Though the overall impact of lockdown will unfold over months, we can also make an assessment of it based on the past evidence. For this we looked at two aspects: the magnitude of rural-urban migration, including the extent of income and employment obtained; and the reach of the relief measures which can mitigate the consequences. Micro-level primary data has been relied upon here, which was collected from two diverse villages — a tribal village (Dahod district) and a non-tribal village (Surendranagar district) — in Gujarat. The data was collected as part of a larger study done in 2019 on rural livelihoods in the semi-arid areas of Gujarat. Even though Gujarat is a State with relatively higher rates of economic growth, the hinterlands exhibit a significant level of migration.


Impact on migration

Incidentally, the two study villages have so far not reported any Covid-19 cases, but have felt the pinch of its economic impact. Telephonic interactions in the post-lockdown period revealed that though agricultural output has remained fairly stable, income from rural-urban migration has suffered significantly. An indication of the extent of impact is provided by the following findings from the 2019 survey:

About 87 per cent of the households in the tribal village and 45 per cent in the non-tribal village relied on migration. Even female members migrated in a significant proportion of households — 67 per cent in tribal village and 31 per cent in nontribal village. On an average, 2.9 persons in the tribal and 1.1 persons in the non-tribal village resorted to migration. Migration generated 119 and 229 days of per capita employment in these two villages, respectively.

Migrants are mostly involved in various kinds of unskilled and semi-skilled activities as casual labourers in the private sector of the cities and towns of Gujarat. Ahmedabad and Surat are the two major destinations, especially for the tribals. Construction accounted for 87 per cent of the total employment for the tribal migrants, while non-tribals work in diverse sectors as factory workers, loaders, sweepers and plumbers, including through self-employment.

On an average, migration helped households earn annually ₹1.34 lakh in the tribal village and ₹1.68 lakh in the non-tribal village. This constituted about 69 per cent and 38 per cent of the total income of the households in these two villages, respectively. Summer is a major season for migration. Coming as it did in the middle of the summer, the lockdown would have squeezed a significant share of the income and employment of migrants, leaving them in lurch.

The miserable living conditions in cities also played a compelling role in their desperate return. Nearly 90 per cent of the migrants from the tribal village live in open spaces or work sites; while 67 per cent of the non-tribals live in rented houses. With neither work, income nor assured food, living in cities became unsustainable. Hence we see the exodus of migrants seeking village succour.

Outreach of relief

Given such acute distress, what could be the impact of the Central government’s Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) announced post-lockdown? We made an assessment of the potential outreach of PMGKY schemes in the two villages. Chart 2 depicts the proportion of households reached or eligible during 2018-19 under PMGKY.


A wide variation can be seen across schemes. An essential scheme like the PDS had only a limited reach. Those having PDS access even complained about many hassles in obtaining rations. Schemes with direct transfers like the PMKSY and the PMJDY show a higher outreach, and could be helpful during the crisis. A little over 40 per cent of the people who have institutional loans can avail the benefit of loan moratorium. The reach of MGNREGA and SHGs is very dismal. Being a wage-employment programme, MGNREGA can play a crucial role. As panchyats are unable to organise work, MGNREGA has almost become defunct despite widespread migration.

Similarly, the lower outreach of SHGs may not help the needy access higher loans promised under the PMGKY to revive local livelihoods. Given such bottlenecks, the overall impact of the PMGKY could be limited to cope with the distress.

To conclude, while as a disease Covid-19 has remained largely confined to the cities, as a social phenomenon, it has caused widespread damage even in rural areas. The reversal of rural-urban migration is one of the major impacts experienced by vulnerable groups. It may even affect the demographic situation in villages during the next Census, depending on how long the impact plays out. There is a need for broad-basing the outreach of the relief schemes along with making their working effective. The allocation for MGNREGA has to be increased substantially. The official agencies should also publish Covid-19 data by rural-urban classification.

The writer is professor at the Institute of Rural Management-Anand. Views are personal

Published on May 25, 2020

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