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Has the economic fallout of the pandemic affected different communities in different ways?

Data from the recent Periodic Labour Force Survey indicates that this is indeed so, writes Amitabh Kundu.

Written by Amitabh Kundu |
Updated: August 28, 2021 8:02:58 am
A health worker takes swab sample of a passenger for Covid-19 test, at Coimbatore railway station. (PTI Photo)

A bangle-seller, whom Sarojini Naidu would have described as selling “lustrous tokens of radiant lives”, was beaten up for carrying out his business under an assumed Hindu name. This is not an isolated incident nor is it specific to the BJP era of governance. Several Muslims, including celebrities, have accepted Hindu or secular identities just to have greater acceptability in the public domain. Incidents of such violence are also not uncommon. One had only hoped that communal prejudices would disappear or get less severe over time but that, unfortunately, does not seem to be happening. While one may accept or debate the issues of state protection for cows, “love jihad” and disincentives to persons for having many children, these being used as an alibi for harassing ordinary citizens must not be tolerated.

With the start of the pandemic in March 2020, there were rumours of certain social groups being super-spreaders. These got linked with social media messages urging people to boycott purchase of commodities and services marketed by the groups. These were noted but mostly downplayed by political leaders, civil society and media. The question is: Did they affect labour market outcomes differently for different communities?

The recent Periodic Labour Force Survey for 2019-20 brings out the changes in the employment structure and earnings of workers of different communities in rural and urban areas during April-June 2020 (pandemic quarter) compared to the preceding quarter, Jan-March 2020 (pre-pandemic quarter) or the corresponding quarter in the previous year (April-June 2019). This suggests that the differential impact of the pandemic on the labour market, captured through changes in the first two quarters of 2020, has not been inconsequential. The deficits in the pandemic quarter compared to the corresponding quarter in the preceding year across communities shows a similar pattern, and hence have been excluded here for the sake of brevity.

The self-employed had to bear the brunt of the onslaught of the pandemic. The percentage of people who did not work (reporting no work during the reference week) went up from 6.1 per cent in rural and 7.6 per cent in urban areas in the pre-pandemic quarter to 15.6 per cent and 29.9 per cent, respectively, in the pandemic quarter. The rise was extremely uneven across communities and gender.

In rural areas, the percentage of persons with no work among the self-employed among the SC/ST population, Muslims and others (non-SC/ST and non-Muslim) increased from 6.9 per cent, 8.6 per cent and 5.5 per cent, respectively, to 15.1 per cent, 27.5 per cent and 13.7 per cent, respectively. Clearly the impact was starkest for Muslims, followed by the SC/STs. A similar story emerges in urban areas, but the impact here is far more severe (due to higher compliance of lockdown restrictions) but not as differentiated across communities as in rural areas. People with no work formed 7.7 per cent, 11 per cent and 7.1 per cent of SC/STs, Muslims and others, respectively, and these went up to 39.2 per cent, 42.6 per cent and 39.3 per cent, respectively. Muslims stand out with the highest rate of unemployment. The unemployment rate also went up sharply for women from 6.3 per cent to 44 per cent over this period, the corresponding figures for men being 7.8 per cent and 39.0 per cent respectively.

The fall in average earnings follows a similar pattern. In rural areas, monthly earnings during the Covid quarter were 9 per cent less than the average for the year 2019-20. The deficit, however, is 21 per cent in urban areas. Muslims, in rural areas, recorded the maximum decline of 13 per cent, while for the others, it was close to the average. SC/STs suffered the least damage, possibly due to the indispensable nature of their services. The gap for both men and women turned out to be about 9 per cent, similar to the average in rural areas.

In urban areas, the fall in earnings during the pandemic quarter is very high. The maximum loss suffered — 27 per cent — is by the SC/ST community. For the Muslims and the others, the corresponding figure was 20 per cent. The earning loss for Muslims is less than their employment loss. This suggests that their job losses have been more at the lower level. In the case of the SC/ST population, earning losses have been across the board, resulting in higher earning deficits than the Muslims. The deficit is marginally higher for women than men, despite a high deficit in employment. This again can be explained in terms of greater loss of jobs for women at the lower level.

The pandemic may not have a class or community bias, but its economic fallout certainly seems to have it.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 27, 2021 under the title ‘An uneven burden’. The writer is research advisor, Oxfam India. Assistance of K Varghese, JNU, in data analysis is acknowledged

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