Hunger and COVID-19 – India must ensure food and health for all

April 30, 2020

India has enforced a 40-day lockdown to halt the spread of COVID-19, lauded as one of the strictest state measures in the world. 1008 virus-caused deaths have been recorded so far, an arguably low number for the second-most populous country in the world. A closer look, however, reveals that a large percentage of the population has fallen through the cracks of the government measures intended to support them. India pulled off a lockdown at an unparalleled scale because people put their trust in the government, often at the cost of their dignity, livelihoods, and lives. For many marginalized people, that faith has not been repaid so far.

As a humanitarian organization in the US working with groups across India for 29 years, the Association for India’s Development has supported COVID-19 relief through its partners, by providing food and protective equipment in more than 70 districts in 16 states across India. However, the need on the ground is much greater than what charity can address. We share a grassroots perspective of the demands for universal food security and healthcare, by centering the voices of those left on the wayside in the fight against COVID-19.

Millions of workers who migrate seasonally to cities in search of daily wage labor have been severely affected by the lockdown. Stranded far from their homes without income, thousands had to undertake journeys on foot across state borders for over hundreds of miles to their native places. Kiran Vissa, an activist working in Telangana, helps run a private helpline for migrant workers, which was inundated with over 25,000 requests for food in just 6 days. This is in Hyderabad city, where the state govt had already announced that 350,000 migrant workers will get rations, while the actual number of migrants is likely to be 2 million. Without formal labor rights and government records, even the limited government ration evades a large number of stranded workers, (over 90% in a recent survey). The Stranded Workers Action Network estimates that at the end of the first phase of the lockdown, the need for food among the stranded workers was increasing almost five times faster than ration was reaching them.

Food insecurity and the resulting health concerns are compounding along class and gender lines, with the homeless, slum dwellers, sex workers, malnourished women and children becoming even more vulnerable than before. In rural India too, the scale of hunger is unprecedented. When social activist Ayesha Khatun was distributing masks in Jharkhand, a tribal child asked her why she was muffling their voices while they were forced to go hungry. During the lockdown, the government had asked private employers to refrain from cutting wages. But as the biggest employer in rural India, the government has long-pending dues in the payment of wages under the national rural employment guarantee scheme. There is an overwhelming need for the government to step up and ensure food security for all.

The Food Corporation of India reports 77 million tonnes of food grains in their reserve, with more to be procured after the spring harvest. The urgent need of the hour is to distribute enough food grain through a universal public distribution system in a decentralized manner. Over 100 million people are not covered by the current public distribution system. It is necessary for this relief to reach the needy without the hassle of ration cards and proof of receipt, at least for the duration of the lockdown – a demand echoed by activists, and economists like Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee, Jean Dreze, and Raghuram Rajan.

Addressing the hunger crisis caused by the lockdown has been the priority of social activists, but the poor disproportionately face a health crisis too. For the millions living in urban slums, social distancing is an impractical concept. Across India, non-COVID healthcare has plummeted, with the closure of numerous private clinics and suspension of basic immunization and primary healthcare facilities. Making these essential services available while ensuring that healthcare workers are protected is of paramount importance. The government has finally announced that the millions of stranded workers can finally go back to their families, but it must ensure that they are afforded safe means of travel, access to COVID-19 testing, and suitable quarantine facilities in the villages.

The pandemic and the lockdown have exposed deep fissures of injustice and inequality in India. But, it is also an opportunity to correct historical mistakes and apathy and chart out a new future for the country. Millions have been affected adversely, but it is not yet too late for the government to heal its people with food, dignity, and healthcare.

Subhayan Sahu and Sridevi Venkatesan volunteer with AID and are part of AID’s COVID-19 Response Team. They are PhD students at the University of Maryland and University of Toronto respectively. 


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