Patralekha Chatterjee | Pay heed to shadow pandemic of hunger

Globally, there is a red alert about the shadow pandemic of hunger in the time of COVID-19

More than 1.3 lakh people have died in India since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. There may be an effective vaccine against the coronavirus in the not-too-distant future. But meanwhile, there is the lengthening shadow pandemic of hunger and malnutrition.

Despite the so-called green shoots of recovery in some sectors, demand remains very sluggish. Livelihoods have been gutted. Millions of informal workers are falling through the cracks.

Last month, the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan organised an online public hearing on hunger and malnutrition. At the Hunger Hearings, many of the city’s poorest and those without ration cards and access to the public distribution system narrated their stories.

The stories were similar to the ones I have heard in the past several months in walks through this city. Many people are back at work but at a hugely reduced salary.

Kumar, who works in a South Delhi beauty parlour, is not among the city’s poorest but his take-home earnings are now a third of what he earned before Covid-19 struck.

“My children used to have fruits. Now, they don’t. There is no money,” he told me. Kumar is a father of three children and the sole breadwinner in his family.

If this is the situation in India’s capital city, imagine the situation elsewhere across the country.

In urban areas, most people have to buy their food and therefore are more vulnerable to price fluctuations. A sudden and sharp decrease in their purchasing power can drastically affect the diets of poor people, especially in times of food inflation.

Worryingly, “food prices do not seem to be moderating contrary to earlier expectations, and from just fruits and vegetables the price surge has moved to all the major food components as well,” Joseph Thomas, head of research at Emkay Wealth Management, told Live Mint newspaper last month.

“The urban poor are particularly vulnerable as the economy stagnates in a post-Covid scenario. It is imperative that the Central government should continue the additional foodgrains being provided under the PDS (public distribution system) for another year and supplement in with free pulses, eggs and oil. Without this minimal package, we are unlikely to be able to stave off hunger and starvation in urban areas,” says Biraj Patnaik, executive director of the National Foundation for India and formerly the principal adviser to the commissioners of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case for close to a decade

Food security activists have been saying for quite some time now that the impact of the nationwide lockdown and the ensuing economic crisis continue to disproportionately impact the country’s poor and unorganised sector workers. They argue that though the Central government has announced relief measures such as the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana and the Atma Nirbhar Bharat, many field studies are showing that a lot more needs to be done by way of social protection.

Hunger Watch, a rapid survey across 11 states, initiated by the Right to Food Campaign in partnership with several civil society organisations from mid-September to mid-October, has thrown up grim insights.

Compared to February-March, that is before the nationwide lockdown was clamped, the situation between September and October in sampled households showed 50 per cent less cereal consumption, 62 per cent less pulse consumption, 67 per cent less egg consumption, and 70 per cent reduced green vegetable consumption, according to Hunger Watch findings presented at a recent webinar organised by the Peoples’ Health Movement.

This is bad news, given that India already had a huge malnutrition problem, especially child and maternal malnutrition, even before the pandemic.

Globally, there is a red alert about the shadow pandemic of hunger in the time of Covid-19. The coronavirus pandemic will see over a quarter of a billion people suffering acute hunger by the end of the year, according to new figures from the World Food Programme (WFP), the food assistance wing of the United Nations. According to the WFP, the latest figures show that the lives and livelihoods of around 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic, up from the current 135 million.

How steeply is malnutrition mounting in India? How severely have children been affected? The short answer — we don’t know!

There is no official data on this in the public domain just as there is no official data on migrant workers who died during the lockdown.

“At a time when surveys by civil society organisations, such as Hunger Watch by Right to Food campaign, are showing mounting hunger and reduced intake of pulses, vegetables, eggs etc across India, in both villages and cities, it would have been very helpful to have real time data on malnutrition. The Central government promised us real time data on child malnutrition in various districts across India at the click of a mouse, but where is this data?” asks Dipa Sinha, assistant professor (economics), School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, who is part of the Right to Food campaign.

Ms Sinha says that ‘the massive nutrition portal that was developed at great cost and was supposed to be providing the Centre and states data on delivery of services to children and mothers across nearly 14 lakh anganwadis is not in the public domain and there is no official data on the magnitude of hunger and malnutrition in the country.”

Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres, which are meant to take care of severely malnourished children (SAM), were also non-functional during the lockdown months, and we don’t know what has happened to such children during the lockdown and how well or otherwise they have coped, she adds.

Last month, the Central government issued an order allowing the states to reopen anganwadis outside containment zones with immediate effect.

Hopefully, the anganwadi workers will now be enabled to record the height, weight, body mass index (BMI), body circumferences and other anthropometric data of children and monitor their growth, which took a hit during the nationwide lockdown. This data, if and when it materialises, will be critical for policy interventions for the most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, it is vital to track hunger stories in all their variations and demand action.

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