As state after state, district after district, shuts down to battle the coronavirus pandemic, the Indian government needs to reckon with another spectre: hunger. In weeks to come, thousands will struggle to find food. On Monday evening, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that states could acquire foodgrains for three months from the Food Corporation of India on credit. This would ease cash constraints on states distributing food to those in need, the minister said. This is a good start, governments at both the Centre and the states need to signal that keeping people fed is a priority.
At the moment, the government has 435 lakh tonnes of surplus foodgrains; 272.19 lakh tonnes of rice and 162.79 lakh tonnes of wheat. This surplus must reach those who need it. Shortages are likely to stem from two reasons. First, thousands will no longer be able to buy a meal as work dries up. That includes those earning daily wages who live at the subsistence level, buying food with what they earn in a day; contractual and other workers who will lose jobs; and farmers who can no longer sell their produce. Second, with curfews and other restrictions, supply lines have been cut off. Produce cannot reach markets and buyers cannot reach whatever shops might be open and selling produce.
While the Centre has been right to urge employers not to lay off workers or cut wages, a substantial financial package is essential to support those who will still suffer. As this charter of demands by the Right to Food campaign suggests, the government could consider cash transfers of Rs 3,000 for every month of the crisis to each urban worker in the unorganised sector or everyone covered by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The Centre could also relax requirements for antyodaya cards, which are meant to reach money to the “poorest of the poor”.
On the supply side, since schools and anganwadi centres have been shut down in most places, food must be delivered to young children and pregnant or lactating mothers who depend on the meals provided there. Kerala showed the way here, home-delivering mid-day meals children would normally receive at school. Cooked food also needs to be made available to the destitute and the homeless, as well as the migrants stranded far away from home without work. Entitlements under the public distribution scheme should also be increased, the Right to Food Campaign suggests. In Ladakh villages, locked down for weeks before the rest of the country, the district administration delivered rations to temporary distribution centres. Village committees helped distribute the food to those who needed it most, often on credit. These delivery mechanisms need to be scaled up and developed in other parts of the country, to avoid a crush at ration shops.
A starving, malnourished population cannot fight the contagion spreading across the country. Besides, unless these urgent measures are taken, India could be facing a grave humanitarian crisis, one created by hunger and not the coronavirus.