Coronavirus lockdown and lack of bank access in rural regions forcing people to take loans for grains, medicines

With a stricter lockdown and a complete ban on public transport, the farmers and agricultural labourers are unable to access the banks. With the village borders sealed, now they can’t access their savings.

Sanket Jain April 17, 2020 10:26:29 IST
Coronavirus lockdown and lack of bank access in rural regions forcing people to take loans for grains, medicines

Vandana Sonawane can’t resonate with the silence that has set in. A system that exploited her labour for several years ensured that she didn’t slow down, and it just got worse. An agricultural labourer in her mid-40s, Vandana lost 300 hours of work in a month that could have fetched her Rs 6,000.

An extended lockdown till 3 May will steer the growth of losses exponentially for her. How? The answer lies in Vandana’s escalated tensions of finding medicines for her husband, Suresh, 54, who lost his vision to diabetes three years ago.

Fearing the lockdown, Vandana borrowed Rs 1,000 from a farmer. “He’ll cut it later from my pay,” she informs. This repayment translates to 50 hours of back-breaking labour in the 39-40 degrees Celsius heat of Kolhapur.

Immediately after the lockdown was enforced on the 25 March, she used Rs 800 to buy her husband’s medicines and ration from the Vadgaon town in Hatkanangle (5 km from her hamlet Dhakale in Bhadole village of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district) for her family of three.

Suresh had to voluntarily retire three years ago from his job at The Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) in Mumbai because of visual impairment. The family’s orange coloured ration card hasn’t been transferred to the village jurisdiction yet which has deprived them of the social security schemes. “We are now left with two days of medicines, and I don’t know who will lend us money,” says Vandana, tensed.

Coronavirus lockdown and lack of bank access in rural regions forcing people to take loans for grains medicines

One of the 108 houses in the Dhakale hamlet of Bhadole village

The monthly diabetes medicines cost about Rs 350. In the first week of April, a private charitable trust had donated a grain kit (3 kg rice, 3 kg wheat flour, 1 kg sugar, 1 kg oil, and 1 kg dal). That eased her troubles for a few days, but now in less than five days, she will run out of ration supply.

Her son, Akshay Sonawane, 20, who dropped out after primary schooling, works as an assistant cleaner in an automobile servicing centre in Vadgaon town. For eight hours of work daily, he gets Rs 1,200 monthly – an average of Rs 6 an hour – miles away from the national minimum wage.

Akshay, like his mother Vandana, has been rendered unemployed from 22 March and their dreams of returning to normalcy have been extended now. “I don’t know when will I get to go to the servicing centre,” he says anxiously on call.

Majority of the people in the Dhakale hamlet, that has 108 households with a population of about 600, work as agricultural labourers. The community members were displaced from their village in the Shahudwadi taluka in Kolhapur to the Hatkanangle taluka in the late 1980s and early 1990s, owing to the Chandoli National Park project. Three decades after the forceful displacement, the community members are yet to receive their compensation and the land.

Every day at least 70 women leave for fields at 7 am and return only by six in the evening. “We go far off to the villages of Bavda taluka (Kolhapur district) and Palus taluka (Sangli district),” says Vandana.

One amongst the 70 women is Asha Sonawane, who assumes to be in her early 60s. For the past two weeks, Asha is finding it difficult to deal with the ‘unusual’ dizziness. It all started after she skipped the diabetes medicines for four days. In the past month, she could work for 10 days that fetched her Rs 2,000, but ever since the Janata curfew on 22 March, her savings exhausted.

Asha’s husband, Maruti Sonawane, 70, who suffers from blood pressure, can’t afford to skip medicine even for a day. After more than two decades of service in Mumbai’s BEST, he retired as a carpenter and gets a monthly pension of Rs 1,500. This amount gets transferred directly to his Bank of India account that has the nearest branch in the Vadgaon.

Maruti’s legs aren’t as strong as they were in his younger days. His only resort – an autorickshaw that charges Rs 180 back and forth for Vadgaon. “Because of curfew and strict lockdown, there’s no public transport available, and they don’t give the pension amount to anyone else,” he says. His pension helps in buying the medicines for both him and his wife.

After a patient was tested positive for Coronavirus in Vadgaon on 27 March, the police had barred all the movement enforcing a much stricter lockdown.

After four days of skipping the medicine, Maruti collapsed in the earlier days of April. All this while, his middle son, Vishal, 30 and daughter, Alka, 34, were trying to reach the bank but were met with, long queues, police brutality, and as fate would have it,  national holidays. Somehow, both managed to reach the bank, withdrew the money from their savings, and bought a month’s supply of medicine worth Rs 700 for their parents.

Maruti hasn’t yet been able to withdraw his March’s pension yet and hopes for a more ‘humane’ lockdown.
Like Vandana’s family, even Asha’s family has an orange ration card, and while it has been transferred to their current residence, they can't get the ration. “We don’t get a ration, and the officers say that the card hasn’t been renewed yet,” says Vishal. He has tried getting it done several times but has failed for reasons unknown.

On 12 April, when he went to the ration shop (Bhadole village) to claim the 5 kg free rice that the Government had announced both for yellow and saffron cardholders per person, he was informed that they will only get it in the next month.

They then had to bring 5 kg wheat (Rs 32 per kg), 5 kg rice (Rs 28 per kg), one kg oil for Rs 120 from Vadgaon. Vishal alleges that the grocery stores there have increased the price by Rs 5-10 per kg for grains and oil.

“Even today I feel a bit dizzy,” says Maruti. Due to a strict ban on transportation, he can’t consult a doctor to douse his dizziness.

Jean Dreze, a renowned economist and social scientist, recently wrote in The Indian Express, “Last year, in June (when the stocks normally peak), foodgrain stocks crossed 80 million tonnes — more than three times the buffer-stock norms. This year, they have reached a staggering 77 million tonnes in March, before the rabi harvest, when food stocks typically rise by another 20 million tonnes or so. Public food storage on this scale has never happened in India before. Meanwhile, the shadow of hunger looms large as the lockdown devastates people’s livelihoods.”

Coronavirus lockdown and lack of bank access in rural regions forcing people to take loans for grains medicines

A lane in Khochi village that was ravaged by the 2019 August floods

Before the lockdown, Swati Gaikwad planned to repay Rs 25,000 loan she sought from the women’s self-help group in her village Khochi. With the loan’s aid, 25-year-old Swati had bought a noodles machine for Rs 30,000 and started her small venture in the village in January.

During these months, the noodles reach a higher demand in the villages (March, April, and May). “Every month (during the season) I used to get Rs 10,000-15,000 from the noodles,” she says. Because of the lockdown, she’s unable to buy the raw materials and now worries about paying the amount with an interest of 2 percent.

Her husband, who works as a clerk in a pathsanstha (co-operative credit society) in the Vadgaon town – gets a monthly salary of Rs 6,000. With the lockdown in place, he now goes on duty thrice a week from 11 am to 2 pm. “Maybe that’s the reason they didn’t pay his last month’s salary,” she says. He’s waiting for the salary to be transferred as they don’t have a ration card. “We tried for several months, but because of a few missing documents, we were never given a ration card,” she says.

With lesser people in her village offering the money, she then had to borrow Rs 3,000 from one of her neighbour friends in the village for ration and everyday essentials for her family of four. Swati now faces more troubles with the extension in the lockdown.

Babaso Kunale, 45, had never imagined that his family would have to take a loan for buying grains. Troubles stiffened for him after his March’s salary of Rs 13,000 wasn’t credited. For the past four months, he’s been working as a supervisor at a factory in the Hatkanangle MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation).

He now fears that his April’s salary will also be delayed. “After the lockdown was declared, I asked the factory owner to lend some money. He refused, saying it’s recession time,” he says on phone. Running out of sources to borrow money, his wife Sindutai stepped in and took a loan of Rs 4,000 (in the last week of March) from the Bachat Gat (Women’s Self-Help-Group) at a 2 percent interest rate that she has to repay within a year. With this amount, the Kunale family brought the monthly ration from a private grocery shop in the Khochi village.

Babaso, who has an orange ration card, is eligible for 20-kilogram free rice (5 kgs per family member). “To avoid any gathering, every day, the village authorities give a (ration) token to 50 members, and they then collect the ration the next day,” he says. It will take another 5 days for him to get the grains, he estimates.

Last year during the August flood his one-acre sugarcane (60 tonnes) was completely destroyed. He has now cultivated bhuimug (groundnut) on this farm and hopes for ‘better produce’.

Swati talks about the crisis that has already begun to affect her and several villagers, “Vyaaz denyasathi paise nahi (There’s no money to pay the loan’s interest).”

All images courtesy of the author.

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