By Rahul Kumar
COVID-19 has affected the lives of millions of people in India. The situation in Bihar is no different. People working in the informal sector have lost their jobs. Small business activities such as street vending and auto rickshaw driving have completely stopped. The impact on agriculture and rural economy has been equally devastating. Employment opportunities for daily wage earners has reduced drastically and in the absence of funds, they are finding it difficult to make ends meet. Central and state governments have stepped in by transferring money into the bank accounts of farmers, labor, and migrant workers, and with distribution of food items through the Public Distribution System.
In addition to government efforts, civil society organizations, mainly nonprofit organizations, local business organizations, and mohalla/residential committees have started community kitchens, distributed PPE kits to health workers, and started preparing the gram panchayat for accommodating a huge number of migrants. S M Sehgal Foundation working in nearly sixty villages of Bihar, in Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi, Samastipur, and East Champaran, started holding discussions with community leaders and the sarpanch about relief that can be given to families in distress. Community leaders shared that rice and wheat has already been distributed by the government to a significant percentage of eligible villagers, so the provision of ration such as pulses, mustard oil, sugar, salt, soaps, and sanitizers to health workers and masks to the needy families would be very helpful. The Sehgal Foundation team moved into the project villagers and identified the families with the help of community leaders and the sarpanch.
Thereafter, pulses, mustard oil, sugar, and salt for needy families, and sanitizers and masks for health workers were procured. About 750 kits of dry food items, 2,500 sanitizers, and 30,000 masks were distributed in the villages of East Champaran and Muzaffarpur during May.
Experiences from the grassroots show the kind of distress the rural poor are facing and how even small support from some organizations can be of great help. Siya Devi, of Pakhnaha Shiuram village, Muzzafarpur district, says that her husband earned livelihood in Delhi by driving a car, and he has now returned from Delhi. Her family income has been reduced to zero as they have no other source of income. She is managing household expenses by purchasing food items on credit from a local grocery shop. But the grocery shop owner is no longer willing to give items on credit. She says food items from Sehgal Foundation helped her family a lot.
Kishori Devi, of Bariarpur village of Muzaffarpur district, runs her household with income from her son who is a mason. Due to lockdown, all construction stopped and her son can no longer find work. She says, “Food items from Sehgal Foundation have helped her in feeding the family somehow.”
Such efforts have been carried by hundreds of civil society organizations in the villages of Bihar, which have supplemented the efforts of government and provided relief to a large number of needy people in crisis. These efforts remain invisible in the context of huge announcements of mega packages by government and discussions around it. But these invisible actors with their own funds or community contributions are bringing relief to hundreds of villagers in rural Bihar.
(Rahul Kumar is Program Leader, Bihar state with S M Sehgal Foundation)