For agricultural labourer Dhanalakshmi Manikandan, her home garden in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district has never looked more appealing. With her daily income cut of by the lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the vegetables in her garden have become a valuable part of the daily meal for her family of five. “We never thought the brinjal, drumstick and banana in my backyard would be such a blessing at this time,” she said.

Manikandan’s husband, a carpenter who earns daily wages, has been unable to work during lockdown. Her son, a contract worker with a company in Chennai, has been home without salary for over two months. The family of five is dependent on government support of Rs 1,000 per month, the Rs 500 deposited into Manikandan’s Jan Dhan account as part of the government’s Covid-19 economic support plan and rations from the Public Distribution Scheme.

The lockdown has focussed attention on India’s employment crisis as the economy has left 24% of Indians without work. It has also raised a much larger concern – nutrition security for the most vulnerable.

In a policy brief issued in April, the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations noted in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic that good health would be elusive without access to nutritious food for those who need it the most. Lockdowns and quarantines that disrupt food supply chains and limit consumer spending and purchasing power have a greater impact on people with low or irregular incomes.

Holistic nutrition

For holistic nutrition, an adequate number of calories and intake of proteins and micronutrients are essential. A household’s nutrition status varies with wealth and education. Before lockdown, the lowest 5% of India’s population was spending significantly less on protein and micronutrients than the most affluent 5%, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation. Its report on Household Consumption of Various Goods and Services for 2011-’12 said that this ranged from about four times less on vegetables to as much as 60 times less on fruit. The situation is not very different for over half of India’s population.

Income is an important determinant of household nutrition. With the lockdown leaving millions without work and wages, their nutrition has been endangered too.

About 90.7% of India’s workers are employed in the informal sector, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey, 2017-’18. The International Labour Organisation predicts that 400 million workers in India are at risk of falling even deeper into poverty because of the pandemic as workers such as Dhanalakshmi’s son have been forced to move back to rural areas due to the job losses.

The construction sector in which Dhanalakshmi’s husband is involved constitutes 92% of non-manufacturing employment, employing an estimated 54.3 million people. Across rural India, people do not depend only on village-based activities: a significant portion of income for many people comes from remittances from relatives working in town and cities. As a consequence, the disruption in the non-farm sector acutely hurts them.

Children in Kolkata line up for a meal. Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

Small farmers face other pressures. Unable to stock produce, they sell at low prices to agents for immediate income to repay their loans. In India, 86% of farmers are small and marginal with less than 2 hectares of operational holding. Over 52% of agriculture households are in debt. With the lockdown, many have been unable to harvest or market their produce.Without the money they would have earned from these sales, they will not be able to get the nutrition they need.

To support nutrition security of vulnerable groups,there are several steps the government could take:

1. Ensure the functioning of the Mid-Day-Meal scheme: The Central government announced that this would continue for eligible children even when schools are closed and during vacations. This will provide nutrition to school-going children.

2. Intensify NREGA-related work and increase working days to 200 from 100: The Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Rural Guarantee Act is supposed to ensure 100 days of work a year for families that request it. Doubling the number of work days will be an important way to ensure minimum household income to buy food..

3. Double the quantity of pulses being provided through the PDS and ensure the provision of millets: The public distribution system already has a provision to distribute pulses and millets but it is not being implemented across states. Implementing it now will help ensure that protein and micronutrient requirements are met.

4. Community kitchens to function in all panchayats, especially for the elderly: This has been implemented in Odisha and Kerala and in urban Tamil Nadu. All states should follow this model.

5. Increase awareness on the importance of nutrition and immunity: This is especially important now, to enable communities to choose healthier food options.

6. Interim doubling of cash transfers to households: This money transferred to Jan Dhan Accounts through the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Yojana under its Covid relief package could help purchase essential commodities for more dietary diversity.

India has an adequate stockpile of food, but being nutrition secure and empowering vulnerable groups with incomes and access to a diverse, nutritious diet is essential. India ranks 102 out of 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index and with increasing poverty, Covid-19 could push India even further into the malnutrition danger zone.

Said Dhanalakshmi, “We are managing to eat, but we are cutting down on the quality and variety of each meal. The food was just tastier earlier.”

R Gopinath is an economist with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. B Jayashree is a communication specialist with the Foundation.

Views expressed are personal.