21 Day Coronavirus Lockdown in India May Starve the Poor to Death

India’s poor who live hand-to-mouth simply cannot survive a week, let alone three weeks.

Published25 Mar 2020, 01:10 PM IST
Blogs
3 min read

India is officially under 21 days of lockdown. This order is effectively a death warrant for the country’s poor and vulnerable. India ranks 102 out of 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index. Eighty percent of the workforce labours in the unorganised sector. The prime minister and finance minister have made Kafkaesque televised speeches, but have yet to announce a relief package. Without food, starvation deaths are inevitable.

India’s poor who live hand-to-mouth simply cannot survive a week, let alone three weeks of corona quarantine, unless their kitchens are stocked with grain.

In Greater Mumbai, a rapid assessment of 800 households, a fortnight ago, by the NGO YUVA has already rung alarm bells. Vulnerable communities such as the homeless, elderly, transgenders, nomadic tribes, daily wagers, street vendors have been the hardest hit. Food intake has drastically reduced. People who survive on alms are increasingly being shunned.

Why We Are Looking at Serious Starvation Issues

The penniless migrant labourers are already desperately fleeing cities, some even without their accrued wages. Extending curfews to rural villages before the harvest will wreck farm outputs and livelihoods. Even in China, only one province was quarantined.

India is the only developing country which has imposed a lockdown without first delivering any social security support for the poor.

Despite pronouncements, governments in states with high levels of malnutrition such as Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Bihar have so far not delivered any additional rations to homes and this lockdown may well be the last straw.

However, some wealthier states of their own have initiated measures. Kerala’s ₹20,000 crore package includes advance pensions, cash grants, NREGA employment, subsidised meals, and home delivered dry rations for young children. In Delhi, cooked meals have commenced at night shelters. West Bengal will provide six months of rations. Rajasthan will deliver food packets to both those with and without ration cards. Uttar Pradesh, too, plans to give ₹1000 to all unorganised sector workers. In Tamil Nadu apart from cash, free rice, sugar, essential commodities and facemasks will soon be distributed from ration shops.

Why is Modi Government Not Saving Vulnerable Indians from Hunger?

But to prevent starvation, the centre also needs to do its duty. While the finance minister has allowed states to lift three months of food stocks in advance, the poor simply cannot afford to purchase grain in bulk. The need of the hour is to immediately deliver at least 10 kilos of foodgrain free of cost to 800 million Indians for whom the PDS is a lifeline. After a reprimand from the Supreme Court, the HRD Ministry has finally advised state governments to provide children with freshly cooked meals or food security cash allowance till schools reopen, but so far even this has not been implemented.

With the elderly the most vulnerable to the virus, the time is also ripe to initiate universal pensions as 63 percent of eligible pensioners are currently left out.

NREGA workers also urgently need to be paid ₹1600 crore of delayed wages. And all urban and rural unorganised sector workers and farmers need universal cash support to tide this gargantuan social crisis.

India’s Poor Immediately Need Free Food Rations

World over countries have initiated similar packages. Britain announced a lockdown but simultaneously promised to pay 80 percent of wages up to £2,500 a month for every citizen. The White House plans to provide $1000 to all Americans. Australia has committed 1 percent, Canada 3 percent and Portugal 4 percent of GDP for stimulus packages to protect citizens and the economy. Spain has overnight nationalised the healthcare system. Former Indian finance minister P. Chidambaram estimates that an essential package will cost at least ₹5 lakh crores. Even corporate magnates have recommended universal cash transfers to prevent destitution.

Undoubtedly, the corona virus is the worst pandemic in a century. Globally so far 14,600 people have perished and 335,000 have been infected. With the lockdown imposed, time is ticking. The central government needs to act wisely, ably and fast. India’s poor immediately need free food rations.

In the eerily prophetic movie The Contagion, as citizen’s stockpile food and ravage supermarkets, the fictitious pandemic triggers food and vaccine riots. With the world’s largest malnourished population in India, manmade hunger may be more virulent than coronavirus.

(The author is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Development. She tweets at @SNavatar. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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