Dear friend of Indus Action,
I hope this letter finds you, your family and your colleagues in good health. As a millennial, the opening line was meant to be a banal formality. The last 100 days have upended that reality. By now, all of us have a personal narrative to share about how the pandemic has affected our loved ones in our first degree. All of us are facing losses of unimaginable proportion and I sincerely hope that YOU are finding space to grieve, heal, and express gratitude.
The last 100 days have also more sharply illuminated the limits of human capacity and the vulnerability of economic, political, and social systems we have evolved over centuries. In the context of Indus Action’s mission, we see more sharply the challenge of translating the spirit of well-intended social policies into action. As lockdowns placed a binding constraint on our mobility and supply chains, the distance between the first and last mile has been increasing for the most vulnerable. If you have missed our latest COVID Rapid Response report, you can read it here and a collation list of similar surveys that our research collaborators (Dvara Research and Azim Premji University) have curated here. All of the survey results lead to the same truth: The people hit the hardest by the pandemic are India’s poor and socially disadvantaged. And our social protection policies are unable to reach them on time, in full or at the quality that protects their dignity. Millions of families are slipping through the safety nets back into poverty.
The limits of our civic and state capacity could be understood through the case study of peanuts. As part of the National Food Security Act 2005, pregnant mothers from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds are eligible for nutritional supplements. If received and consumed on time, in full and with quality, it enables their children to arrest stunting and malnourishment. As part of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) and many state’s welfare efforts, pregnant mothers are entitled to monthly dry rations. In some states, this included a few grams of peanuts (~650g) along with a nutritional mix. What looks like a seemingly simple delivery problem, in the age of aggregators like UberEats, Swiggy, Zomato; we have learnt is a non-trivial problem. We haven’t spent enough time thinking through the challenges an Anganwadi worker has to overcome to fulfill her responsibility on this task and to be set up for success. For starters, she doesn’t have the social security benefits of a formal job. Grossly underpaid and overworked, we expect her to show up on the frontline during a pandemic. Having done so, we haven’t provided any travel allowance or amenities (like our delivery partners get) to ship 2 kg of dry rations per household across ~100 households within a few days. And should she contract the virus, the road to testing and recovery is steep, daunting, and unavailable. Will YOU ever take up this role?
We must not be surprised if the peanut delivery rates end up being less than 50% across India. You can extend the case study of peanuts to your favourite welfare policy, and you will find our capacities reaching the same breaking point, as the surveys show. I hope this leaves you with much to reflect on, as it has done to us. I also wish that we all commit to bridging the gaps in civic and state capacities. Now more than ever, we need solidarity to overcome this pandemic.