The ODRIIS Team set up a research-action project to analyse direct socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis. The project COVINDIA (“Appuyer, comprendre et valoriser les pratiques de solidarités villageoises en Inde du Sud”), was selected by a flash call on the pandemic by the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF) among 92 projects in 44 countries, the only one selected for India. It has three main objectives: to relieve vulnerable households living in the NEEMSIS villages of Cuddalore and Villupuram districts by providing emergency food distribution with the help of SHGs; to conduct qualitative fieldwork to reflect on the consequences of the COVID-19; to produce a film documentary on the living conditions of rural population in Tamil Nadu during the pandemic.

Background and needs

Tamil Nadu in South India, like all Indian states, had a strict containment period from 24 March to 31 May 2020. From June onwards, the containment measures were relaxed, divided into zones, which were themselves delimited according to the number of cases of COVID-19. It was not until the beginning of September that the measures were really relaxed. Although far from major urban centres such as Chennai, rural areas were also severely affected by the containment measures, especially in a context of seasonal migration. All travel was banned, transport was cut off and economic activities were severely restricted. The villages saw an influx of migrant workers at the beginning of the migration season, fleeing workplaces that had been shut down indefinitely. Within the villages, the only jobs that were maintained were in the agricultural sector, again with a severe economic contraction, reduced wages and a slower pace of work. Confinement thus strongly impacted on the income of all households, especially the already discriminated lower castes, in areas where risks are managed by mutual solidarity networks and on loans rather than savings. Among the first needs identified, the imperative was to provide emergency food distribution. As a research team, our role was and is to report on the effect of such a crisis in a dozen villages in which some members of the COV-INDIA research team have been working for over 15 years.

Added value and innovation

This research project is innovative in that it is an action research project, aiming firstly to address the critical food needs of vulnerable populations in 10 villages in Tamil Nadu, South India, while supporting and stimulating existing village solidarity mechanisms. In parallel, the project is collecting and analysing information on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and its containment in these hard-to-reach areas. It is innovative in that it combines qualitative tools (telephone and field interviews) and quantitative tools (NEEMSIS 1 and 2 longitudinal survey). In addition, the project has real added value compared to journalistic work or other ongoing surveys on the consequences of the pandemic: our long-standing knowledge of the field allows us to compare a situation before and after the crisis. Finally, this action-research project offers a scientific return on the effect of a food distribution programme in a context of jeopardised village solidarity and ineffective or insufficient government programmes.

Specific objectives

This action research project has two general objectives:
1) To provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable groups.
2) To produce and disseminate information as a decision-making tool both during the pandemic and for the near future as the pandemic is expected to last, but also for future crises.
This action research project has three specific objectives:
1) To respond to the urgent needs of vulnerable groups in 10 NEEMSIS villages through the distribution of basic necessities;
2) To produce qualitative and quantitative information on the situation of these vulnerable groups and individuals through the reconstruction of life stories (qualitative data) and the conduct of NEEMSIS 2 (quantitative data);
3) Synthesise the socio-economic consequences of confinement through the production of a short documentary and the writing of research articles. This valorisation will be done in Tamil, French and English.

Expected results

Direct impact(s)

In the villages of Mananthaviznthaputhur, Manapakkam, Kuvagam, Elanthampattu, Oraiyur, Karumbur, Govulapuram, Semakottai, Natham, Korrattore of Villupuram and Cuddalore districts in Tamil, 2,410 households benefited from the food distributions implemented by the SHGs (Self-Help Group).

Indirect impact(s)

Materials to valorise our research work are published and/or accessible within the scientific community, and/or to the general public to report on (i) the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the containment in rural areas of South India (ii) to analyse the effects of a food distribution programme on solidarity networks in the villages.
Our fieldwork enabled us to quickly produce innovative analyses, disseminated in the form of short popularisation articles in the press from April onwards, in French and English, then updated in August and September in the radio media, and more in-depth analyses using our qualitative interviews during and after the containment, such as these

Our detailed knowledge of the region has made it possible to alert us to consequences that were largely underestimated by the analyses carried out by other teams: greater resilience of subsistence agriculture, major dysfunctions in the promised public transfers, very strong financial fragility of families due to massive pre-crisis over-indebtedness, complete inability of microcredit to meet financial needs, risk of massive impoverishment due to the sale of assets, etc.

Target audience

The direct beneficiaries of the project are 2,410 households in the villages of Mananthaviznthaputhur, Manapakkam, Kuvagam, Elanthampattu, Oraiyur, Karumbur, Govulapuram, Semakottai, Natham, Korrattore. These 2,410 cover the poorest and most discriminated against households due to their low caste. These are Scheduled-Castes grouped in the Colonies within the villages. Among these groups, SHGs pay particular attention to women, and to households facing the return of a seasonal migrant worker due to confinement. SHGs in the 10 target villages are also among the direct beneficiaries.

Thanks to the publication of valorization materials (research articles, synthesis, documentary), the indirect beneficiaries of the project include several circles including

  • The development aid and humanitarian community,
  • Policy makers,
  • The academic and scientific community,
  • The general public

Strategy for measuring objectives / Evaluation

In order to document the food distribution, a set of photos and video footage were taken on the day of each distribution. These audio-visual documents were complemented by telephone interviews during the confinement, and a qualitative research fieldwork during December 2020 and January 2021 including questions on the impacts of this food distribution.

The first results tend to highlight the importance of these food distributions for the targeted families. The beneficiary SHGs, parties to the COV-INDIA project, are a priori the only associations to have organised food distributions since the beginning of the confinement in March 2020. The beneficiary families were thus able to benefit from a more diversified diet for a fortnight. Apart from this food distribution, the majority of families were largely dependent on public food distribution shops (PDS shops). Rice, wheat, lentils, oil and sugar were provided, but no vegetables. Yet it was precisely the price of vegetables that soared during and after the lockdown. A woman from the village of Natham reported difficulties in buying vegetables as common as onions: ‘It is difficult to buy vegetables next to the products provided by the PDS shops. The price of vegetables was really expensive; the price of onions was more than 100 rupees per kilo while we were short of income. According to the first data collected through the NEEMSIS 2 quantitative survey, only 25% of the families felt that they had eaten their fill as usual. A large majority, 81%, reported a decline in the quality of the food they had access to during the confinement.

The COV-INDIA team is currently pursuing the field research of this action research project and would like to determine the extent to which food distribution would have reaffirmed the place of SHGs and the status of the women within them.

The production of qualitative and quantitative information has already resulted in the production of two research articles. Others are in the process of being written, using qualitative information collected by telephone and then in the field, and the first quantitative information from the NEEMSIS 2 survey, which has finally started after months of delay due to administrative prohibitions from the French supervisory authorities.

The first paper written was published as a working paper of the Université Libre du Bruxelles. It is currently being submitted to an international journal. It reports on the consequences of confinement on household debt in rural Tamil areas. Economic growth over the last few decades has led to the development of the financial market in Tamil Nadu, along with an explosion in household debt levels. Beyond the financial aspects, taking on debt in rural Tamil Nadu is part of a household’s risk diversification strategy. Beyond the purely financial aspects, lending and borrowing money is part of building social safety nets in villages. However, the shock of COVID-19 and the sudden halt in economic activities revealed the weakness of the socio-economic dynamics underway. Households have lost a considerable amount of their resources. At the same time, movement restrictions have reduced the share of informal interpersonal loans in favour of an increase in formal loans. Formal loans pose a direct threat to the wealth of households emerging from this crisis, starting with the poorest. In the Indian context, these are mostly low-caste populations.

The second paper was submitted at the end of January to the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (SAMAJ) as part of a special issue on COVID-19 in Southeast Asia. It reports on the use of interpersonal networks to cope with the consequences of COVID-19. In recent years, driven by economic growth, interpersonal networks within the same caste group have expanded, in contrast to the old dependency relationships between high and lower castes. COVID-19 confinement has underlined the importance of support from the family network, and to a lesser extent from the neighbourhood in villages still highly segmented geographically by caste. These two forms of support confirm recent developments in intra-caste solidarity. However, the first interviews also suggest a return to old forms of inter-caste dependence, particularly through employment. The preponderance of the intra-caste interpersonal network over the inter-caste interpersonal network can be tested by using the data from the ongoing NEEMSIS 2 survey.

Audiovisual documentary

A documentary was produced in the context of the project.
You can find all the details here.

Project coordinator

Christophe Jalil Nordman


G. Venkatasubramanian, IFP, Sociologist, Department of Social Sciences, Pondicherry
Cécile Mouchel, IRD research assistant, PhD student at the University of Paris, assigned to IFP, under the supervision of I. Guérin and CJ. Guérin and CJ. Nordman, Pondicherry
Isabelle Guérin, Research Director at IRD, CESSMA, in charge of the “Labour, finance and social dynamics” programme at IFP, and co-coordinator of the Observatory of Inequalities and Rural Dynamics at IFP, Paris
Antoni Raj, IFP, Research Assistant, Social Sciences Department, Pondicherry
Arnaud Natal, PhD student at the University of Bordeaux, under the supervision of CJ. Nordman and Eric Rougier, Bordeaux
Mary Di Santolo, PhD student at the University of Paris Dauphine, under the supervision of CJ. Nordman, Paris
R. Srinivasan, documentary filmmaker, Panruti

All biographies of the research team are available on the NEEMSIS website.

Self-Help Groups

Manapakkam village: Pengal Kuttamappu Kuzhu
Semakottai Village : Pudumai Sangam Kuttamaippu
Elanthampattu Village: Roja Suyavudavhi Kuzhu Kuttamaippu
Mananthaviznthaputhur Village: Thamarai SuyaVudavhi Kuzhu Kuttamaippu
Korattur village: Makkal kuttamaippu Kuzhu
Kuvagam Village: Sembaruthi Kuzu Sangam
Govulapuram Village: Nesavalarikal Kuttaimppu
Natham Village: Ezam Kuzhu Kuttamaippu
Karumbur Village: Grama Munnetra Sangam
Oraiyur Village: Oriayur Grama Kuttamaippu

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