‘Republic of hunger’ in the Time of ‘Lockdown’


When some media outlets reported about starvation of the stranded workers during the lockdown due to the coronavirus, several other heartbreaking incidents came to light. 39 year old Ranveer Singh died midway as he walked from Delhi to Morena in MP. He was a delivery boy in a Delhi restaurant and left the capital because there was no social and economic security left after everything was shut. This poignant case is just one example of deaths which could have been completely avoided, that happened not because of the virus, but because of the not-so-thought-out, unplanned lockdown.

Millions of peoples who were worked in the gig economy now are unemployed. Since these jobs are not permanent, workers don’t have any provision of monthly income or social security related to labour laws. More than 90 percent of the workforce in India is working in the ‘informal’ sector. The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and the Code on Social Security, 2019 are unable to protect their livelihood. Moreover, millions of ‘street children’ and homeless people are living on the roads without any considerations or adequate provisions. Wherever they are ‘dealt’ with, they are stuffed together in huge numbers without any guarantee of food and hygiene. When Prime minister Narendra Modi announced the three (now five) weeks lockdown, his government did not think about informal sector workers, street children and homeless people. Although the main argument of government on lockdown is to save lives and control the pandemic, in reality, out of sheer negligence, it left certain sections to starve and even die.

As per the Global Hunger Report 2019, India’s position in the index is 102 out of 117 countries. Neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh are better than India in this index. The portion of undernourished in the population is 14.5 percent. 37.9 percent children under five years are stunted and 20.8 percent children under 5 year are wasted. Another serious food related issue is anaemia. More than 50 percent of women and children are struggling with anaemia. Another study regarding diet related deaths by Lancet shows 310 deaths per one lakh in 2017. In 2016, 28.1 percent of the total deaths are caused by cardiovascular diseases.  Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading cause for deaths due to lack of a complete diet. According to the National Sample Survey, 68 percent population of rural India are not able to access 2200 calories(benchmark nutritional norms to define poverty) in 2011-12 and 65 percent of the urban population are not able to consume 2100 calories in same year. This data shows that India’s condition is bad as it is and that lockdown will only worsen the health condition of people further.

Availability of food is another pertinent problem in India. Per person food absorption has been declining slowly after economic reforms in the country. Data of the Ministry of Agriculture and Family welfare shows that the net availability of food grains per person per year was 177.9 kg in 2016 while 186.2 percent in 1991. While, in 2015, China and Bangladesh’s food availability per capita were 450 kg and 200 kg respectively. This picture is alarming for healthcare in India. Utsa Patnaik, in her article “ The Republic of Hunger” (2004), stated that “this country with was once a developing economy, but which has been turned into the Republic of Hunger.”

The stock of foodgrains in central pool till December 2019 was 564 metric ton. This highlights the incompetency and more importantly, a lack of will of the government to not distribute available  food grains to its population. As Jean Dreze writes, “how would you feel if a family were to let its weakest members starve, even as the House’s granary is full to the brim.” He stressed the need for the central government to unlock the godowns and supply food to the States. Although there are some measures like food distribution by state governments, disbursal of Rs. 500 to 4.07 crore women as ‘ex-gratia’ in PMJDY account holders, these are not sufficient to tackle the hunger related problems.  Quoting Utsa Patnaik, “When as a ground reality, the incidence of hunger rises, a ‘denial mode’ amongst those who govern and amounts those who are associated with making or influencing policy… is common as to be expected.”

Already, India is struggling with severe hunger problems, the lockdown will push further deprivation amongst the people. Workers think that they will die of hunger before the virus kills them. While historically, hunger and poverty has been used as tools of ‘disciplining’ a population, civil society as an institution to criticise policies and demand rectification also has its hand tied because of the lockdown. Most media outlets are far from responsible journalism and are busy communalising the pandemic. Workers are scattered, scrambling to make ends meet and there is literally no way for activists to come out and protest against the enormity of injustice with the poor.

For the sake of saying, the virus does not discriminate between people, but in reality, it does. To begin with, it was a rich man’s disease that has now been passed on to the poor who lack the strength to fight it, both physically, and financially. People who are daily wage labourers and barely manage two square meals a day are incapable of stocking ration and supplies so that they can sit at home and practice social distancing norms (most of them, not ironically, do not even have homes).

A decent life is a fundamental right of the people. But the government is leaving the masses to think that even ‘survival’ is a privilege. If India doesn’t want to label the death of these workers as ‘collateral damage’, the government must ensure universal nutritious food for all and also ensure minimum income for majority whereby people can purchase non-food essentials. Only ‘cards’ based ration cannot solve the problem of hunger in India. What is urgently required is the politicisation of the issue of hunger, otherwise, through neglect and unsound policies, the government will lead large sections of its own population to death.

Shashi Kant Tripathi, Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University



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