In response to the Covid-19 issue, India enforced one of the world’s longest and most stringent lockdowns. While the shutdown proved efficient in curbing the spread of Covid-19 cases, it will be tragic to forget that India’s food situation was severe even before the ban was imposed. With the lockdown, there is a genuine risk that India’s death toll from starvation may rise to unforgivably high levels.
“No famine has ever occurred in the history of the world under a functioning democracy,” Amartya Sen, arguably the world’s most well-known famine expert, famously remarked. According to him, “a free press and an active political opposition form the finest early-warning system a famine-affected country can have.”
Poverty, inadequate social and physical infrastructure, a weak and unprepared administration, and a relatively closed political system, according to Martin Ravillion, another economist who has extensively examined the linkages between institutions and hunger, are characteristics that enhance vulnerability to famine.
India has some of the worst hunger figures in the world. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2019 placed India 102 out of 117 nations. India was ranked lower than Pakistan and Bangladesh in comparison. Absolute hunger levels, particularly among youngsters, are much more concerning.
Over 19 crore Indians are malnourished (GHI 2019). More than 56 lakh Indian children (0-4 years), or 4.9%, are classified as having “severe wasting” (UNICEF March 2020 report), which implies they have an abnormally low weight-to-height ratio. According to an Indian Express study based on UNICEF statistics, more than three lakh children die from hunger each year.
India ranks 94th out of 107 nations in the 2020 Global Hunger Index. The epidemic and accompanying unemployment have exacerbated India’s food issue. The first round of the National Family Health Survey (2019-2020) produced concerning results, with as many as 16 states reporting an increase in underweight and severely wasted children under the age of five. Due to overcrowded healthcare systems, altered eating habits, and economic loss, as well as the interruption of programs such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the mid-day meal, the pandemic is becoming a nutrition crisis.
Could this be an indication of famine?
At the present, there is no evidence in our legislative discussions, media coverage, or social media buzz that independent India is experiencing the greatest economic and humanitarian catastrophe in its history. Pandemic-related disruptions have pushed India’s real economy, which was already in the worst state in decades, into a severe crisis, robbing or limiting the livelihoods of hundreds of millions.
The most recent assessment is the United Nations’ State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI), which was issued in July. According to the research, the incidence of moderate to severe food insecurity in India increased by around 6.8 percentage points between 2018 and 20. In absolute terms, the number of people experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity has grown by around 9.7 crores since the Covid-19 epidemic.
Given the critical importance of institutions and institutional leadership in preventing – and facilitating – mass hunger, here is a look at the associated political and policy realities in a lockdown-crippled India-
One important factor is that a substantial proportion of the population has been systemically excluded from the national food security net. Ration card lists in India have not been updated in a decade, despite the fact that the document that entitles citizens to food, cooking fuel, and other essentials issued by the government under the National Food Security Act, and which serves as a lifeline for the country’s poor, has not been updated.
According to economist ReetikaKhera, “millions have been left out, particularly youngsters under the age of 10… Currently, the National Food Security Act excludes 45 percent of India’s population.”According to research done by Khera and her colleagues, a surprising number of Indians – more than 100 million – are excluded from the PDS merely because the Union government continues to rely on obsolete Census 2011 data.
Second, deprivation from food– According to journalist Shoaib Daniyal, “about 80 million Indians eat beef, a number greater than the populations of France, Britain, or Italy.” Furthermore, these beef eaters are among the poorest and most socially disadvantaged individuals in the country, primarily Muslims and Dalits. To make matters worse, alternative protein sources are becoming prohibitively expensive for many of India’s poorest inhabitants. The cost of dal, a common source of protein, has just soared. As a final blow, many Indian governments have prohibited eggs from the noon meal, depriving Indian youngsters of essential protein due to a religious decree.”
Third, Food inflation- Food inflation has significant consequences for the poor’s health and nutritional condition since it decreases their purchasing power even further. A survey conducted by the Asian Development Bank in 2011 demonstrated how this works in practice. According to the poll, a 30% increase in international food costs translated into a 10% increase in local food prices, pushing an estimated 64.4 million additional people into poverty across Asia. It also discovered that a 1% increase in food inflation resulted in a 0.3 percent increase in newborn and child mortality and a 0.5 percent increase in undernourishment.
The average Indian household spends over half of its monthly income on food, with the poor spending up to 60% or more. Food inflation is, therefore, a double whammy, requiring people to spend a growing amount of their wages for food, jeopardizing all other needs, including health.
What must be done?
Several quick remedies have been proposed by experts to relieve India’s current food problem. Researchers at Azim Premji University who studied the impact of last year’s lockdown on India’s working poor made the following recommendation: “Any relief measures for this crisis should at least consist of three prongs: universalization of the PDS, expansion of direct cash transfers, and expansion of the rural employment guarantee scheme and its introduction in urban areas.”
- It is feasible that the inherent strengths of India’s welfare system, as well as what remains of India’s institutional checks and balances, will be attentive and resilient enough to avert a disaster. However, it should be noted that many of the structural circumstances that have historically led to famines, particularly those related to politics and policy, are currently in existence in the country.
- Actions will be critical in addressing the hunger issue in the immediate term. First, as many economists have stated, the government should quickly boost the supply of cooked and uncooked food, as well as provide financial assistance. The significance of existing welfare schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the Public Distribution System (PDS), and the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), which put cash and relief directly into the hands of the most vulnerable people to help them weather economic hardship.
- Aside from expanding the NREGA program, the government must secure the survival of micro firms inside MSMEs in the medium to long term (micro, small and medium enterprises). Micro companies are prone to collapse owing to their tiny size (less than 5 crores yearly turnover) if demand falls as a result of the lockdown-related economic downturn.
- It is critical to increase local food production and enhance food supply networks in order to promote food security. The presence of ample food supplies provides a chance for universal PDS, which is much required. Because many young people who were breadwinners for their families died as a result of the virus during the second wave, it is critical that these families receive enough cash, food assistance, and work prospects to keep them from falling further below the poverty line.
- Previous experience with India’s hunger crisis indicates that there is a considerable gap between the government’s purpose and its implementation. As a result, individual citizens’ contributions can be significant in the battle against hunger.
(Source- Media reports and articles)