COVID-19 and Hunger

By Saket Kakade

Shocking videos have been making rounds showing extreme hunger and starvation among people, especially the migrants. When Delhi-Purnea Shramik train halted at Katihar railway station, a scuffle ensued between migrant workers over free food packets, which were being distributed. Reportedly, they had been hungry for a few days which led to this unruly behavior. The real problem is not the actions of migrant workers but the conditions which led them to take such actions. It is unfortunate that they were forced to such actions to quell a basic need. Hunger is a primal instinct and prolonged hunger can lead to unexpected behavior.

Another video went viral on social media, where migrant workers ransacked food vending machine and took away the supplies. This is a classic ethical dilemma. Would you support someone who steals to satisfy his/her hunger? One might argue that theft is a crime and if such incidences are taken lightly they may spread and create chaos. However, we are already in the midst of chaos and the workers were forced to such actions owing to it. Stealing to feed yourself cannot be a crime. All human beings have equal rights over the nature. In this case, If something is wrong, it is the system that denied food to these workers for days. Middle class commenters who argue against this, should first check their theft of food in the form of excessive stockholding.

But how did we reach here? The answer is we were always here. The only difference now is COVID-19 has made this visible. In the Global Hunger Index released by Concern Worldwide and Welt hunger hilfe in 2019, India ranks 102 among 117 countries. The proportion of undernourished in the population is 14.5%. Wasting, stunting, and mortality rate among children under five is 20.8%, 37.9%, and 3.9 % respectively. The index suggests the level of hunger to be 'serious'. And this was before corona. Imagine the repercussions of lockdown with bottlenecks in the agricultural supply chain and obstruction to last-mile delivery of food.

Lockdown started in the country from 25th March. According to a report by The Wire, two days into the lockdown, Rakesh Musahar, an eight-year-old kid, from Bihar was a victim of starvation death. Rakesh belonged to the Musahar Mahadalit community. It is reported that he worked as a ragpicker. With the lockdown he and his father lost means of livelihood. Their family depended on daily wages for food. For Rakesh, lack of livelihood meant death. Rakesh's death is also a testimony to cruel red-tapism. His family used to get ration on his grandmother's thumbprint. On her demise, the ration stopped, which eventually meant Rakesh's demise as well.

Similar stories of hunger and starvation causing deaths abound as the lockdown extended. As we come near the fag end of this lockdown; Ahmedabad Mirror reported around 200 daily wagers living on the footpaths near Victoria Garden. They report having hardly any food for the last 3-4 days. The help by civil society has also stopped. Denied of means of livelihood, these daily wagers are condemned to poverty and hunger.

Let us have a look at the food supply situation in the country. CSC Shekhar informs us about the healthy yield of wheat and rice to the tune of 106.21 million tons and 15.53 million tons respectively. He also informs that the grain stocks with the Food Corporation of India are two and a half times the buffer stock norms. However, these positive findings are in stark contrast to the scuffle over food, ransacking of vending machines, hunger deaths, and starvation. This is because, here hunger is seen to be in terms of supply. To understand what is really happening, we take recourse of the Entitlement approach to hunger by Amartya Sen. According to him, lack of food supply is only one of the possible causes of starvation.

Sen starts with the argument that in a market economy, one exchanges what one has for other commodities. E.g. One can exchange cash for food. What one can get in exchange for what he owns is called exchange entitlement. He argues that a person's exchange entitlement for food may be negatively affected by reasons other than a decline in the food supply. Other people might get relatively richer causing inflation or his/her wages may fall behind prices, thus reducing his/her purchasing power to buy food. In the present scenario, abrupt stop is seen in income and it is affecting the exchange of cash for food. Sen argues for social security and employment entitlements to tackle starvation.

We see a welcome move by the government to cover two-third of the population under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, which promises increased entitlements, free of cost for the next three months. However, lived experiences of people point towards the slack implementation of these schemes. Lockdown has indeed affected physical access to food along with decreased exchange entitlement.

The benefits of government schemes must accrue to the people. The emphasis needs to be on last-mile delivery and not merely allocations. These are not nominal schemes. These schemes deal with the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. If things go south and the production in this Kharif season is below par. We might then be looking at a hunger pandemic.

According to the World Food Programme, 265 million people will suffer from acute hunger by the end of the year in low and middle-income countries (including India). This is a warning bell we must heed to. Ex-chief statistician Pronob Sen had said that food riots are a very real possibility. The time to act is now. There is an urgent need to ramp up food security measures and ensure last-mile delivery. Else ransacking the food vending machine at Jabalpur will only be a precursor to something very sinister.

Saket Kakade has completed M.A in Development Studies from Tata institute of social sciences, Mumbai.

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