Over the last two decades, the state of Gujarat has seen rapid economic growth and rising per capita incomes. However, much of this growth has not been inclusive—the state continues to fall behind on a number of social indicators, such as health, education, and employment. In particular, the indicators on gender equality leave a lot to be desired. At 866 females per 1,000 males, Gujarat has one of the lowest sex ratios in the country. The incidence of hunger and undernutrition among women is high, with close to 55 percent women in the age group of 15–49 years being anaemic. Gender inequality in the labour market is also widespread.
Simply by virtue of their gender, women were also disproportionately affected by the pandemic. To learn more about how COVID-19 changed the lives of women in Gujarat, we spoke with a group of women who are part of the Working Group for Women for Land Ownership (WGWLO)—a network of more than 40 organisations across the state of Gujarat that work with women on the issue of land rights. Drawing on their experiences over the last two years, they talked about the low interest in working on MNREGA schemes, the change in livelihood patterns, and how hard times during the pandemic have made their communities more frugal and watchful.
Looking at health beyond COVID-19
While much of the conversation around health in other states was around camps for COVID-19 testing and quarantine centres, in North Gujarat, the camps threw up other diseases that people were suffering from. Surajben is from Radhanpur block, Patan district, and works largely with women from pastoralist communities. “Just three months ago there was a health camp at a local primary health centre (PHC) in one of the villages I was at. There we saw people suffering from blood pressure and diabetes, and in some cases tuberculosis—illnesses that we hadn’t seen before,” she says.
She adds that these diseases might have been present earlier too, but no one was testing for them. Before the pandemic the ASHA worker’s mandate was to focus on maternal and child health, and during the pandemic on COVID-19 testing and enforcing quarantine.
“But when the government did their annual camp, so many people had high blood pressure, because of stress and tension in the house brought on by corona and the economic losses they suffered because of it. Even pregnant women’s reports showed diabetes. So, health has definitely been affected because they couldn’t go anywhere because of the lockdown, had no work and no income. All these health problems have happened because of that,” she says. Surajben adds that the village now has a health and wellness centre and a community health officer, who gives people the medicines for blood pressure and diabetes at the right time.
The experience of the pandemic, combined with these diseases, has led to an increased focus on health, which has extended to agricultural practices too. “Earlier no one was ready to do organic farming as the yield was lower; they preferred using urea, DAP, and other chemical fertilisers to increase productivity. But, after corona, the women are saying that they want to use only deshi (local) fertiliser, because they think the chemical fertilisers have brought diseases like corona and cancer. Health has become important, and they want to use natural and organic inputs for farming. This has been a massive change that we have been seeing over the past few seasons,” says Gavuben, who works in the Saurashtra region of South-East Gujarat.
Livelihood patterns have changed
As with everywhere else in the country, employment and labour came to a grinding halt in Gujarat. Surajben talks about how all work had stopped because of COVID-19. “People who were labourers had no source of income any more. Several months into the pandemic, work started again, but there wasn’t as much work as before.”
To support families through the crisis, the WGWLO women distributed seeds and rations during the agricultural season. “The villagers said that these dry grains (rice, wheat, lentils) would see them through the next three–four months, because they had no way of earning an income during this time. Some of the women who were better off asked us to give these kits to those who needed them more, especially the landless labourers who had lost their daily wages,” says Gavuben.
People were scared to move back to the city because they were afraid that they’d contract the virus there.
As things started opening up, the nature of work also changed. People were scared to move back to the city because they were afraid that they’d contract the virus there. The perception was that rural India was safer than big, congested cities from where there were reports of constantly rising cases and pictures of death and devastation, especially during the second wave in 2021.
During this time, WGWLO also helped upskill some of the women they worked with. Gavuben says that they encouraged women who had health problems to consider alternative income options. Prior to the pandemic, many of these women would go to work outside their villages and engage in hard labour, often in mines or at construction sites. As a result, several of them had breathing issues and heart problems.
“We told them to stay at home instead and make soap, agarbatti, or khakhra. Since they didn’t have the skills, we trained them. Those who grew fruit—tomatoes, lemons, chikoos—at home received training in making jams, juices, jellies, and sauces from the government through SBI centres. These options are far less labour intensive than construction and farming. The women are therefore healthier and also able to earn more money from these activities,” she says.
Megha Sheth, who leads WGWLO’s communications work, also highlights how fear of the virus in cities is keeping women back in the villages even today. “People are scared. They think that if they have to go to a city like Ahmedabad and work in someone’s kitchen, they might get COVID-19 there. They want to stay in their villages because they think it’s safer; there is less prevalence of the virus here. So we are seeing more interest in these kinds of activities.”
A change in life as we know it
There has also been a change in the way people eat, live, and celebrate festivals and family functions. Many of the women spoke about how they became thrifty in every aspect of their lives. Gavuben says, “Initially, because the shops were shut, we could not go out to buy vegetables and spices. So, we reverted to old and simple recipes. We would take cornflour, put salt and chilli powder, and make kadhi. We would make spicy rotis and eat it with this kadhi. We became very frugal and made sure we didn’t incur any ‘useless’ expenses. Even those who lived very well earlier with all the facilities have scaled back.”
Weddings have been scaled down too. “Earlier we used to have music bands and a DJ for weddings in our area. The celebrations would go on all day, and a lot of people would be invited. We would serve at least four–five items for the wedding lunch. All of this has changed—fewer people are called, they go home by noon, and less food is served,” says Gavuben.
Jashiben, who lives and works in Bavla, an industrial area on the outskirts of the state capital of Ahmedabad, talks about how people stopped going to each other’s homes even for funerals. “There was a case of a woman who died and was carried to the crematorium in a tractor. No one went to her funeral,” she says.
People have also started saving more. COVID-19 and the complete breakdown in livelihoods and loss of wages and income has made people more cautious about spending. “People have started to understand that it is important to have some savings. In case of emergencies, we should have enough to survive,” explains Gavuben.
Even the behaviour of men and young people—who would otherwise spend their days roaming around the village or drinking and smoking—has changed. “They fear that if COVID-19 comes again and things shut for two–three months, they won’t have money for their food and daily needs. So whatever little money they’re earning right now, they’re trying to save it in case it is needed at any time,” says Gavuben. People are also looking to sell their land. “Wherever I go, they keep telling me that we want to sell our land, let us know if you know anyone. They are all in debt,” she adds.
Despite income deprivation, there is no uptake of NREGA
According to Jashiben, post the pandemic, farmers are leaving their fields and trying to find jobs in factories instead. Ahmedabad, where she lives, is one of the most industralised districts in the state, and so farming has never been very lucrative here. “Farming alone does not support the family as agricultural lands have been divided over time and there is not enough left with each family. They thus have to work outside.”
Since there is an industrial unit run by the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) next door, people prefer to look for jobs there. Boys in these surrounding villages are educated only till class 10 (a prerequisite for many government jobs), and they find jobs at GIDC. Girls are allowed to study only in the schools in their villages, after which they are married off between the ages of 14 and 16.
People in this region are also unwilling to take on work under the government’s MGNREGA programme. “We don’t do mitti ka kaam; it is very hard labour. We prefer to work at GIDC, cleaning floors, and so on, but not NREGA work,” says Jashiben.
The lack of interest in working on NREGA, the country’s rural employment guarantee scheme, cuts across the state.
The lack of interest in working on NREGA, the country’s rural employment guarantee scheme, cuts across the state. There used to be a fair amount of NREGA work in the Saurashtra region, but now the amount of work available has reduced. “Earlier workers would get a full day’s work. Now the contractors only give work between 8 am and 12 pm because of corona. Also, the wages have stayed unchanged over the last few years,” adds Gavuben.
According to Leelaben, who works in Mahisagar district with the tribal communities of eastern Gujarat, the wages from NREGA are not enough. “We got some NREGA work to dig a lake, but it had to stop within a month because of rains. It was very hot outside and we had to walk a lot to throw the mud away. So, we could not get much done. We weren’t paid the mandated INR 200 per day; instead we were paid depending on the size of the hole we dug. So, we’d only get INR 700–800 per week. And this work too only lasted a month,” she says. Surajben reinforces the point. “We do have NREGA work happening, but the remuneration is so little that it is not enough to run a house,” she says.
The fear that COVID-19 will be back runs deep in the women’s minds. They are all keen to make sure that they have good health along with livelihood opportunities that will tide them through difficult times in the future.
Gavuben is a land paralegal worker with the Samarthan Mahila Vikas Sangthan; Jashiben is part of the Bavla Mahila Vikas Sangthan; Leelaben is a land paralegal worker at Sarathi; and Surajben works with MARAG.