Covid lockdown and the Catastrophe of Hunger in India – Part Three

The economic fallout of the Covid-19 lockdowns has created the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. Numerous surveys have revealed the sheer gravity of this unfolding catastrophe in India and the world. Its starkest symptom is mass starvation, which is once again stalking the land.

 In this important series of articles for Covid Response Watch researcher and journalist, Sajai Jose explains the context, the trends and prognosis of hunger in India.

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A nation starved: Could ‘New India’ witness a famine?

“No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” Amartya Sen, perhaps the world’s best-known theorist on famines, has famously stated. According to him, “a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have.”

According to Martin Ravillion, another economist who has closely studied the links between institutions and hunger, factors that increase vulnerability to famine include “poverty, weak social and physical infrastructure, a weak and unprepared government, and a relatively closed political regime.”

Researchers who examined the institutional causes of China’s Great Famine (1959-1961) -considered the worst ever in history with more than 30 million Chinese starving to death- found that “national food production remained well above per-capita subsistence needs, implying that the famine was caused by institutional failure.” Their examination of historic data also showed that “rural regions that produced more food in 1959 actually suffered higher mortality during the famine.”

The expert consensus is clear: famines are not necessarily caused by a shortage of food – rather, they are caused by a lack of access to food, which is in turn determined by human actions (or inaction). More specifically, famines are caused largely by state policies or institutional failure.

India on the brink

At the moment, there is very little in our parliamentary debates, media reports, or social media chatter to indicate that independent India is going through the worst economic and humanitarian crisis in its history. Pandemic-related disruptions have pushed India’s real economy, already in its worst shape in decades, into a deep crisis that has deprived or curtailed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions.

COVID Response Watch LogoWiping out gains made in recent decades, hunger is growing by leaps and bounds in India, the latest assessment coming in the form of the UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI), released in July. According to the report, the prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity in India rose by about 6.8 percentage points in 2018-20. In absolute terms, the number of persons facing moderate to severe food insecurity has increased by about 9.7 crore since the outbreak of Covid-19.

Given the crucial role of institutions and institutional leadership in averting – and conversely, enabling – mass starvation, here is a look at the related political and policy-related conditions in a lockdown-crippled India. Taking cues from the work of Sen and other experts, consider these factors:

Food security compromised by exclusion:  Thanks mainly to good harvests, last year saw several official records – in the amount of food distributed by PDS, in procurement, in grain stock, and in exports. At 120 million tons, the Indian government maintains the largest food stocks in the world. Yet, a sizeable chunk of the vulnerable population remains outside the government’s food security net; hence the cruelly ironic situation now where ‘food mountains’ are surrounded by hungry multitudes.

A key reason is that a large chunk of the population has been systemically excluded from the national food security net. India’s lists of ration cards, the document that entitles citizens to food, cooking fuel and other essentials issued by the government under the National Food Security Act, and the lifeline for the country’s poor, have not been updated in a decade. According to the economist Reetika Khera, “Millions have not been included, especially children under the age of ten… Currently 45% of India’s population is excluded from the National Food Security Act.” A study conducted by Khera and her colleagues found that a staggering number of Indians -more than 100 million- are excluded from the PDS simply because the Union government continues to use outdated Census 2011 data.

The government’s move to link PDS with the Aadhar biometric identity programme has added a further layer of exclusion, with grievous consequences, as when it was found that of 42 starvation deaths recorded in the country since 2017, some 25 were linked to Aadhaar issues. As Khera notes, “The series of starvation deaths in the last five years are also testimony to the extent of exclusion faced by the most marginalised families. The majority of these deaths have occurred in Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim households. None of these deaths are likely to have occurred if the families had ration cards.”

Food security compromised by ideology: The present regime’s ideological agenda, which is reflected in harsh cow protection laws and the rise in vigilante attacks on cattle traders – described as “virulent vegetarianism” by one critic, too is having a serious nutritional impact on vulnerable groups. The journalist Shoaib Daniyal notes, “Around 80 million Indians eat beef, a number which is larger than the population of France, Britain or Italy. Moreover, these beef eaters are some of the poorest, most socially disadvantaged people in the country, consisting mostly of Muslims and Dalits. To make things even worse, alternate sources of protein are simply getting too expensive for many of India’s poorest citizens. The prices of dal, a staple way to take in protein, have simply skyrocketed. As a final straw, many Indian states have also banned eggs from the midday meal, yet again denying Indian children crucial protein because of a religious decree.”

Such systemic social bias is matched by the government’s systemic economic bias, which has consistently put the interests of industry over that of the public even in critical areas such as food security. A good example is its plan for solving the ‘problem of plenty’ in grain stocks. This June, Union Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey announced that the Centre has allocated about 78,000 tonnes of rice, procured at Rs 37 per kg by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to distilleries for the production of ethanol at a subsidised rate of Rs 20 per kg. The Food Ministry intends to increase the grain allocation to industry in coming years, and estimates that about 165 lakh tons of grains will be utilized to produce ethanol by 2025. In the polite words of one analyst, the “decision to use good quality rice to manufacture ethanol is a bad policy for any time, but particularly unethical during a pandemic.”

Food inflation and fuel taxes: Global food prices have been rising steadily since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index, although bumper harvests have so far helped insulate India from a comparable food price hike. However, the prices of edible oils, which depends on imports, increased by as much as 50%, while the prices of pulses – the common man’s protein – rose by up to 15%, increasing the burden on poor households.

While domestic food prices are determined by factors which the government has little control over, such as international food prices and the weather, both Central and state governments – barring a few, like Tamil Nadu – have contributed to food inflation by hiking fuel prices by as much as 20% during this period, far outpacing the rise in international crude oil prices. Contradictory to official claims, the funds raised by taxing fuel are not always spent on welfare measures either, experts say.

Food inflation has serious implications for the health and nutritional status of the poor as it further reduces their purchasing power. A 2011 Asian Development Bank survey revealed how this works on the ground. The survey found that a 30% hike in international food prices had translated to a domestic food price inflation of about 10%, which in turn pushed an estimated 64.4 million more people into poverty across Asia. It also found that a mere 1% increase in food inflation led to an increase of 0.3% in both infant and child mortalities, and 0.5% in undernourishment.

The average Indian household spends nearly half of its monthly income on food –the poor spend as much as 60% or above. Food inflation therefore makes for a double whammy, forcing them to divert an increasingly higher proportion of earnings for food, compromising every other need including health.

Pushing farm sector into chaos: A team of researchers from Azim Premji University who studied the March 2020 lockdown’s impact on India’s farmers and workers, reported, “The lockdown has coincided with the harvest season. This has created shortages of farm labour to carry on harvest- and post-harvest operations. There are reports of farm machinery and trucks being stuck at state borders, further compounding harvest woes.

Farmers are also facing difficulties in buying inputs for crops to be sown in March and April. This sudden shock from the lockdown will lead to the highly indebted farmers borrowing even more—at exorbitant rates of interest—to support sowing in the next season and to support consumption. Labour shortages have led to hurdles in harvesting. When they do manage to harvest, farmers are not able to sell their produce. Media reports show farmers selling for absurdly low prices, or destroying their unsold stock of fruits and vegetables, or seeing their produce rot in mandis for lack of buyers.”

Thanks to three decades of neo-liberal policies and increasingly erratic weather, Indian farmers were an already beleaguered lot when they were hit by the lockdown. However, far from alleviating lockdown-induced hardships on farmers, in September 2020 the Modi government came up with three new legislations aimed to facilitate the corporate capture of India’s farm sector. The protests that erupted all over the country in response to the move, particularly in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, continue to pit the country’s food producers against an  unyielding government. This was a dangerous game to play at any time, but beyond reckless amidst an economic crisis and growing poverty and hunger, putting the nation’s food security at further risk.

Rising autocracy and institutional bias: Be it the blatant misuse of state agencies and draconian legislation to intimidate, silence and imprison critics of the government – whether they are political rivals, journalists, lawyers, activists, or just ordinary people; the brutal suppression of student protests in Delhi campuses in early 2020, institutional bias against minorities and the tacit encouragement of mob lynchings and communally targeted riots, the wrecking of institutions ranging from the parliament or media or the judiciary, the overt patronage of corporate cronies against the public interest – it is impossible to deny that democracy is on life support in Modi’s India.

A series of studies have confirmed – if such confirmation was needed – the steady weakening of democratic institutions, erosion of civil liberties and growing authoritarian tendencies of the government. While the US-based non-profit Freedom House now terms India a “partially free democracy” in its annual rankings, Sweden-based V-Dem Institute was categorical in calling it an “electoral autocracy”. India also slipped two more places to 53rd position in the Economist’s Democracy Index – having already slipped ten places in 2020 to reach the 51st position.

The Modi regime’s series of ineptly conceived and callously implemented policy-catastrophes is closely linked to its fundamentally undemocratic – indeed, anti-democratic – impulses. These include, among others, demonetization of currency notes in 2016, which, apart from being a mass violation of human rights, severely impacted the economy and jobs, hurting India’s working poor the most; the three farm bills being actively resisted by farmers’ groups; and the national lockdown, which imposed extreme hardship on the entire population without warning, while further crippling the economy.

In comparison, India’s South Asian neighbours, with similarly limited resources, have done far more to protect their citizens during the Covid-19 crisis. Bangladesh, for example, “did extremely well when the pandemic hit and it had also launched a good number of stimulus packages to keep people employed despite the shocks,” the World Bank reports. In other words, the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic was no accident, but can be directly traced to the “collapse of the republic.” The decline of democracy in India severely compromises its ability to deal with its accelerating hunger crisis and holds profound implications for the populace, and especially the poorest.

Media under siege: The 2021 World Press Freedom Index ranks India 142nd among 180 countries, squarely blaming Prime Minister Modi and Hindutva activists for creating a climate of fear which discourages journalists from reporting news that is unfavourable to the government. The government’s attacks on press freedom –which includes the use of archaic sedition laws and raids on prominent media houses– come at a time when it is already hampered by the growing concentration of media ownership into the hands of a few big players openly aligned with the regime.

To make matters worse, the economic shock delivered by pandemic-related disruptions have compelled publications to lay-off staff and close bureaus, forcing India’s once cash-rich newspaper industry into the humiliating position of having to seek help from the very government it is supposed to monitor and expose. In turn, this has reduced the coverage of issues related to poverty, hunger and health, paltry in the best of times, to a trickle. In addition, most of the media is content to focus almost exclusively on Covid-19 -the ruling anxiety of its middle class consumers- in turn neglecting critical issues affecting India’s vulnerable majority, hunger chief among them.

Institutional lying and intolerance to criticism: Earlier this month, addressing the beneficiaries of the welfare scheme PM Garib Kalyan Yojna through video conference, PM Modi claimed that the scheme had provided double rations to 800 million people at a cost of Rs 2 lakh crore. He then went on to blame past administrations, boasting that his was the first government to address the problem of starvation. “No citizen went hungry during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the PM asserted. Going by the evidence from countless reports, and official data on the number of hungry in India, this was a monumental lie, mouthed on live video to the very people his policy blunders had reduced to supplicants.

The brazen denial of facts and airing of falsehoods by senior leaders and Modi himself (to the extent where there is a website dedicated to exposing the prime minister’s lies), and routine manipulation or suppression of official data unfavourable to the government, have taken institutional lying to unprecedented levels in present day India. A detailed examination of the government’s pandemic response found that “lying has emerged as a key strategy in the Narendra Modi government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” and “fabricating a fictional reality has long been a strategy to establish and maintain authoritarian control.”

While no government takes criticism well, official intolerance to criticism has reached alarming levels in India under the BJP. To mention just one instance, in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh, during the peak of the Covid second wave, a criminal case was booked against a young man who took to Twitter appealing for an oxygen cylinder for his grandfather, among other things, for “spoiling the atmosphere.”

It’s not unlikely that India’s growing hunger crisis too will be dealt with in a similar fashion in the days ahead. So far, the government has not made any attempt to assess the hunger situation, and has, in fact, been dismissive of any concerns raised about it. A recent response by agriculture minister Parshottam Rupala, when asked about India’s poor rankings in the Global Hunger Index –despite being a top food producing nation– was revealing. India should not pay heed to such reports, he said, “because in this country even street dogs are fed sheera (a sweet dish) after they give birth.”

Can India witness a famine?

The economist Jean Dreze, one of the foremost experts on the links between hunger and policy in India, once said, “The government can’t get away with large-scale famine, but it can get away with chronic hunger. It has become an accepted part of life in India.” Tragic as India’s hunger problem is, it is a fact that Independent India has managed to avert a large-scale famine so far.  However, we are at an unprecedented historical juncture – socially, politically, economically and environmentally – which should force us to ponder whether Dreze’s grim axiom will continue to hold true, and for how long.

It is possible that the innate strengths of India’s welfare architecture, and what is still left standing in India’s institutional checks and balances, will prove alert and resilient enough to prevent a catastrophe. Yet, it must be pointed out that many of the structural conditions –and especially those relating to politics and policy – that have historically led to famines are now in place in the country.

In his exposition of Sen’s work, the political scientist Lawrence Hamilton described the institutional context of the Great Famine in China: “Although this famine in China raged for three years, the government was not pressed to change its disastrous policies: “there was, in China, no parliament open for critical dissent, no opposition parties and no free press.” That sounds increasingly like a description of India under Narendra Modi; after all, record grain stocks apart, India’s hunger crisis is only growing in severity with no remedy –or even official acknowledgment- on the horizon.

The writing is on the wall. The singular issue that has preoccupied India’s public sphere in recent years – whether India is still a democracy- may now literally be a question of life and death for the country’s increasingly desperate –and increasingly hungry– poor.

PS. Experts have suggested several immediate measures to alleviate India’s ongoing hunger crisis. Azim Premji University researchers who studied the impact of last year’s lockdown on India’s working poor made the following proposal: “Any relief measures for this crisis should at minimum consist of three prongs: a universalisation of the PDS, the expansion of direct cash transfers, and an expansion of the rural employment guarantee scheme and its introduction in urban areas.”

However, at the moment, there’s no political discussion – or even rhetoric – about even these basic measures being implemented.

Read Part I of this series

Locked down on empty stomachs: India’s accelerating hunger crisis

Part II

‘By the time a famine is declared officially, it is already too late’


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