Impact of Covid-19 Lockdown in North-Bengal

Surajit Das & Sabarni Chowdhury

To understand the impact of Covid-19 lockdown on common people of North-Bengal, mostly in Siliguri and Malda (some in Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and Naxalbari), we have made 50 phone calls during the first half of June covering total of 218 people including the family members of the respondents. We have covered respondents from various occupational backgrounds like tea-seller, rickshaw-puller, autorickshaw-driver, tea-shop owner, domestic-help, shop-keeper, plumber, electrician, barber, tailor, driver, cook, fish-fruit-flower vendors, dancer, garment shop owner, restaurant and resort owners, travel agent, NGO worker, school and college teacher, bus owner, beautician, garment shop owner, wall painting laborer, motor vehicle agent and so on. We also have contacted 11 migrant workers, who used to work as construction and pipeline workers in Tumkur district of Karnataka and recently have come back to their native places. 30% of the respondents belong to the per capita monthly income class of Rs.1200 to below Rs.3000, 40% belongs to Rs. 3000 to Rs.5000 per capita income category and the rest 30% belongs to the per capita monthly income class of above Rs.5000 in our sample under considerations.

There are 11 female, 38 male and 1 transgender respondents aged between 20 to 62 years. There are 8 families from the scheduled castes, 6 families from other backward classes, 10 families from Muslim backgrounds, 1 family from Christian background and the rest 25 families belonging to the Hindu general category. 11 respondents are graduates and above qualified, 8 of them did not attend school at all, 23 of them went to the school but, could not pass the secondary examination (10th standard) and the rest 8 of them are secondary or higher secondary pass. The average family size is around 4.4 in our sample – family size varies from 2 to 9 and the number of earning members varies from 1 to 3 in our sample households. One transgender person lives alone and works in an NGO. There are 19 families (38%) with women earning members. There are 20 families with single earning member and the rest of the families in our sample are with two or three earning members. There is one family of two women with single female earning member – she is a dancer from Cooch Behar district with an average monthly earning of Rs.20000.

Daily wage earners are the worst affected due to unavailability of work during the lockdown period. Their incomes came down to zero during April-May period. Electricians, plumbers etc. could not earn anything as they were not being called due to fear of spreading. Street-food vendors were affected the most as they could not open their shops at all. In our sample, one respondent who had a small tea-shop could not earn anything in April and as he was the sole earner of the family, he had to change his occupation to fish selling. Fish, fruit and flower sellers were not that badly affected, though their incomes reduced than before. Another industry which, got seriously affected due to Coronavirus is the tourism industry. The people working in hotels, travel agents and even restaurant and resort owners have said that they may not earn anything for at least next one year. In case of people who earn only by doing private tuition to students said that for the first month of the lockdown their income fell massively as in the first month the system of online teaching did not start properly but after that they recovered with slightly reduced income. The migrant workers who have come back, most of them do not want to go back outside again due to the grim experience they encountered at their work place during the pandemic.

The most serious impact of lockdown is that of fall in income and its effect on the expenditure of the families. For the poorer 30% sample households, due to the lockdown, the income has become just one-fourth of their pre-lockdown income, on an average (see graph below). For the relatively richer 30% households, the average income has become around one-third due to the Covid-19 lockdown. As far as the expenditures are concerned, the monthly expenditure remained more or less the same for the poorer 70% households and it has become 90%, on an average, for the rest 30% families, due to the lockdown. The poorer people consume mostly the essentials with their subsistence level of expenditure, which is difficult to cut down even after sudden fall in income during this lockdown period. Almost one-third of the respondents (16 out of 50 respondents) have reported increase in their indebtedness during this period – others could manage somehow with their past savings. Average savings rate for the richer 30% was 34%, that for the middle 40% was 14% and that for the poorer 30% was only 8%, on an average, before the lockdown.

Source: Survey Data.

Overall, there is a sense of job-insecurity and income uncertainty among the people – only 10 respondents (one-fifth) out of 50 have said that their income would not reduce during next 6 months. 4 of the respondents have told that they will not earn anything at all, at least for the next 3 to 6 months. 18 respondents have said that they have no idea about their future income and the rest 18 respondents have told us that their income will fall drastically, for sure. As high as 70% of the respondents were of the opinion that there is an urgent need of some urban employment guarantee scheme by the Government. Ten rural poor respondents already had MGNREGS job cards in our sample.

In this time of distress, the government schemes are hardly reaching the poor and needy people at the ground level. In our sample, 29 respondents (i.e. 58%) of total 50 respondents have not got free ration even after 2 months of announcement of PM Garib Kalyan Yojana. Only 5 respondents have received money in the Jan-Dhan account of their family members and only 2 of the respondents have got free gas cylinder during the months of April and May as per the promise made by the union government in the month of March. From peoples’ point of view, it does not matter whether the state government or the Centre or the local-bodies, however, the government must pay attention to the proper implementation of the already announced schemes.

We also inquired about the health issues and it was found that 13 families (out of 50) had suffered from health-related problems, apart from Covid-19, during the lockdown period and all of them had difficulty in treatment. In some cases, there were problems in getting regular treatments as people were scared to go to hospitals to meet the doctors. Sometimes, the doctors also refused to meet any patients in fear of infection.

We also asked respondents about their expectations from the government. Three major demands that are coming out vividly, mainly from the poorer 75% of the respondents, are for free ration, jobs and cash transfer. Most of them have suggested that there is a need of employment of last resort programme in the urban areas. There is demand for cash transfer to compensate for their income loss and also demand for proper credit and reduction in tax to restart the small-businesses. Special attention to be given to the tourism sector as many people are dependent on this for their livelihood and there is very little chance for this sector to revive in the near future. The school teacher has reported that most of the children comes from poorer background and they could not attend the online class. The bus-owner has suggested that there should be reduction in the fuel tax rate. The transgender person has talked about vulnerability of this community under the current pandemic. There is a mixed opinion about the lifting of lockdown – some have opined that the lockdown should be continued, some have said that it should be lifted gradually. Many of them felt that the lockdown was unplanned, which caused major problems for them. There is a clear demand for better health infrastructure from the government and that for the testing facilities free of cost. Hope, the government would listen to the people and try to address their demands soon!

Surajit Das teaches Economics at JNU and Sabarni Chowdhury is Research Fellow at NIPFP