Covid in India: analyzing the socio-economic impact and efficacy of early government relief efforts

A survey of 47,000 low-income households across 15 states in India highlighted how entitlement schemes could adapt to families’ needs in a time of crisis, and helped inform what is needed for the path ahead.

As the Covid crisis progressed, research data from Dalberg provided a near real-time perspective of the evolving financial impact of the pandemic on India’s low-income households. Datasets were shared and results made available to policymakers weekly as the crisis intensified, and they helped inform relief efforts when Covid-19 first hit India. Together, they represent one of the most comprehensive and reliable resources available on the financial impacts of the pandemic on people’s lives and the efficacy of six major government relief entitlements, which supported over 800 million low-income Indians early on in the pandemic.

The relevance, timeliness and scale of insights came together at a time when the crisis was hitting hard; and with very little understanding of what was happening on the ground, this data was valuable in supporting state and national policy level decisions.

An extensive survey of 47,000 low-income households across 15 states in India served as the source of the data. The survey began within days after the sudden March 2020 lockdown and continued through to early June 2020. It provided comprehensive intelligence about the financial impact of the crisis and the performance of six major financial and ration-based relief entitlements. With help from the findings that emerged from this work, attempts were made to reach the best outcomes for the populations served as the situation evolved.

The research — conducted by Dalberg in partnership with Omidyar Network India and Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, with data collection by Kantar Public — found that on-the-ground realities for households could vary widely from week to week, and by geography, and segment. It highlighted the urgency of families’ needs and challenges as they navigated the financial impacts of Covid-19.

Given the rapidly changing situation and high level of need, policymakers needed real-time, actionable intelligence about what was working and where there were opportunities for further improvements. To enable collaboration and the best outcome, data collection, analysis, and insight generation processes were rapidly aligned in a way that allowed weekly creation of data and insights that were made available to state and central government policymakers through a live dashboard in near-real time.

Research insights revealed the crisis experience for low-income families

Millions of families across India experienced significant losses in income, employment, and savings as a result of the crisis. Data reflected this, and showed that the financial impact was immediate and deep — and that it would be lasting.

The lockdown led to a 53% drop in pre-crisis income for low-income households and is just one marker of several that demonstrates how the pandemic impacted the country’s vulnerable populations.

From early on, India’s central government provided support to help low-income families navigate the crisis. Relief came in the form of various financial aid packages and supplementary ration entitlements — such as grain — amounting to over INR 20 lakh crore (USD $307.6 billion) in aid. State governments extended further measures to supplement the central government’s efforts, but for low-income families — most of whom already relied on a range of existing government entitlements to make ends meet — even this assistance was not enough to meet everyday needs.

The country’s core entitlement schemes have wide coverage and the ability to flex quickly in times of need. However, research showed that last-mile access was a key challenge, with some vulnerable groups excluded, especially in urban India. Nine in ten families received grain rations, but research revealed that the distribution of pulses was initially unreliable, with half of low-income households yet to receive them at the time of the survey.

Overall, the interviews highlighted that the experiences of families varied, with some reporting that the free rations from the central government and state schemes helped, but that there were problems getting enough food and money for household supplies. One family interviewed for the study said that they managed items like dal and rice through the government rations. But to get through shortages, they had to rely on goods and produce they had grown and stored, and still faced expenses such as school fees and medicine at a time when prices were rising.

Cash transfers reached 85% of families and were helpful to them, but many struggled to withdraw and use the funds. Two in five households had not even attempted to withdraw cash transfers — one man reported that he had applied for a cash relief scheme but with police preventing people moving around and public transportation not operational, getting to the bank was impossible. Others were looking into loans or selling off gold jewelry and over 40% had already accumulated debt by the survey’s conclusion in June 2020.

It also emerged that nearly three-quarters of primary income earners lost jobs or wages and many did not expect to return to work in the near future. It meant that for the roughly 174 million people1 living below the poverty line in India, government entitlements were a critical lifeline — and would be for some time.

Dalberg’s research set out to answer the overall question of whether government entitlements achieved the intended results, and if not, to determine what more would be needed for families to make it through the crisis presented by the pandemic. Having determined the extent of the financial impact on low-income households, Dalberg recommended extending support for a longer time period, implementing universal coverage of entitlements with minimum paperwork to avoid exclusion, and building momentum for digital payments as an alternative distribution channel, among others.

Research techniques that highlighted the need for strong ethical principles

In addition to the survey, more than 80 in-depth interviews were conducted to gain deeper insights into the experiences of low-income families during the crisis, and to unearth nuances that the data could not capture.

It was clear from initial phone calls that many respondents were in deep distress. Results illustrated that half of low-income Indians had lost over 75% of their income, and a quarter had fully exhausted all savings and reserves. In one instance, a respondent was contemplating suicide. The interviewer was able to connect via WhatsApp to a colleague with experience in suicide support services who coached her through the conversation.

As a consequence of these experiences, the survey script was reworked for the second phase of research. Dalberg also established a database of local crisis hotlines around the country to be shared at the end of every survey call. A close partnership with Indus Action enabled access to this database, and as a result Dalberg was able to provide helpline referrals to over 28,000 households in the second phase of the research.

Due to the extreme hardship faced by households participating in the survey Dalberg developed a set of sharper ethical principles specific to Covid-19 to guide interviews and researchers. In undertaking this research during a crisis of such unprecedented scale, robust protocols were essential and the extraordinary times required fresh thinking to ensure that deeply held principles held true throughout the process.

On the path towards better overcoming challenges

Details of the research, data, and findings can be found on the Impacts of Covid-19 website. Data can be segmented by state, by theme — such as financial impact and awareness — and by population segment — such as social category, occupation, geography and migration status — with Dalberg’s insights and recommendations outlined in the report.

While the research concluded that the financial impact of the crisis was so dire that families would need greater, sustained support, the study of entitlements and Dalberg’s recommendations helped inform how these lifelines can flex in times of crisis, impacting the lives of hundreds of millions of people — and allowing the voices of low-income families to be heard.

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