This paper addresses COVID-19 in India, looking at how the interplay of inequality, vulnerability, and the pandemic has compounded uncertainties for poor and marginalised groups, leading to insecurity, stigma and a severe loss of livelihoods. A strict government lockdown destroyed the incomes of farmers and urban informal workers and triggered an exodus of migrant workers from Indian cities, a mass movement which placed additional pressures on the country’s rural communities. Elsewhere in the country, lockdown restrictions and pandemic response have coincided with heatwaves, floods and cyclones, impeding disaster response and relief. At the same time, the pandemic has been politicised to target minority groups (such as Muslims, Dalits), suppress dissent, and undermine constitutional values.

The paper focuses on how COVID-19 has intersected with and multiplied existing uncertainties faced by different vulnerable groups and communities in India who have remained largely invisible in India’s development story. With the biggest challenge for government now being to mitigate the further fall of millions of people into extreme poverty, the brief also reflects on pathways for recovery and transformation, including opportunities for rural revival, inclusive welfare, and community response.

This brief is based on a review of existing published and grey literature, and 23 interviews with experts and practitioners from 12 states in India, including representation from domestic and international NGOs, and local civil society organisations. It was developed for the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP) by Justin Pickard, Shilpi Srivastava, Lyla Mehta (IDS), and Mihir R. Bhatt. Some of the cases draw on ongoing research of the TAPESTRY project, which explores bottom-up transformations in marginal environments across India and Bangladesh.