Migrant workers stand in a queue for food at Delhi Govt school. Source: Wikipedia Migrant workers stand in a queue for food at Delhi Govt school. Source: Wikipedia

Deaths by hunger will outpace deaths due to novel coronavirus in India, says Shashi Kant Tripathi

When some media outlets reported about the 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 lockdown.

Millions of peoples who were working in the gig economy are now 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. Any attempts to ‘deal’ with these struggling people have been haphazard and most often without 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 fare 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 years are wasted. Another serious food-related issue is anaemia. More than 50 percent of women and children are struggling with anaemia. Another study on diet-related deaths by Lancet shows 310 deaths per hundred thousand in 2017. In 2016, 28.1 percent of the total deaths were caused by cardiovascular diseases. One of the leading causes of cardiovascular diseases is the 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 the 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.

The 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 which was once a developing economy, but which has been turned into the Republic of Hunger.”

The stock of foodgrains in the central pool till December 2019 was 564 metric tons. 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 40 million women as ‘ex-gratia’ in their Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna (PMJDY) accounts, this is 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 amongst those who are associated with making or influencing policy… is common as to be expected.”

The current lockdown will push its already suffering peoples into further deprivation. Many workers now think that hunger will kill them before the virus. Civil society is unable to criticise policies and demand rectification due to the lockdown. Most media houses have given up any guise of 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.

It is wrong to say that 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.

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