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Financial Hardship

Pandemic pushes impoverished villagers into further debts

With income from marginal landholdings and rain-fed agriculture unable to sustain them, tribal communities migrate for work to clear loans. Pandemic has pushed them into perpetual debts

Lack of employment and poverty force villagers to borrow from local money lenders, pushing them into perpetual debts (Photo by Rinku Kumar Meena)

In Kushalgarh administrative block in Banswara district of Rajasthan, perpetual cycles of indebtedness prompt tribal communities to migrate to cities in Gujarat and Maharashtra for work. Without adequate income they are compelled to take loans from private money lenders at exorbitant rates to meet the expenses of basic needs and healthcare.

In a region plagued with rural distress and where governance structures are usurped by the local might of influential community representatives, tribal migrant workers endure a life of incessant anxiety and anguish. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they find their hardships further exacerbated.

Never-ending debts

Satya, a resident of Timeda village in Kushalgarh block is a seasonal migrant laborer who works in the construction sector in Gujarat’s cities like Surat and Baroda. The family comprises his wife, two children from his deceased first wife and a step daughter.

The family’s 1.5-acre landholding is suited for growing rice and corn. The total post-monsoon yield of both these crops is about 500 kg. The family uses one third of the yield for their own consumption, one third for the cattle, and they sell the rest. The income from the sale of the produce is enough only to buy the basic rations for the family.  

Hence, Satya’s life is characterized by an endless cycle of indebtedness. Borrowed for his weddings and those in the family besides for other rituals, over the last 15 years he has accumulated several debts, some of which he managed to clear only last year.

With marginal landholdings and rain-fed agriculture, tribal communities’ farm income is sufficient only to meet the basic needs (Photo by Rinku Kumar Meena)

Borrowing large sums of money has meant that he has had to pay these debts by migrating for work. Satya and his son migrate to Gujarat, and work there for eight months. As skilled workers, each earns Rs 30,000 during this 8-month period. Work, and hence wages, has been scarce during the pandemic.

Satya and his wife left for Baroda at the end of 2019 to clear the loan of Rs 12,000 borrowed for his daughter’s wedding. When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, the couple remained in the city with the hope that work would soon be available.

When there was no work, they trudged back to their village on foot, dodging police harassment. In the meanwhile, the money lender had picked up two of their goats to cover the debt. He also claimed that Satya owed Rs 20,000 including interest. Fearing the money lender’s threats, Satya and his son went to Ahmedabad the moment the lockdown was partially eased.

Rural distress

Satya’s story is similar to that of thousands in Kushalgarh. Money lending is a predominant practice, essentially because of Banswara’s poor human development. Plagued by rural distress, a frail welfare system, poor to non-existent employment opportunities and lack of access to financial services like kisan credit card (KCC) loans, the tribes borrow money at exorbitant interest rates for all their needs.

Expenses for weddings, funerals, other festivities and customary rituals intrinsic to the local geography are a major reason why people take loans. Subsequently, debt becomes a major reason for migration. Perhaps it is fair to say that indebtedness is at the heart of people’s struggle for survival.

With marginal landholdings and rain-fed agriculture, tribal communities’ farm income is sufficient only to meet the basic needs (Photo by Rinku Kumar Meena)

Work opportunities under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) are seldom available to tribal communities who are geographically and socially distanced from upper caste community representatives.

Because upper caste people are often in control of work and wage distribution in the scheme. On an average, work is available for 100 days at a maximum wage of Rs 220 a day, which is insufficient for workers with large families.

Under-developed Banswara

The reasons why people like Satya find themselves in this never-ending predicament of indebtedness and migrate to cities is clear from the statistics of Banswara district. It has the highest concentration of tribal communities (76%) in the state of Rajasthan. Within Banswara, Kushalgarh and Sajjangarh blocks have 88% and 85% tribes respectively.

The average literacy for women in rural areas is 24%. Meanwhile, according to a report by Rajasthan’s department of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, 50% of the district’s rural population lives below poverty line. Banswara is also the only district in the region from where entire families migrate. Women constitute 35% of the total workforce that migrates to neighboring states for work.

Banswara’s geography is predominantly rural. Agriculture is largely rain fed and therefore seasonal, which is tied to the seasonality of migration: workers return from cities during the harvest season. However, the prospects of earning through agriculture are negligible for people like Satya. 61% households in the region have marginal landholdings, and so a majority cannot rely on agriculture for their household income.

Violence against women too is high in the district. In Kushalgarh, the local administration is run by influential community representatives who flout legal procedures. On the rare occasion that victims, who are almost always tribal, file complaints, the tribes as well as the police coerce them into reaching a compromise with the accused through out-of-court monetary settlements.

Lack of health care

COVID-19 has brought further misery to the tribal communities. Between the second week of April and end of June, COVID-19 infection was widespread in Banswara and Kushalgarh blocks. More than 50% of the panchayats in Kushalgarh block where Aajeevika and its partner organizations work reported numerous cases. Many households lost at least one member to coronavirus.

The disease spread rapidly when most migrant returnees were without income, and hence unable to afford treatment. At the district level, Banswara has one major public hospital, which is severely ill-equipped. At the block level, there is a diagnostic center, a maternity / child care center and an emergency care center.

Tribes’ mistrust of the insufficient public health care system in remote blocks makes them rely on quacks who charge high fees (Photo by Rinku Kumar Meena)

The tribes avoid these facilities. There’s widespread mistrust and lack of faith in the public health care system, not just because of poor infrastructure but also owing to mistreatment and negligence by hospital staff towards migrant communities.

Most people rely on either local remedies or quick adhoc diagnostics provided by quacks. These self-proclaimed, uncertified medical professionals who run their private dispensaries were originally settlers from Bengal. Over the years local people too have begun to indulge in the profession.

The quacks’ formidable presence in the block has helped them garner the community’s trust rather rapidly regardless of what they charge, the kind of medicines they dispense or whether they are qualified to diagnose and treat patients. They continue to charge high consultation fees in spite large scale unemployment and crises due to the pandemic.

Lurking fear

Satya and his son who went to Ahmedabad remained there after Rajasthan’s partial lockdown was announced. Their income has almost dropped to 50% during the pandemic. Satya’s wife is at their home in Timeda village.

Satya sends her money each month with which she is able to buy ration and other essentials. They have not been able to pay their previous debt Rs 20,000 and compounded interest, which is now likely to have increased considerably with cumulative interest.

For tribal families that migrate for work so as to clear debts, COVID-19 evokes fear as it would mean loss of income and an increase in debts (Photo by Rinku Kumar Meena)

Satya, who is barely able to make ends meet, has no idea how he will clear his debt, or whether it will continue to accumulate, perhaps becoming unpayable in his lifetime. Under the circumstances, if he or any of his family members catches the coronavirus, it would means an additional burden of treatment costs.   

For Satya, the word COVID evokes fear; not just for what the virus can do to his body, but what it can do to his earnings, and that of his family, and most of all to his constantly ascending debts. Satya’s is but just one of many such stories of a vicious cycle of poverty and debt.

Name changed to protect privacy.

Anhad Imaan and Jignesh Damor are associated with Aajeevika Bureau, Rajasthan. Views are personal. Email anhad.imaan@aajeevika.org