Protecting lives and livelihood under COVID-19

Image Courtesy: Salil Bera/The Week

As COVID-19 spreads, the government has already started to address the economic and livelihood challenges posed by the constraints the pandemic has put on behavior and employment. It is designing economic support measures to target the tens of thousands to millions of small businesses. These efforts intend to provide a lifeboat to help businesses survive the coming months, and importantly, to continue to cope with daily emergencies as normal economic life slows down at a disastrous pace. We have to take measures that will help cushion the impact of COVID-19 on employment.

Over the past two months of one of the world’s most stringent national lockdowns, civil society has quietly and steadfastly done what it does best. We have rallied, come together, and coordinated relief efforts across the length and breadth of the country. We have been right beside village-level institutions and communities, offering food and emergency supplies in the wait for government rations and schemes to reach the last mile. And once the lockdown ends, we will begin the much harder work of rehabilitation, reviving livelihoods and restoring the economic well- being of communities. It is a time when we will need creative approaches to make precious investments deliver the most optimum social and economic returns. Unless we take a socially equitable approach to this crisis — one that is concerned with social justice, community development, equity, human rights, and cultural sensitivities — we cannot mitigate the horrendous effects the virus will have on these vulnerable communities.

At a time when Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers and others on the frontline of the coronavirus fight is in huge demand, a village is Andhra Pradesh is producing thousands a day.

200 women of Lakkavaram village are producing masks, shoe covers and lab coats in bulk and supplying them to the state government. Each day, they produce 15,000 masks, 6,000 shoe covers and 5,000 lab coats. They make Rs 500 a day, at a time thousands have been left without jobs because of the nationwide shutdown.

The tailoring unit in the east Godavari region took an order from the state government to produce protective gear.

Madhavi’s father is a daily wage labourer. The family of five subsisted on his earnings, until he lost his job. The PPE unit is now her lifeline, she says.

Until a year ago, the tailoring unit was not functional until an NGO, ‘1M1B’ stepped in to revive its operations.

“Many daily wage workers have lost their jobs, these women already had the skills of stitching and tailoring. Most of these women are extremely poor and even their husbands have lost their jobs. So the women are not only earning, they are also providing PPEs for frontline workers,” said Manav Subodh, Founder, 1M1B (1 Million for 1 Billion).

According to Manav, “The women in the center are earning Rs.300 – Rs.500 a day, most of their husbands or fathers have lost their jobs and 80% of them belong to BPL families (below poverty line). So the tailoring unit has become a major source for their financial stability in the present crisis”. Over 240 women in this center have wok assurance for the next 4 months at least.

For units like this, the Andhra Pradesh government procured cloth – officials say the total length could cover the distance from India to the US — to get masks prepared by women attached to self-help groups across the state.

In these challenging times we need creative entrepreneurs who can design solutions to address the twin issues of lives and livelihood. Rural women self-help groups can play a critical role on this scenario and many of them are now in the vanguard of the movement for producing protective gears. These women are not just partners in the new swadeshi wave but are also keeping the engines of their economy moving. They are the prime bread earners of their families and are performing the difficult task of ensuring food security when millions of families are facing a looming hunger crisis.

Young innovators like Manav are empowering entrepreneurs to undertake social experiments, job creation and meaningful development in their communities.

1M1B Foundation is an initiative to inspire a million young leaders, educators and entrepreneurs to generate jobs that will create better lives for a billion people in the underserved communities. The idea was to empower entrepreneurs who would undertake social innovations, job creation and meaningful development in their communities so that each in turn would create jobs and more stable economic lives for a thousand more.

They visualised that a million entrepreneurs – spanning different geographies and sectors – can come up with the right solutions that can impact one billion people. Everyone, according to them, is a natural entrepreneur and can play a vital role in promoting resilience in their communities. They believe that with relatively simple and inexpensive tools we can put the needle on tough problems but interventions fail to reach the right person at the right time. Sharing them equitably across the world to maximise the impact is a big challenge. Addressing these and other burning social problems requires understanding and reframing them with a fresh view. It is here that entrepreneurs can come up with creative responses and tap the entrepreneurial energies of self-help group women.

Self -help groups are the conduit that link these rural women to mainstream financial institutions. The Self Help Group – Bank Linkage Programme is India’s main platform for credit supply to self-help groups. Today, the SHG-BLP grid has a total membership of 100.14 lakh groups (covering nearly 12 crore households) across India and having extended collateral-free loans of Rs.87,098 crore to 50.77 lakh SHGs as on March 31, 2019. It is interesting to note that more than 90 per cent of the SHG members are women.

By obtaining micro-finance, an SHG generally takes three to five years to mature and reach the stage of self-sustainability, graduating from consumption and low-productive activities to economic enterprises. However, some of the SHG members may not undertake entrepreneurship due to lack of motivation, viable business opportunities, managerial skills, technical knowhow, value addition to their products or services, financial literacy, adequate supply of credit, market linkages, etc. It is here that entrepreneurs like Manav are stepping in to fill the space. Manav believes that since India still live in its villages, the pandemic is an opportunity for us to look back where we all came from and create sustainable initiatives that will make our villages small hubs of economic activities

Across the country, from Bihar and Jharkhand to Kerala and Karnataka, close to 6.8 crore women have joined the fight against covid-19. They’re making face masks, running community kitchens, delivering essential supplies, sensitizing people about health and hygiene, and countering misinformation.

SHG members have sewn 54 million masks and produced 2.8 trillion litres of sanitizer in 13 states. More than 10,000 community kitchens have been set up by SHGs across the country to feed stranded workers and other vulnerable people.

About 190,000 WhatsApp groups with 2.2 million members have been formed to spread awareness about the dos and don’ts during the lockdown. They also run tele-counselling helplines, comforting women and children stuck at home in difficult situations, and also deliver food and medicine to the elderly.

These SHGs are on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19 and are setting a strong example of economic resilience during the pandemic. They are creating awareness in their own communities about new social norms like social distancing and hygiene protocols that include use of sanitizers, regular hand washing, use of face masks and other precautions in everyday lives.

First published in Countercurrents.