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Hunger, food wastage amidst Indian govt’s 'unplanned' lockdown, maladministration

By Sushant Kumar Singh* 
Today the whole world is grappling with the contagion effect of the disease named Covid-19 and is engaged with full force to fight the crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly distorted the world economic system. Heterodox economists have been asserting that this pandemic has broken the basic assumption of neo-liberal economics of laissez fair and invisible hand.
To contain this pandemic, so far, no vaccine or drug has been invented by any country, so lockdown is the only alternative being used worldwide to contain the spread of the disease. But the characteristic scenario of the lockdown is not the same in every country.
Till now the pandemic has claimed nearly two lakh deaths world-wide. India has lost 686 lives so far. In India infection and death are increasing at a constant rate. It is also a fact that only the vulnerable section of the society is undergoing the extreme assault of the lockdown crisis and pandemic. Their problems of livelihood have gone more complex and deeper.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimation more than 20 million people may become unemployed world-wide. As for India, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) has reported, already, India's unemployment rate rose to 26.2 per cent in the third week of April amidst coronavirus lockdown. This can pose a major threat to the Indian economy, as 22% of the population is below the poverty line in the country -- a very frightful situation indeed.
The sudden announcement of lockdown on the night of March 24 unfurled an atmosphere of panic among the most vulnerable sections of the society -- migrant labourer, beggars, nomadic tribes, helpless old people, disabled persons and sex workers. More than 90% of this most disadvantaged group of people are from SC, ST, OBC and Muslim communities because of their consistent marginalisation in the Hindu Brahminical society.
Soon after the unplanned lockdown, a large number migrant labourers and other poor people started returning back to their native places by anticipating grim situation of paying rent and dealing with hunger in absence of any earning. 
Meanwhile, the government rules became more stringent, due to which many labourers got trapped in cities. Some were interrupted in the midst of their up to 1,000 km long journey to their villages, and were shifted to quarantine and relief camps.

Hunger

Both Central and state governments claim that they have done all the required arrangements for the stranded migrant labourers so that they do not face problem of accommodation and hunger. But reports narrate a different story. Quarantine and relief camps facilities are not adequately arranged. People are facing problems of washroom, water and toilet. They are not getting proper food.
Community kitchen centres have been set up at several places to cater to food for the stranded migrant workers, destitute, homeless and poor people. But there also sufficient amount of food is not being cooked to make it available to every penurious class.
At several places people are supposed to travel around four km to reach community centres for food. They are made to stand for five to six hours in queue to collect food. They are barely getting food twice a day, and most of the time they are experiencing shortage of food.
Families having five or six members are just managing to collect food for only two or three members. Reason is, in many cases, the entire family members (like older people, women, kids) cannot commute to community kitchen centres. People are complaining that they are not getting food regularly. Some have to starve for one or two days. The food is often not nutritious, especially for children.
Meanwhile, news has begun to surface that people are facing extreme hunger, and some have died due to starvation. A Dalit man died in Jharkhand due to starvation because ration was denied at the PDS centre due to unavailability of ration card. An 11-year-old Dalit boy starved to death due to lockdown in Ara, Mushar Tola, Bihar.
According to one report, the lockdown has led to about 200 deaths, out of which 53 deaths were caused because of hunger, exhaustion or suicide due to lack of livelihood. A recent research based on secondary data has found that till April 11, 181 deaths have occurred due to lockdown distress, out of which 20 deaths were because of hunger and five suicide deaths due to loss of employment, depression and trauma. A daily wager Mukesh committed suicide in Gurugram when he failed to feed his family.
Hunger deaths are not a new phenomenon for India. Let’s have a cursory look on the hunger situation in India, keeping in view that these kinds of figures often go under-reported. According to the UN millennium development goal report, one third of the world’s hungry people live in India. According to the World Bank, India tops the world in the number of malnutrition child.
According the National Health Survey (NHS) 2017, more than 19 crore Indians are undernourished and face hunger. At least 7,000 people die of hunger every day and 25 lakh deaths occur every year due to hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates of 2019 marked that 194.4 million people are undernourished in India which constitutes 19.5% of the total population. About 51% women are anaemic in the age 15-49.
According to a UNICEF report (2018), 3,00,000 children die in India per year, and 4,500 death per day, due to hunger and malnutrition related ailments. The Global Hunger Index Report, 2019, ranked India at 102nd positions. It reported 37.9% children below five year of age are stunted, 33.4% are underweight, around 50% are anaemic, 20.8% suffer wasting, and 3.9% is mortality under five year of age.
On the occasion of the death anniversary of Santoshi, an 11-year-old girl who died in 2017 in Jharkhand due to starvation, academics Reetika Khera and Siraj Dutta noted in their independent research that between 2015 and 2018, India registered 56 hunger deaths due to extreme poverty and on denial of food grain by public distribution system (PDS) and pension.
Considering India’s struggle with the problems of hunger and malnutrition, while announcing lockdown, why didn’t the government think of this problem? Why is it that, in this case, the government has imposed the morality of ‘social welfare maximisation’ on the poorer sections at the cost of their life?
India  requires 21 MT of food grains to address the problem of hunger during lockdown, even then FCI will be left with 37 MT surplus
If poor are to morally abide by the rules of lockdown to secure the safety of the bourgeoisie, why shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the bourgeois class to take care of migrant labourers to enhance the definition of ‘social welfare maximization’ in this period of crisis?

Food wastage

Production of food grains in India in relation to requirement of the entire population has never been low or insufficient in the recent decade. But there has been a debate on the falling per capita consumption after the expedition of neo-liberal regime, economist Prabhat Patnaik had observed in a 2010.
India is one of the largest food producer countries of the world. Despite this, it could not able to cater the food distribution programme effectively to the poor people and eliminate the prolonged problem of hunger due to which millions of people going hungry every day.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), India needs 225-230 million tonnes of food per year to feed the entire population sufficiently, and this year (2019-20) India’s farm output has been to the tune of 291.50 million tonnes. According to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) data, currently, India is having 58 million tonnes of food grains stock.
Patnaik estimates, India does not require more than 21 million tonnes of food grains to address the problem of hunger in this lockdown crisis period. Even then FCI will be left with 37 million tonnes of food grains. Moreover, this year, a new batch of food grain stock will be added to the FCI stock. It will be more than enough to cater food security programmes, even as helping address the problem of hunger and ensure food safety against any uncertain food crisis in the future.
  While other countries are willing to spend around 8 to 10 % of GDP to fight hunger and unemployment amidst COVID-19 crisis, India has announced just Rs 1.7 lakhs crore packages which comes around 1% of GDP. This is a complete derision of migrant labourers and other penurious classes.
What is the current situation of food wastage amid lockdown? Reports speak of dumping of milk down the drain in Tripura and in irrigation canal in Karnataka. Farmers are not getting buyers to sell their crops and vegetables amidst lockdown. Vegetables and fruits are rotting after reaping. It has drastically impacted the income of farmers.
There have been reports that farmers in despair are destroying their crops out as there is little hope to sell them in the market. A farmer, Yogesh, said he gave all his fruits for free to those who came to his farm and rest of the fruits were dumped.
A small start-up, Milkbasket, was forced to dump 15,000 litre of milk and 10,000 kg of vegetables and fruits. Ninjacart had to destroy 20,000 kg of vegetables in Chennai. Milk producers in Haridwar have been draining thousands litres of milk daily. According to FAO 40% of the total food produced per year gets waste due to bad storage facilities, improper logistics and other reasons.
Closing down of restaurants, school, colleges and hostels messes have reduced the demand for vegetables and milk. Farmers are not getting enough buyers to even set off half of their crops. Demand by households and majorly restaurants, confectionary units, sweetmeat shops and dairy units have been reduced drastically.
Some online grocery retailers are being allowed to deliver groceries and vegetables to people at their doorsteps. But these kinds of purchasing are more popular among the rich or the upper middle class people, who know how to handle gadgets, online apps and payments. Even retail grocery stores’ demands are not enough to absorb all perishable food items locally produced.
The government could have ordered local governing bodies to procure all the locally produced milk, crops and vegetables and transit these to relief and quarantine camps and other spots where there is need, and distribute these among stranded labourers and their families. It would have helped milk producers and farmers to not bear all the losses and earn at least their cost of production, and also ensure some nutrient food to poverty-stricken children in this period crisis.
However, it seems, the government is unwilling to provide social safety net to marginalised groups. The whole story of government insensitivity, lack of empathy and political will towards the most downtrodden sections of people (who belong to so-called lower castes) also recount a Brahminical mindset of the Indian state as also that of the top bureaucrats.
Even in this situation of extreme health crisis and life-threatening hunger condition, the government is asking for ration card or aadhaar card for identification for free distribution of food to the poor people. Instead, the government should contain the wastage of locally produced food occurring during the lockdown period and utilise surplus grains lying with FCI to make available it to the quarantine and relief camps and to poor households for free.
In 2010, the Supreme Court had asked the government to distribute surplus food grains lying with FCI to the poor even without asking for BPL identity instead of letting it rot in warehouses, and also suggested to take all possible measures to minimize wastage of food grains due to the poor condition of storage infrastructure. The apex court direction is not being complied with.
It is time one should ponder: When we know India is home to one third of the world’s stunted children (“Global Nutrition Report”, 2018), there is reason to ask as to what has the Government of India prearranged for ensuring nutritious food to the children of stranded migrant labours in this period of Covid-19 lockdown crisis?
---
*Assistant professor, Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University, Bihar

Comments

Manu Hegde said…
People who have acquired COVID-19, but experience little to no symptoms will bring in the next wave of infected cases. Hence immunity levels will decide the severity of rise in cases. Positive emotions can enhance immune system, while negative emotions can suppress it. The politics of fear & hatred that divide people over religion, patriotism, caste, gender, wealth & law will help in creating those negative emotions.

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