The Ripple Effect – How COVID-19 is changing rural India
Executive Vice President
Kantar, Insights Division
SUNANDINI PANDE RAY
Associate Vice President
Kantar, Insights Division
The advent of COVID-19 in India has widened the existing gap between urban and rural India.
While urban India went indoors, rural India devised its own ways to tackle the pandemic
Madhuri Chawan lives with six other family members in village of Pahur in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district. She likes to watch YouTube and chat on WhatsApp. Madhuri is worried about coronavirus and has kept soap outside her home so that anyone can wash their hands before entering the house. She has given a new cloth to her husband and he covers his face with that when he goes out for work in the fields. When he comes back home, she mixes a bit of Dettol in warm water and then soaks his clothes in it.
The India vs. Bharat debate is not new anymore, but it’s more relevant than ever with the advent of COVID-19 in India. During pre-lockdown days of the pandemic, when it was primarily restricted to urban India and only amongst incoming international travelers, there was a growing fear of spread into the vast hinterlands of rural Bharat. The concerns were both around lives and livelihoods, with special worry about rural communities’ healthcare infrastructure and dwindling income possibilities.
Based on our interactions with villagers across India as a part of a recent study, the disruption of nationwide lockdown brought things to a halt and gave rise to systemic shifts that have slowly rippled across rural India.
Ongoing systemic shifts for consumers in times of COVID -19 could alter the rural Indian consumer ecosystem for good
Improving hygiene and personal health, for so long a critical issue in rural India, gained overwhelming importance and focus with emphasis on usage of soaps, sanitizers, and household cleanliness products, as well as use of masks and coverings for the nose and mouth. Further, like their urban counterparts, rural Indians have shown heightened interest in immunity boosters, traditional practices, and home remedies - a shift from preventative to more proactive measures.
The burgeoning growth of digital media in rural India has been accelerated during the pandemic; rural consumers are relying more on digital platforms for activities such as information search, online social connections (replacing face to face interaction), entertainment, learning new things, and so on. Previous estimates had indicated that rural internet users were supposed to exceed 300 million in 2020, but actual numbers could far exceed that. There is also growing awareness regarding fake news and the need to filter news and information in this period.
Rural India has traditionally depended on localized institutions like gram panchayat or village police stations to run local administration. These have been transformed to be the centers for village community efforts for rallying together to help those in need e.g. (providing shelter and distributing food, medical support, and financial help).
Given the challenging economic conditions, there is an attempt at being self-driven and entrepreneurial. People are trying to identify ways to create new income sources and contribute value (such as making masks at home, selling vegetables, beauty parkours, tuitions/teaching, renting farm equipment, etc.). While some are taking these fledgling steps, significant challenges remain regarding awareness, skill development, and access to resources and finances. Managing daily life has been a struggle in rural India during these times as typical urban conveniences like proximity to medical facilities and marketplaces have been rare.
While for many, the overwhelming reaction initially has been of anxiety and panic, there were significant mentions of hope as well. In these turbulent times, there is a desire to look up to those in power and rally support for leaders who can give direction, sense of purpose and lead the community. This could also lead to the growth of tribalism - standing by and supporting each other within their own local community/village (as different from other districts, states, village vs. cities) could go hand in hand with the desire to stay isolated and protected.
As rural India adapts to a new normal, there is an opportunity to better meet the needs and address the challenges of the newly returned migrant workers
Madhuri is worried about the long-term situation. She believes that people in her village can manage for 1 – 2 months as they have their farming. Her brother plans to return home as his factory is shut and he is running out of his savings. For now, Madhuri is trying to earn some extra money by making papad and pickles but does not know how to sell them beyond her village.
Rural India’s initial response to COVID was further disrupted by the unprecedented return of the migrant worker to the Indian villages with an open question of whether the return is temporary or permanent.
Over the past few months, our interactions with recently returned migrant workers raised some poignant questions and existential challenges which is based on the Three Rs impacting rural-urban divide:
· (Perceived) Risks - Life in cities (especially for lower income migrant workers) is an everyday battle for survival. Many who chose to return home felt that it would be impossible to survive in brutal city conditions with no financial relief or medical support.
· (Promise of) Recovery - There is a feeling that returning to their home and community will allow them to be cocooned – that they could sustain themselves with the help of family and community.
· (Perception of) Refuge – It was felt that COVID-19 infection is spreading from cities to villages and hence villages can provide sanctuary. Government data indicates only around 10% of all COVID-19 cases came from rural areas
Madhuri reassures her panicking mother that the rakshashya will not come to their village. She knows that some of the villagers stand guard in night so that nobody from outside can get in. Madhuri feels dull in her village, she continues to social distance for now and frets that everything is going to be different from now on.
Is there an opportunity for rural India to be reborn?
For India to regain its growing economy, it must focus on developing rural India much more than ever before
As we are crossing the six-monthly period of COVID-19, the economic swing seems to be more led by increased rural demand (fueled by good monsoon and agricultural season). But the question remains how to ensure that the rural demand can be sustained.
With the newly returned migrants wanting to bridge the gap between the desired life of the city and the accessible life of the village, the question remains whether rapid structural reforms can be undertaken to strengthen Bharat:
- New-age agriculture: mechanization, technology, distribution
- New-age industrialization: development of industrial zones at district levels with infrastructure like water, electricity, roads, etc.
- New-age human settlements: “Rurban” clusters connecting proximate villages through infrastructure like highways, healthcare facilities, and educational institutes
- New-age consumer marketing: treating rural consumers not as secondary to their urban counterparts – with brands and products that are developed for their unique needs and demands