The covid-19 pandemic 2020: a diary

India’s sudden national lockdown in response to the covid-19 pandemic had a devastating impact in the cities and created anxiety and uncertainty for Rojiroti in rural Bihar. In the event the outcomes of both virus and lockdown have been less severe than we feared in the locations where we work. Key events of the farming year – the wheat harvest in March April and rice planting in June - have very fortunately not been affected by covid-19  A summary of events and our response to them during the lockdown is below.

March 22-23  India’s national lockdown to limit spread of the covid19 virus announced. Wage-workers in the main cities were the most severely affected: hundreds of thousands immediately lost their jobs and source of income, and began to move back to their rural homes.
         CPSL, following government guidelines, closed down the regular meetings of Self-help groups (SHG), its Field Office, and processing of regular loan applications. This left Rs 235,000 (the day’s loan repayments) in the hands of village-level coordinators, who They were advised to use this money for emergency loans requested by SHG members.

April 9-10  Following consultation with Rojiroti UK, CPSL offered a repayment and interest ‘holiday’ to borrowers. Staff members agreed to a 50% reduction in their normal monthly payments. Rojiroti UK made a grant of GBP 4,000 to CPSL in order to fund the repayment holiday.

Late March – late May  CPSL aimed to secure the safety of its staff, issuing them with masks and instructing them to observe distancing when meeting with SHG members. Also to encouraged SHG members to maintain distancing when outside their homes.
Federal and State Government support available to some Rojiroti SHG borrowers: an additional 6kg of food rations issued by the Public Distribution System to those classified as below poverty line (BPL), cash payments of INR 1,000 to senior citizens, widows and disabled.
        Emergency loans issued successfully by CPSL: applications are made to co-ordinators or direct by phone to CPSL Field or Patna Office, and payment made by CPSL to a bank account accessible to the borrower (a family member’s or neighbour’s). Where medical treatment is involved (the most common use of emergency loan) payment can be made direct to the hospital/clinic.

June 1-7  First phase of easing lockdown began. By now some of the city workers who had migrated home to their villages were known to be in CPSL’s catchment area, but there was no sign of (severe) covid-19 infection. The monsoon started on time so work by the families of most SHG members to prepare land for planting rice began.

June 8  Careful monitoring of the situation led CPSL to resume its work in the field. The Field Office re-opened, and co-ordinators encouraged SHG meetings to start again.  Loan applications resumed very quickly as did loan and interest repayments by existing borrowers, many of whom were anxious not to fall into arrears.

June 15 onwards  Large (up to Rs 20,000) loan applications, as well as small, now agreed, and repayments continued. An important result of this is that CPSL’s revolving fund has not been depleted significantly and loan applications can be met as before, without stringent limitations having to be introduced.

July 5  The regular Rojiroti open monthly meeting was held for the first time since March, with only 8 participants (rather than the usual 30-plus) all keeping at safe distance.

Mid July onwards  Nationally in India covid-19 is spreading although less seriously in Bihar than in some other States.  There have been local emergency lockdowns in Patna town, but the villages in which CPSL works remain not affected severely by the virus. Our normal activities are continuing, including SHG meetings, but no open meeting was held in August.

Updates - September & October

15 September The regular Rojiroti monthly meeting was held on 6 September at Saharampur village (the normal venue) with 28 participants present i.e. most of the CPSL staff (but no non-staff SHG members on this occasion). This was the first full meeting of Rojiroti staff without restriction of number since March.
        SHG meetings have now resumed fully: in spite of being discouraged during lockdown and the importance of social distancing being stressed by CPSL, a number of groups still continued to meet.

21 September Overall, the impact of the virus on the villages where we work has been small. Bihar (population 124.8 million) has been much less severely affected by Covid-19 than have some states, with ‘active cases’ appearing to stabilise over the past week at below 15,000, and deaths recorded as 861 (September 19th).
       For Rojiroti, a problem in August was a drop in loan repayments (following a surge of repayments at the end of lockdown). The reasons for this are clear: borrowers find there is little daily-paid farm work (since the rice crop is in the field but not yet ready for harvest) and the non-agricultural sectors of the economy is markedly depressed so for most households there is little money coming from members working away from the village, either within the urban sector of Bihar or further away. (Some who were forced by lockdown to return to the village from other states and the major cities and known to have returned there during the past month in spite of the Covid risks –now over 5 million cases in India as a whole.) But they have of course not yet been able to begin sending money home.
       CPSL’s response to this has been to restrict larger loan applications (Rs 10,000 or more, typically taken for investment) in order to make it possible to continue funding medical emergency loans (including one of Rs 15,000 for gall-bladder surgery, followed by Rs 3,000 to fund a further stay in hospital) and small loans requested to meet immediate needs. There is a tension here because loans for some worthwhile business and income-generating projects (motor engineering, trading, livestock rearing) have had to give way to others of more immediate urgency, even thought the others generate income and livelihood within the village and compensate for the lack of opportunities outside. Good news is that loan repayments have recovered during September. About half the amount due for September had been made by mid-month, so 70-70 percent by the end of the month is being anticipated.

22 October Rojiroti’s monthly meeting was held on 7October. This was later than normal because preparation of the September accounts took longer than usual: the repayment holiday during lockdown meant the interest due on some accounts needed to remain at the regular rate of 18% for a further month and these figures had to be adjusted manually after the electronic system had charged them too much. But the meeting was attended by all staff members – just as before the lockdown.

Other good news is that the rate of loan repayments for September has returned to normal after a drop in August – which followed the unexpected surge of repayments at the end of the lockdown period. And even better news is that the demand for small loans (less than Rs 2000, some of them as little as Rs 100 or 200) has revived since the lockdown (as shown in the table below). CPSL’s CEO, Sunil Choudhary reports that this is welcome because it means that loans are now being taken by the poorest SHG members.

Month       Number of loans of                           Total loans
Rs 2000 plus / less than Rs 2000      
January              21                     53                            74
February             28                     59                            87
March                21                     58                            79
June                    9                     64                            73 
July                    32                    77                           109
August                29                    69                            98
September           29                   137                          166