Mumbai: Jolted by the overnight choking of all sources of income for her household with the imposition of a nationwide lockdown on 23 March 2020, Protima Maity, 34, attempted to obtain her quota of subsidised rice and wheat under Indian law and government programmes and promises.
Like 810 million Indians entitled to subsidised food on account of being below the official poverty line, Maity could take recourse to the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, and buy her foodgrain—theoretically—anywhere in India through the One Nation One Ration Card programme, which allows access to the Public Distribution System outside home states.
Driven by frequent flooding of their 1-acre farmland in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, the Maitys came to Udaipur, in the northern state of Rajasthan, around 2016. She was refused by the owner of the fair-price store, as shops selling subsidised food grain are called.
“The shop owner says I won’t get it because I am a Bengali,” Maity told Article 14, recounting an experience shared by dozens of women in Udaipur’s Malda Street, a hub of Bengali migrants in the desert state.
Until work resumed slowly around July-August 2020, her family including two children survived on food packets distributed by charitable organisations even though the Maitys are registered as NFSA beneficiaries in their native village.
Some days, there was barely enough food. “On other days, it was the cheapest thing available,” she said, “bread, or just rice.”
Maity has resumed working—she packs little balls of candied tamarind into tiny plastic pouches; five balls to a pouch; 50 pouches in a box; 40 boxes to a bag that will fetch her Rs 60—but began to suffer debilitating back aches from hunching over the boxes of her produce for hours at a stretch. She was willing to pack two bags a day, but there wasn’t enough demand for toffees, the employer told her.
Maity is among millions of Indians who faced unprecedented hardships in accessing work, wages and food during the nationwide lockdown imposed to tackle the spread of Covid-19 cases in the country. Several reports following surveys by civil society groups (here, here and here) have said the acute distress of the lockdown months directly affected consumption of food, nutrition levels and healthcare among India’s poor, indicating a possible worsening of malnutrition and undernutrition.
On 14 October, the Global Hunger Index (GHI), a peer-reviewed annual report published by two international aid organisations, ranked India 101 among 116 countries, with a score of 27.5 that pegged its hunger as a “serious” crisis, despite improvements in some indicators since 2000.
An October 2021 statement issued by the government of India’s ministry of women and child development called the report “shocking”, “devoid of ground reality and facts” and methodologically flawed. It listed various interventions by the government during the lockdown to “ensure food security of the entire population”.
The GHI 2021 report, however, said clearly that developments from 2021 were not reflected in the latest score, based on data until 2019—the full effects of the pandemic on India’s hunger levels will only be reflected in coming years. Meanwhile, the government’s own survey reports on nutrition show persistent serious levels of under-nutrition, especially among women and children, levels significantly worse than pan-Asia averages. On the parameter of ‘wasting’ or children weighing too little for their height, India’s levels are among the worst in the world.
While the government’s retort to the GHI ranking included a list of measures to make more subsidised or free rice and wheat available to India’s poorest hit by the pandemic, its own data showed wide gaps in the implementation of key nutrition schemes for children, adolescent girls and women during the lockdown.
India’s GHI ranking fell from 94 among 107 countries listed in the GHI in 2020, but this would be a mechanical, problematic interpretation of the GHI, said R Ramakumar, NABARD chair professor of economics at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai. For one, the methodology was revised. Two, ranks are not comparable with previous years’ rankings, for the total number of countries assessed, and which countries, are not constant.
“But if you look at the so-called emerging economies among which India counts itself, such as Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, their scores on the GHI are in single digits. India’s score is still in double digits,” Ramakumar told Article 14.
Ramakumar said India had to travel an “enormous distance” to be anywhere closer to these countries on indicators of food availability, meal diversity and nutrition.
The GHI report gives every country on its list a score, and India’s score has actually marginally improved, though its ranking has dropped. This is on account of a marginal fall in how many children are recorded as ‘stunted’ or too short for their age, one of several indicators of undernourishment or malnourishment among children. The drop in ranking is on account of other countries’ greater improvement on some parameters.
On the slight improvement in the score itself, he said there is “nothing to celebrate” when the problem remains as serious as it was a few years back. “Your condition is very bad regardless of marginal improvement,” said Ramakumar.
Nutrition Levels In Pre-Covid India
According to the latest Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) of 2016-18, 34.7% of Indian children under the age of five are too short for their age (categorised as stunted), and 13.2% are severely stunted.
The percentage of children under five years who weigh too little for their height (wasted) is 17.3%, and 4.9% are severely wasted. More than a third of all children under five are underweight, and one in every 10 is severely underweight.
Only 21% of children aged six to 23 months were fed an adequately diverse diet with four or more food groups; only 9% of children in this age group received iron-rich foods. In Jharkhand and Rajasthan, only 12% children in this age bracket received a ‘minimum diverse diet’.
Among children aged five to nine years in some states, the consumption of milk or curd was particularly low—20% in Chhattisgarh, 22% in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh and 23% in Odisha.
Other reports have red-flagged India’s performance on child nutrition too: The Global Nutrition Report of 2020 pointed out that 34.7% of children under five being too short for their age is higher than the average for the Asia region (21.8%).
On wasting, or children who weigh too little for their age, “India has made no progress towards achieving the target”, the report said. At 17.3% of children under five, India has a higher stunting rate than the average for Asia (9.1%), also “among the highest in the world”.
A 2019 paper by the India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative Malnutrition Collaborators, led by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that malnutrition was the predominant risk factor for death in children younger than five years of age in every Indian state in 2017.
Of the 1.04 million under-5 deaths in India in 2017, as many as 706,000 could be attributed to malnutrition, more than two out of three, the report found. If the trends continue, the targets of the National Nutrition Mission or Poshan Abhiyaan for 2022 and World Health Organisation and Unicef targets for 2030 will not be achieved in most states, the paper said.
That was before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
In post-Covid India, data will most likely bear witness to the multiple survey reports that showed a decline in consumption levels, said Ramakumar. “In all probability,” he said, “malnutrition would have worsened.”
‘For A Year, We Survived Only On Charity’
Saurabh Singh, who runs the Innervoice Foundation, an NGO based in Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, had not planned to undertake food-distribution drives, having worked since 2005 on the issue of arsenic poisoning of ground water in areas along the Ganges.
“But a wave of destroyed livelihoods went through this region, and 25% of the population who depend on petty jobs were hit terribly,” Singh told Article 14. He listed some of those rendered penurious overnight: the large community of boatmen; the women in their households who work as domestic help and continue to be unemployed; groups of migrant workers who had no access to foodgrain under the Public Distribution System (PDS); workers in the saree-packaging industry; workers in the marketplaces; weavers; bamboo craftspersons; and agricultural labourers.
“Those who had some savings also needed grocery kits a few months later, the requests never stopped coming,” said Singh. At donation drives where 200 kits are to be distributed, more than 500 very needy people continue to turn up, he said.
The desperately needy cut across caste and class in the districts of Prayagraj, Chandauli and Varanasi where his group conducted donation drives. “In one village, a formerly well-off family was burning dried leaves every evening to give the impression of a meal being cooked,” said Singh. “They finally accepted help after neighbours told us.”
About 1,500 km southwest, in the financial capital of India, the Khaana Chahiye Foundation, which began working on 29 March 2020 as a crowd-sourced and volunteer-driven initiative to combat hunger, has not been able to end its operations 18 months later. More than 7 million cooked meals and 71,000 grocery kits later, requests still pour in everyday.
At a drive to hand over free 17-kg kits to 200 beneficiaries, Chetan Kamble, a local partner of Khaana Chahiye, said when they surveyed the Ambedkar Nagar colony in Dadar, a former slum razed and redeveloped 11 years ago into a set of buildings with matchbox-sized homes, they drew up a first list of 500 that had to be whittled down to only the most desperate.
“Pavement dwellers and slum-dwellers we are in touch with are eating just rice, wheat, salt and chutney,” said Kamble, who coordinates a group of volunteers called Chakachak Dadar. The donated grocery kits include dal, “the only protein people are getting”.
Ambedkar Nagar’s people have a quiet pride—Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar lived here briefly, and studied under a lamp-post across the road, residents said. “But for more than a year we have survived on charity,” said Bhimabai Aagonde, 61, who used to earn a living selling flowers outside the famous Siddhivinayak temple in central Mumbai. With places of worship closed, Aagonde was without an income until September 2021, her carpenter husband faring no better.
A home they built in their native village in Poladpur, in the coastal district of Raigad, was washed away by Cyclone Tauktae. “It wasn’t difficult to make changes in the kitchen. We can only cook what is affordable now,” said Aagonde.
The Aagondes, including a daughter who is a recent graduate but jobless and a son who is a student, ate a single item a day through the lockdown, either khichdi, or dal-rice. Aagonde pawned various items of jewellery with a local goldsmith since the lockdown, for a few thousand rupees each time.
Swaraj Shetty, one of the founders of Khaana Chahiye, said they distributed 51,000 grocery kits since the peak of the second wave of Covid-19 cases, in the summer of 2021. In September 2021, when they tied up with WhatsApp to create a chatbot in Hindi, Marathi and English to “report hunger”, there was a resurgence in requests for food aid.
“There was a consistent demand from some groups, they had had little improvement in their condition since the start of the lockdown,” Shetty told Article 14.
Ruben Mascarenhas, also a co-founder, said Khaana Chahiye’s experience on the ground validated the GHI ranking.
“Activities have resumed, but there is an underlying hunger that persists,” he said. “People have work, but less work or lower incomes. Already vulnerable groups, such as construction workers, transgender people, commercial sex workers, are not able to afford even what little they managed earlier.”
Reality Check: Public Distribution System During Covid-19
Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) or the Prime Minister’s Food-For-The-Poor Programme, the government provided, free of cost, an additional 5 kg of foodgrain per person and 1 kg of pulses per household to those who are beneficiaries of the PDS under the NFSA.
While the PMGKAY was reported to have kept thousands from starving, it was not a catch-all, mainly on account of leaving out those not already beneficiaries of the PDS. The application of outdated census 2011 data to fix coverage under the PDS has led to 400 million being left out of the subsidy net.
Veteran activist Nikhil Dey, a steering group member of the Right To Food campaign, said it is “criminal” that the NFSA uses 2011 census data to identify beneficiaries. “Look at what has happened in the 10 years since, and the pandemic comes at the end of that 10-year period,” Dey told Article 14.
He countered the government’s claim of feeding 800 million Indians during the pandemic by asking who, in a country of 1.35 billion, were excluded. The additional 5 kg of foodgrain provided during the pandemic was only for some months, and limited to people already getting subsidised grain under the NFSA.
In Rajasthan, more than 800,000 social security scheme pensioners (senior citizens) and 400,000 disability pensioners are excluded from the NFSA, he said. “These are people who are getting a government pension of Rs 200 per month, with the state government adding to that,” Dey said. “Their pension cannot buy them food.”
In the first weeks of the lockdown, more than 600 researchers, academicians and activists from across India wrote to the government suggesting, among other elements of a relief package, that the PDS entitlement be widened to include cooking oil, pulses, salt, spices and soap, and to double the supplementary provision to 10 kg per person per month.
Economists Amartya Sen, Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee wrote an op ed suggesting that as food stocks were three times the norms for buffer stocks, the supplementary provision to PDS entitlement be also extended to those not currently on the PDS rolls. “…a huge number of people will be pushed into dire poverty or even starvation by the combination of the loss of their livelihoods and interruptions in the standard delivery mechanisms,” they wrote.
A More Diverse PDS Basket Can Tackle Under-Nutrition
It was a missed opportunity for universalisation of the PDS, at a time when foodgrain stocks had hit a record high.
Widely availed during the pandemic, the PDS performed a vital function in preventing starvation, said Amit Basole, PhD, associate professor of economics at School of Arts and Sciences, Azim Premji University, who led a series of surveys on the impact of Covid-19 and relief measures.
He said most survey reports agreed that the large majority, about 80% to 90 % of BPL families, were beneficiaries. There were variations, however, in whether they received the additional free quota of 5 kg, and how much they received. “... but most did receive something in excess of the usual quota,” he said.
Some improvements in the PDS could have improved poor Indians’ access to nutritious meals, he said. These include a more diverse basket instead of only cereals; more effective supply networks and care to ensure that the One Nation One Ration Card programme effectively provided migrant workers their NFSA entitlements.
But even these may not suffice to improve India's pre-Covid levels of nutrition.
Faced with a grave income shock, the PDS provides poor Indians a bare minimum supply of foodgrain that helps keep them from starving. “But to actually improve nutrition levels, incomes need to come back, people need to start feeling comfortable about spending money again, about consuming items such as meat and green vegetables, which fall out of the family’s food basket immediately,” said Basole.
Data from independent thinktank Centre For Monitoring Indian Economy shows that employment in India has improved dramatically in recent weeks. But the World Bank has warned that per capita income levels will take longer to recover.
Audit Of Food Security Welfare Schemes Needed
An analysis of offtake of foodgrains under various welfare schemes is revelatory.
The school mid-day-meal scheme, recently renamed PM-Poshan, covers all school children studying in Classes 1 to 8 in government and aided schools, about 118 million children.
In 2019-20, according to the government’s bulletin on foodgrain, of 2.11 million of rice and 420,000 tonnes of wheat allocated for this scheme, offtake was only 1.68 million tonnes and 396,000 tonnes, respectively. Rice offtake under this scheme in 2018-19 was 1.72 million tonnes. In 2014-15, it was 2 million tonnes. This means the key scheme was consuming less grain than allocated, and lower quantities of rice over the past few years.
In 2020-21, though schools remained closed, the year-long offtake under the scheme was 2.30 million tonnes of rice and 545,000 tonnes of wheat, less than allocations once again, but more than in previous years when schools were functional.
During the pandemic, however, monthly bulletins showed negligible offtake for school midday meals. For the period April and May 2020, offtake was 221,000 tonnes of foodgrain, out of an allocation of 1.22 million tonnes. For the period April to October-end 2020, offtake was 1.19 million tonnes, out of an allocation of 2.82 million tonnes. In comparison, for the same period the previous year, offtake was 2.11 million tonnes.
So during the worst months of the lockdown, a key nutrition programme for school-going children consumed only a little over half the quantity of grain as it did the previous year.
The supplementary nutrition programme of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, which caters to an estimated 158 million children in the 0-6 years age group, targets children, pregnant women and lactating mothers.
Under this programme, in 2020-21, offtake of grain was 613,000 tonnes of rice (allocation 1.06 million tonnes) and 755,000 tonnes of wheat (allocation 1.14 million tonnes), the offtake higher than the previous two years despite the closure of anganwadis and logistical problems faced by care workers tasked with delivering dry rations to beneficiaries instead.
Again, the period for the hard lockdown months show the scheme, a key element in India’s battle against child malnutrition, slowing to a crawl. In April and May 2020, offtake under ICDS was 210,000 tonnes of grain, against an allocation of 2.2 million tonnes.
By the end of October 2020, this offtake grew to 722,000 tonnes cumulatively under the ICDS. During the same period the previous year, ICDS offtake of grain was 1.23 million tonnes—food given to children during this period was 500,000 tonnes less than in 2019.
Then there are the smaller programmes, for hostels and welfare institutions, such as shelter homes for women, beggars, etc; a scheme for adolescent girls and the Annapurna scheme for senior citizens, all meant to ensure a measure of food security for highly vulnerable groups.
For hostels and institutions, offtake in 2020-21 was 106,000 tonnes of rice and 34,000 tonnes of wheat, down from the previous year’s 345,000 tonnes of rice and 56,000 tonnes of wheat. The Annapurna scheme only saw a negligible offtake of 3,000 tonnes of rice, while offtake under the scheme for girls was 1,000 tonnes of rice and 3,000 tonnes of wheat, all significantly lower than previous years.
The PMGKAY and Atma Nirbhar Bharat Programme (for migrants, only applicable for 2020-21) also saw lower offtake than allocations, despite continuing distress reported by aid organisations working on the ground.
In 2021-22, until August-end, of 14.94 million tonnes of rice and 12.88 million tonnes of wheat allocated under PMGKAY, offtake was only 9.59 million tonnes and 7.91 million tonnes, respectively.
Low offtake in comparison to allocations is evidence of inefficiencies in delivery, said Dey, the right to food campaigner. About 10%-15% of all beneficiaries are unable to avail their entitlement on account of various filters such as thumb impressions or other biometric data not matching, or because they migrated to a different state, etc.
“These are multiple exclusions among those who are beneficiaries under NFSA,” he said. He said the Rajasthan govt has written to the centre seeking permission to instead give that quota of grain to those waiting to be included as NFSA beneficiaries, having won their appeals. “But the list remains frozen,” Dey said.
As Fuel Prices Rise, Home Food Budgets Shrink
“Diesel mehenga, petrol mehenga, gas mehenga, bhaaji-tarkaari mehenga. (Diesel, petrol, cooking gas and vegetables are all more expensive.) We have reduced the items and quantities of what we eat,” said Santosh Mane, a former real estate broker in Dadar who has been out of work since the lockdown was imposed.
Two major corporate employers in the vicinity closed down their offices, leading to a cascading effect for people like Mane: there are no longer employees of these offices looking for inexpensive rental apartments in the area, and a dramatic drop in rental values led to very low brokerage. Those who provided cooked meals to these tenants are out of work, and street-vending in the vicinity is no longer sustainable.
Domestic worker and single mother Sangeeta Shelar has had to diversify, and now sells vegetables for marginal profits that supplement her income from working in a single apartment. She suspended physical therapy sessions for her six-year-old differently-abled son. “Even then, we eat well only for 15 days a month, baad mein kuch kuch karke chala lete hain (later we get by somehow),” she said.
Back in Udaipur, Santosh Poonia, programme manager for Aajeevika Bureau, a workers’ collective, remembered the initial months of the pandemic as an emotionally exhausting time for those trying to organise aid for stranded migrant workers. Along with state government officials and his team, they set up a helpline.
“I was receiving 1,000 to 1,100 phone calls everyday from anguished people, some had gone days without any food at all,” Poonia told Article 14. “We had never seen this kind of helplessness over inability to access food.”
A year and half later, Poonia’s team now works to resolve workers’ disputes, intervene to get them their outstanding dues, and advise those planning to return to the cities. “Their crisis has not ended,” he said.
Meanwhile, Maity and her friends from Udaipur’s Malda Street, all Bengalis, said they hoped to double the quantity of tamarind candies they pack, if demand picks up a little, enough to pack two bags a day, for Rs 120.
A monthly earning of about Rs 3,000 is their target, said Maity. “That is the bare minimum,” she said, “to eat decently well throughout the month.”
(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14.)