Religion, aid and the COVID‑19 pandemic: How minority religious groups shape welfare in India
Throughout the world, the sanitary measures put in place by governments to curb the COVID‑19 pandemic have had tremendous social and economic consequences, especially on populations that were already vulnerable. In India, where the informal economy accounts for more than 80% of non-agricultural employment (ILO, 2020), the first lock down announced by the government took a hard toll on those living in precarious financial situation. Within days, daily-wage workers, street vendors and domestic workers started running out of food and basic supplies. Such situations have, more than ever, brought to light the strength and weaknesses of various welfare systems, as well as their importance.
During this crisis, non-state, formal and informal, networks of care became particularly visible. In face of the failure of the state to provide aid to all its citizens, numerous citizen initiatives, NGOs and religious groups started providing humanitarian aid and emergency assistance. Studies have shown that in many countries where public welfare is insufficient, such non-state actors have significant social and economic impact (Cammett Morvaridi, 2013).
This research project focuses on religion and welfare in India. More specifically, its main objective is to examine how non-state religious actors shape welfare provision in the country, taking the COVID‑19 crisis as the starting point to address this question.
Three specific objectives orient this project: 1) To document the extent and ways in which non-state actors belonging to religious minority groups were and are still involved in basic aid provision during the pandemic; 2) To examine what imaginaries of social justice and welfare drive religious actors’ interventions; 3) To analyze the implications of such interventions on welfare regimes in India (whether religious actors’ interventions strengthen or challenge state welfare practices, and whether they create any tension in terms of inclusivity and access to resources for the population).
Given that belonging to a minority often shapes access to public resources and conceptions of welfare and social justice, the project will focus on three minority religious groups in particular: Muslims, Christians and Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians).
This research project brings together an international team of four researchers and will involve two qualitative research strategies: a multi-sited ethnography in India and virtual ethnography. Ethnographic fieldwork with each religious group will be conducted by the four team members in four different locations in India, namely Mumbai; Hyderabad; Delhi and the state of Assam.
Comparative perspectives on minority groups’ involvement in welfare provision in South Asia are limited and this project will thus advance academic knowledge on the topic. Moreover, the project will help develop new research directions on welfare and social justice, minorities and care practices, and the organization of care in times of crisis. India represents a rich case example, but these themes are relevant for many other multi-religious and multi-ethnic national settings.
This project will also strengthen international research networks and set the bases to develop longer term collaborations. A research report and a knowledge exchange workshop will enable local community organizations and groups involved in welfare provision to share about their care initiatives and the challenges they face. This will also give them an occasion to build inter-religious minority networks. Finally, the research project will be useful to international development organizations working in India, who are aiming to build local partnerships and learn about local community networks.