A bullet train to hunger

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of expanding social security nets

Updated - May 13, 2021 09:09 pm IST

Published - May 13, 2021 12:15 am IST

A migrant labourer talking to a relative over his mobile phone at Nizamuddin Bridge.

A migrant labourer talking to a relative over his mobile phone at Nizamuddin Bridge.

Pinki is a 28-year-old Dalit woman from Saharanpur, U.P. Her husband met with an accident during the national lockdown in April 2020. The two of them had to sell all their belongings for his treatment and subsequently became dependent on her parents. Such avoidable miseries were heaped on millions due to the unilateral national lockdown in 2020. The monthly report from the Finance Ministry in October stated, “From a trickle in not so distant past to now a sea of humanity coming out on the streets, the people of India have embraced the new normal where self-protection is inseparable from economic activity.” It attempts to poetically celebrate the spirit of resilience among the people by alluding to “self-protection” by shying away from the government’s responsibility of social protection. The experience for the poor is a kind of syndemic: a juxtaposition of the healthcare crisis due to the pandemic and the daily precarity of having to deal with hunger and uncertainty about livelihoods.


The rural-urban divide

As per the State of Working India report 2021 of Azim Premji University, nearly half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work between late 2019 and late 2020 and the poorest 20% of the households lost their entire incomes in April and May 2020. Considering the modest national minimum wage threshold of ₹375 per day (the Anoop Satpathy Committee), 23 crore individuals have been pushed below these minimal earnings. Poverty rates in rural areas have increased by 15 percentage points (pp) and by 20 pp in urban areas.

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A worse impact on the urban poor was also observed in other surveys. For instance, many organisations affiliated with the Right to Food campaign and the Centre for Equity Studies, under the banner ‘Hunger Watch’ (HW), conducted a survey of nearly 4,000 households in 11 States in October 2020. The respondents were equally split between rural and urban. The survey focussed on understanding the hunger and livelihood situation among marginalised communities such as daily wage workers, single women households, people with disability, etc. The differential impact on rural and urban populations came across in this as well. Incomes reduced by half/quarter for more than half the urban respondents while it was a little over one-third for rural respondents. In October, in rural areas, 26% had no income while 30% had no income in urban areas. For only one in five rural respondents, the nutritional quality of food remained “more or less the same” in October compared to pre-pandemic levels. This was doubly worse for urban respondents. While 54% in urban areas had to borrow money for food, it was 16% lower for rural respondents. Nearly two-thirds of the urban respondents had to skip a meal while it was lower (41%) for rural respondents. Urban respondents experienced at least 12 pp more reduction in consumption of grains and pulses compared to rural. In summary, across 13 key parameters, urban respondents were 15 pp worse off compared to their rural counterparts. The conditions are worse when data are spliced by caste, religion and other special forms of vulnerability. For instance, 60% of Muslims, 51% of Dalits, 58% of older persons without caregivers and 56% of single women-headed households went to bed without a meal at least once. This pattern holds true across other parameters too. The number of respondents in each of these categories varies so they are not strictly comparable. However, the uniformity of these numbers across surveys indicates the disproportionate impact faced by some of these more vulnerable communities.

Two important laws

Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population are entitled to 5 kg of foodgrains each month at subsidised prices. Despite well-known exclusions from NFSA due to identification errors as well as using old population estimates, the additional measures announced by the Central government under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana after the national lockdown were restricted to only those already covered by the NFSA. An additional entitlement of 5 kg of foodgrains per individual and 1 kg of pulses per household for free was given to those who hold Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) cards under the NFSA. AAY card holders fall under the extremely poor category. This was discontinued in November. Supplementary rations were available under various State schemes. In the HW survey, a higher proportion of respondents in rural areas (56%) had NFSA cards compared to urban areas (27%). Of the respondents, 36% in urban areas did not have any ration cards compared to 13% in rural areas. Similarly, as per official records, there was a 47% increase in persondays of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20 and a record 72 lakh households completed 100 days of work in one year. The wider coverage of the public distribution system (PDS) and a promise for employment in rural areas have perhaps cushioned the blow to some extent compared to urban areas.

While still a long way to go, NFSA and MGNREGA have at least demonstrated the importance of expanding the social security nets. PDS entitlements are basic survival kits and fall far short of minimal nutritional requirements for a healthy society. As per conservative estimates, there are at least 33 crore very poor households in India. If even the basic survival needs of these households are not ensured, it is like plunging the combined population of Germany, France, the U.K., Spain, Portugal and Italy into irredeemable levels of starvation and malnutrition. With over 100 million tonnes of foodgrain stocks in the Food Corporation of India warehouses (as on May 1), not universalising rations at this stage is akin to taking a bullet train to hunger. The Central government must immediately expand the coverage and quantity under the NFSA for at least one year, increase MGNREGA entitlements to 200 days per household, initiate consultations for an urban employment programme and offer a wage compensation of ₹7,000 per poor household for the next few months.

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