In Wake Of Covid-19, India’s Unfolding Pandemic Of Hunger

01 Jul 2021 8 min read  Share

As the Supreme Court orders community kitchens for the poor and ration cards made usable anywhere in India by 31 July 2021, that still excludes more than 100 million without ration cards. As hunger rises, and nutrition schemes to women and children are disrupted, we explore what can be done.

A line of people waiting for food in Delhi after the second wave of Covid/SANDEEP YADAV FOR KARWAN E MOHABBAT

New Delhi: The Covid-19 pandemic shrank India’s economy by -7.3% in 2020-21, an estimated 66% of those interviewed in one survey lost jobs, the number of those living in poverty is estimated to have doubled to 134 million, more than the populations of Germany and South Korea combined, and the earnings of 230 million sank below the minimum wage. 

As the scale of India’s unemployment and poverty crisis became apparent, the Supreme Court on 29 June 2021 set a month’s deadline to implement a one-nation-one-ration-card system, so that about 690 million registered for food subsidies can get such food anywhere in the country. But that still leaves out more than 100 million who need subsidised food but do not have the ration cards required to get it.

The Supreme Court also ordered the finalisation of a database of Indian migrant workers, many of whom now struggle to put food on the table. This follows a 24 March order to states to provide dry rations and run community kitchens for millions of workers, at a time when India faces a food-on-the-table crisis unprecedented in recent times. 

The first lockdown in 2020, imposed at a four-hour notice, set off a spiral of joblessness and, eventually, hunger. Based on a review of household surveys, a study released on 31 May 2021 by Jean Drèze and Anmol Somanchi found that employment, income and nutrition levels were still much below pre-lockdown levels by the end of 2020. 

Over two-thirds of respondents across 11 states in one October 2020 survey, Hunger Watch, conducted by the Right to Food campaign said they were worse off in terms of quantity and quality of food consumed, compared to February 2020. 

The second wave and resulting burdens of health expenditure as well as localised lockdowns has once again risked the livelihoods of many. Data from the Centre for the Monitoring of the Indian Economy, show that nearly 17 million daily wage labourers and small traders, such as street vendors, lost employment in May 2021 alone.

The concern that with incomes falling, there could be long term impact on nutrition status is compounded by the fact that malnutrition in India was high even pre-Covid. 

Hunger Common Even Before Covid-19

For every year since 2006, the Global Hunger Index has revealed that India ranks poorly even compared to much poorer countries across Asia and Africa: for example, India has consistently ranked below Ghana, Kenya and Nepal. 

While there was some improvement in child malnutrition between 2006 and 2016, the partial results of the most recent National Family Health Survey (5) conducted in 2019 show that there is some reversal of the gains previously made, indicators such as childhood stunting, wasting and underweight worsening in most states (see here and here).        

While malnutrition is affected by multiple factors, the poor quality of diets has been a persistent problem in India. 

A study by Kalyani Raghunathan and others from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) published in 2020, found that the cost of nutritious diets in 2011 constituted approximately 50-60% of male and about 70-80% of female daily wages (the cost of the cheapest foods that meet the food-based dietary guidelines, of the National Institute of Nutrition). They estimated that 45-64% of the rural poor cannot afford a nutritious diet that meets India’s national food-based dietary guidelines. 

Given the trend that real wage growth experienced a slump after 2014 and was negative for certain categories by 2019 and the further depression in wages post the pandemic, it can be expected that an even larger proportion of the population cannot afford nutritious diets currently. 

Two further aspects exacerbate this situation. First, the urban poor have also been badly hit post the pandemic and, second, we are now also witnessing a spike in inflation. However, the response of the government to this hunger crisis has been inadequate and one of denial.


Limited Government Response To Food Security

Between April and November 2020, the government provided 5 kg of foodgrains per person and 1 kg of pulses per household per month for free as part of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) to all those who were beneficiaries of Public Distribution System rations under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013. 

The PMGKAY has now been revived with an announcement for free grain for ration-card holders between May to November 2021 (no pulses). Various field studies show that the PMGKAY has been reasonably effective in reaching the eligible beneficiaries and reports (here and here) suggest that it contributed to keeping many households away from starvation. A number of issues remain: the main problem is that those who do not have ration cards are excluded from this programme.

Many economists and activists have argued for a universal public distribution system (PDS) under the current circumstances, so that every person who is in need has access to at least some foodgrains. 

The present number of beneficiaries is estimated on the basis of 2011 population figures and so cover only 60% of the population as against the 67% mandated by NFSA. The need would most likely be even more in the present context of depressed incomes. For instance, in Delhi alone in 2020, when the government opened an e-portal for coupons for those without ration cards needing rations, more than 6.9 million signed up. 

In 2021, following Supreme Court orders, when the Delhi government started distributing rations to non-ration card holders, it estimated that there would be about 2 million needy people. This is proving to be an underestimate with long queues outside schools where ration is being distributed and many having to return empty-handed. Even the Delhi food and civil supplies minister has been quoted as saying that the number of people who came to the centres was more than expected.

The fact that the One Nation One Ration (ONOR) programme, which allows portability of PDS entitlements, does not address the issue of exclusion, as it only covers those who already have ration cards is also being ignored by the government. Other logistic and implementation issues around ONOR have also not been addressed, and this scheme has so far been a non-starter.

Hunger At A Time Of Stocked Granaries

This situation of hunger and exclusion of people from a subsidised food grains programme exists at a time when the stocks of foodgrains in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) breached records. 

In June 2021, FCI stocks were over 110 million tonnes (MTs) of foodgrain (rice, wheat and coarse cereals) while the buffer stock norms were 41.1 million MTs (as on 1 July 2021). There will be further procurement from November onwards of the kharif  or monsoon crop (which last year was over 55 million tonnes of rice). 

The annual offtake under regular NFSA schemes as well as the additional Covid relief for 2020-21 was around 83 million tonnes. Apart from the fact that a record amount of foodgrain has been exported during the pandemic year, the irony is that the government is willing to sell grains for ethanol production (Rs 20 per kg of rice) at a lower price than it is doing to state governments for distribution to non-NFSA card holders (Rs 22/kg rice). 

The food subsidy would be higher but it is not unaffordable. Last year, the additional subsidy for providing the PMGKAY was around Rs 1.49 lakh crore, 0.8% of the GDP. Further, it would also reduce the cost that the government is spending on holding stocks that it has already procured. 

The availability of basic staples, including foodgrains, pulses and oil, to all households at affordable prices through the PDS could, in present circumstances, substantially address acute hunger. Along with the PDS, India also needs special measures for women and children who are further marginalised and are at greater risk of malnutrition. 

Nutrition of Women And Children Ignored

Through schools and anganwadi centres, pregnant and lactating women and children are entitled to one meal a day in the form of cooked meals or take-home rations. 

During the Covid-19 period, governments were supposed to make alternative arrangements to ensure that this entitlement was protected, as also mandated by the NFSA. In March 2020, the Supreme Court directed governments to ensure that supplementary nutrition/mid-day meals for children and pregnant and lactating women was not affected. 

Most states have made an arrangement for providing cash transfers and/or dry rations through schools and anganwadi centres. However, the implementation has been inadequate and tardy. For example, in lieu of cooking costs of a mid-day meal, the cash given is only about Rs 125 a month. 

This mechanical conversion of existing norms of cooking costs does not take into account the economies of scale involved in providing a cooked meal in school where the infrastructure, cooks salary etc. are also accounted for separately and ingredients are bought in bulk. The same amount is obviously not a substitute for the normal entitlement. 

In some states, dry rations have been provided instead of cash entitlements and these are reported to be better. The Hunger Watch survey found that in October 2020, about 57% of school going children and 48% of anganwadi beneficiaries said that they were not getting any cash and/or food. 

The neglect of monitoring and addressing malnutrition can also be seen from the data on the number of severe acute malnourished (SAM) children who have been identified and treated, a condition defined as very low weight for height and visible wasting.

In response to a question in the Parliament, minister for women and child development Smriti Irani, stated that in 2020, until November, about 1 million SAM children were identified. Compared to the official estimates of SAM (5.75 million) in the country (without even taking into account the increase that may have happened post Covid), this is less than 15% of all children.

The government data on admissions of SAM children in nutrition rehabilitation centres shows that the number of admissions in 2020-21 (91,000) was only half that compared to 2019-20 (197,000). 

In April last year, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic will result in doubling of acute hunger in the world by the end of 2020 and that the lives of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action was taken. 

In India, swift action is missing. Budget 2021 saw a decline of about 30% in allocations for anganwadis and mid-day meals in real terms at a time when the need was to increase the allocation. 

In the absence of adequate attention and investments, it appears apparent we will be grappling with a hunger pandemic, with serious long-term consequences. 

(Dipa Sinha teaches at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.)