The Hunger Watch report released by Prof. Prabhat Patnaik recently studies how the decline in household incomes owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown, has increased food insecurity and hunger, especially amongst the marginalized and excluded communities.
Hunger Watch report documents the findings of a large-scale survey that was coordinated by the Right to Food Campaign, India, and Centre for Equity Studies. The findings from the survey focussed on obtaining a comparative picture of the food security situations in the month of September-October 2020 vis-a-vis the months before the national lockdown in March 2020. The survey was conducted amongst 3994 households across 11 states of the country, most of whom represented the marginalized and excluded communities.
The survey notes that 7 out of 10 respondents reported in October 2020 that the nutritional quality of their diets had worsened and that around 66% of the respondents were able to consume less than what they used to before the nation-wide lockdown announced by PM Narendra Modi on March 23rd, 2020. People not just forgo more expensive foods like eggs and meat but also cut down the quantity of staple food they consumed. The report also notes that many of the respondents resorted to multiple mechanisms including skipping meals, going to bed hungry, and bought food on credit to cope with the situations.
The report also noted that it was the urban poor who were more affected by the pandemic than their rural counterparts and also that the socially vulnerable groups such as Dalits, PVTGs, Muslims as well as households with single women, aged and disabled were worse off and reported a higher decline in food consumption amongst the respondents. With a larger proportion of urban poor not having access to ration cards (90% of rural respondents had ration cards while only 65% of urban respondents had one while ideally everyone should have had it given that all respondents were from vulnerable households), the Public Distribution System (PDS) has a better reach amongst rural poor.
While PDS, Mid-Day Meal scheme and the ICDS programmes have arguably been the most important policy measures to ensure food security and to overcome malnutrition, the report noted that ‘ we find firstly that the PDS did reach people who were eligible and included in the system and secondly, that those who were not already part of the system remained excluded. Further, it was also quite clear that the PDS was a lifeline for those who got it – without it the situation of food insecurity would have been worse. At the same time, it is also the case that the PDS support was really minimal and despite getting it such high levels of hunger have been reported. The coverage of the other schemes such as mid-day meals and ICDS were not as encouraging with only about half the respondents getting these. With the government allowing the opening of Anganwadi centres in November, it is hoped that the situation has improved, thereby reiterating not just the importance of these schemes but also highlighting the need for inclusion of all eligible populations within it.
Most importantly, the report noted that the recent policy and legislative pronouncements made over the last few months can make the situation much worse. It argues that the recently introduced four labour codes will affect the ability of people to buy food by disempowering the informal sector workers. Further, the three farm Acts, the report states would endanger the PDS system itself as is being argued by the farmers’ movements.
The report also notes that the budgetary allocations made to schemes that address the issue of hunger and malnutrition like ICDS, Mid-Day Meals, Maternity Entitlements in 2021-22 were much lesser than what was the Revised Estimated in 2020-21. The NREGA, India’s lauded Employee Guarantee Scheme during also witnessed a reduction in budgetary allocations by 34.5% in comparison with the revised estimates of the last year.
The Hunger Watch report makes 12 recommendations which are noted under:
- A universal public distribution system that provides every individual with 10 kg grain, 1.5 kg pulses, and 800 gm cooking oil for at least the next six months.
- Nutritious hot cooked meals, including eggs, through Anganwadi centres and school midday meals, to be distributed while following all safety guidelines related to distancing, sanitization, etc.
- No mandatory fortification of any food product
- Universal child care services with a priority to those who are most affected by the COVID pandemic.
- Revival of all services of ICDS, including growth monitoring, additional supplementary nutrition for severely malnourished, and nutrition counseling.
- Maternity entitlements under the Pradhan Mantri Matritva Vandana Yojana without any restrictions on the number of births or conditionalities to be met.
- Enhanced social security pensions of at least ₹2000 per month for old people, single women, and disabled persons.
- Repeal of the Farm Acts and steps to guarantee MSPs not just for rice and wheat but also pulses, oilseeds, and millets.
- Strengthening of the FCI and setting up systems for decentralized procurement of a wide variety of food crops while linking these to food distribution schemes such as PDS, mid-day meals, and ICDS.
- The Food Corporation of India (FCI) was created to save Indians from hunger. It also ensures farmers get a Minimum Support Price (MSP). Despite the additional grains being provided as part of COVID relief, the additional budgetary provision for FCI in the supplementary budget is only Rs 10,000 crores. This continuous underfunding of the FCI means weakening of price support to farmers and pushing them also into further debt. The government of India should provide an adequate budget to strengthen the system of FCI.
- Ensure 200 days of employment per household under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) under the statutory minimum wages. Ensure timely payment of wages.
- Even in urban India, wages for casual work remain abysmally low. Given the lack of social protection and the increasingly private provision of public goods like healthcare and education, a rise in the wage rate from very low levels is not only desirable but urgently needed. As such, there is an urgent need to create a National Urban Employment Guarantee Programme. Variations of this have already been operational in a few states such as Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand
The Hunger Watch report can be accessed here.