Hunger grips India under Covid: Millions of people not getting food

Despair for those unable to access subsidized food is growing amid reports of the worst famine in two decades.

When the devastating second wave of Covid-19 swept through India in April, Nazia Habib Khan’s second marriage came to an abrupt halt after a year of beatings and abuse. The 28-year-old daughter of migrants from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh returned to live with her mother, brothers and sister-in-law in Mumbai.

Their 40-square-meter (400-square-foot) house in Kurla East stands huddled together among 800 or so brick, tin and tarpaulin houses in Qureshi Nagar, and the whole slum town shudders when a train whizzes by on the nearby railroad track.

Khan once worked as a hospital janitor and then as a domestic worker, washing dishes and floors, but now she has no job, no income, and no savings. To minimize tension and quarrels in her crowded home, she waits every morning and evening for a small bag of food from a community kitchen run by a women’s action group.

Khan has depended entirely on food aid ever since the kitchen opened in April to provide free meals to poor and unemployed slum dwellers. She comes every day and eats lunch and dinner for herself and her two daughters, ages 10 and 11 months.

“My own earnings are zero, so I try to make sure that feeding my children is not an extra expense for my family,” Khan says. One evening last week, her baby girl had a high fever and Han couldn’t leave the house. She asked a neighbor’s 10-year-old boy to put together a meal of kichdi (rice and lentils), roti sabzi (bread and vegetables) or pulao rice dish. “The alternative was to sleep hungry.”

Khan and her daughters are among the millions of Indians who cannot receive subsidized rice and wheat under the Indian National Food Security Act (NFSA), a 2013 law that entitles 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population to highly subsidized food through the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). Two-thirds of Indians qualify for quotas in various categories upon presentation of a food card at designated “fair price stores.” TPDS is one of the world’s largest food distribution networks.

India’s internal migrants, who have long been unable to exercise their right to food because they live far from their home states where they are registered to receive benefits, now face more hunger and despair than at any time in the past two decades. A Pew Research analysis in March found that the number of the poorest people in India — those earning $2 or less a day — has increased by 75 million because of the Covid recession.

The slums of Kurla are home to day laborers and women working as domestic servants or maids, all migrants from other states whose ration cards are registered to their home addresses or who have no ration card at all.

Among Khan’s neighbors are the drivers whose families collect their quota of grain from homes in Uttar Pradesh, as well as men from the poorest villages of Tamil Nadu who live in groups and make their living selling idlis (steamed rice cakes). There are also itinerant traders of laundry detergent and steel wool, hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. Jobs and incomes for most households have fallen sharply. In April 2020 alone, 122 million Indians lost their jobs, including almost all day laborers.

The community kitchen in Kurla, on which Khan depends, has asked for more funding as the number of poor and hungry who use its services grows. “We now deliver 1,300 meals a day,” says Sujata Sawant, who runs the kitchen. “And 90 percent of those who take our food have no other source.”

Sawant collected donations for 14,500 food parcels in 2020, but in the two months since the second blockade in May of this year, she has already distributed 4,500 of them.

On June 29, responding to the plight of migrant workers in urban India caused by Covid, the Supreme Court ordered key reforms, including the accelerated implementation of a “one nation, one ration card” scheme that would allow migrants to buy subsidized grains from retail outlets anywhere in the country while their families continue to claim their rights at home. The nation’s highest court set a July 31 deadline for this, and also ordered all temporary workers and migrants to register and set up community kitchens for workers at least until the end of the pandemic.

“This will still leave millions of people without food cards at all,” said Mukta Srivastava, head of the Right to Food campaign in Maharashtra, a coalition of civil society groups whose lobbying led to the passage of the NFSA. “This isolation in the current economic climate exacerbates hunger,” she says.

About 800 million people currently use the NFSA. But 67% of India’s 1.3 billion population should be eligible. Economists Jean Dreze, Retika Kher, and Meghna Mungikar estimate that the population shortfall from statutory coverage is more than 100 million.

The number of Indians living below the international poverty line (less than $2 a day) has grown during the pandemic. One of the court’s instructions was to consider redetermining the total number of NFSA beneficiaries. However, despite the pandemic’s impact on jobs and the economy, the government’s main think tank, the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), reportedly recommended reducing the percentage of coverage in rural and urban areas, reducing the overall coverage of the Food Security Act.

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