Bhabasmita Sahu (32), runs a small grocery shop at Karakachia panchayat in Khunta administrative block under Mayurbhanj district. Her village is about 300 kilometers from Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar. The pandemic induced lockdowns in 2020 weakened her business as she was forced to close her shop for over six months as per the lockdown protocols issued by the state government.
“Lockdown was like a nightmare for us,” recalled Bhabasmita Sahu. “We don’t have agricultural land. Our only source of income comes from this shop. And since we were not able to open the shop for long, much of our stocks were spoiled. The loss was unbearable.” Her husband is a seasonal farmer.
Sahu is not the only one to have faced such a crisis. Pramila Sahoo who owns a shop at Karakachia panchayat also sails in the same boat. “We had taken loans to purchase new stocks just a week before the lockdown was announced,” said Pramila Sahoo. “During the lockdown we had no income. And the money lender used to visit our house to claim his interest.” She has one son and two daughters; her husband is a farmer.
The situation of Bhabasmita Sahu and Pramila Sahoo mirror tens of hundreds of rural women entrepreneurs in Mayurbhanj district. They have disproportionally suffered from the socio-economic hardships amidst the pandemic.
Even after the withdrawal of lockdown, the situation remained challenging to resume business. Rama Chandra Dalai, livelihood development coordinator, Odisha Livelihood Mission (OLM), Khunta, said, “Majority of the women reported that they were stressed because of low sales, poor market demand, limited mobility, lack of alternative income sources and virtually no safety nets.”
The Odisha government launched the COVID-19 Assistance Package (CAP) with a budget of Rs 500 crore on 26 August, 2020, to aid the poor and the vulnerable communities amidst the coronavirus crisis. CAP’s aim was to restore livelihood by strengthening existing rural enterprises, revive them and ensure their smooth operation by providing access to financial resources.
The program was implemented by OLM in collaboration with the Panchayati Raj and Drinking Water Department, Government of Odisha. CAP’s priority target groups include those below poverty line, those belonging to scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and particularly vulnerable tribal groups, single woman-headed households, transgenders, differently-abled persons, the elderly and self-help groups (SHGs).
Support for migrants
“A total of 10,07,330 migrant workers returned to Odisha between March 2020 and October 2020,” said Ajay Kumar Nayak, district project manager, OLM, Baripada, Mayurbhanj.
“We have provided employment assistance to migrants under CAP which has been implemented through various government schemes and programs like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Yojana (DDUGKY), Urban Wage Employment Initiative (UWEI) and Mission Shakti,’’ added Nayak.
“Under CAP, we have distributed Rs 908.27 lakh to 1,176 skilled and semi-skilled Odia migrant returnees,” said Aprajit Das, industrial promotion officer, Khunta. “A total of 7.73 lakh migrants have been employed under the MGNREGS from April 2020 to December 2020. This has produced 15.57 crore person-days of work.”
The CAP has provided financial assistance amounting to Rs 131.63 crore to 51,443 rural entrepreneurs, to revive and sustain their enterprises. About 90% of these beneficiaries are rural and tribal women.
In Khunta, the impact has been remarkable as CAP has substantially reduced households’ vulnerabilities by restoring the livelihood of over 500 rural women entrepreneurs by providing timely financial assistance. Majority of these women are the primary bread winners of their family and play a key role in ensuring their household food security.
“OLM gave us Rs 40,000 in October 2020, to revive our shop,” said Bhabasmita Sahu. “Now, we have procured new stocks. And customers are visiting our shop more often. We have earned around Rs 10,000 as a profit in the past three months.”
Pramila Sahoo also received Rs 40,000 from OLM in November 2020. “It has helped our business to get back on track once again. Our shop has adequate stocks now. And in the last two months, we have earned a profit of about Rs 8,200. We have used part of this income to repay our old debt.”
Women and rural economy
Sasmita Pandit who works as a master bookkeeper (MBK) with OLM in Chandpur panchayat narrated the process of various capacity building programs organized under the CAP program. “We have provided financial training to all the women entrepreneurs,” she said. “Top priority was given on judicious use of financial assistance. We have also encouraged a culture of financial saving amongst the women.”
“CAP has given a new ray of hope among the women entrepreneurs,” Babita Patra, MBK, Basipitha panchayat, said. “Earlier they were in deep distress. But now they are equipped with financial capital. Gradually, they are bouncing back.”
“There is a need to provide subsidized loans for small enterprises headed by women SHGs,” Manas Ranjan Samal, block development officer, Odisha Administrative Service, Khunta, said. “Providing access to inclusive credit facilities could revive the rural economy in the era of COVID-19 pandemic.’’
While highlighting the important role tribal women play in their household economy, Saraswati Marandi, the sarpanch of Basipitha panchayat said, “Women are the backbone of their household’s food and nutritional securities. And the pandemic crisis has weakened their income sources. They need assistance or else they may further slip into the vicious cycle of poverty.”
“Women should play a key role in the response and recovery programs to effectively mitigate a crisis like the COVID-19,” said Srinibas Das, block livelihood development manager, OLM, Khunta. “We need to promote innovative business models which will help women entrepreneurs cope with their economic losses.”
Abhijit Mohanty is a Delhi-based development professional. He has worked extensively with the indigenous communities in India and Cameroon. Views are personal.