Even before the pandemic hit, India was one of the world’s most malnourished countries. As could be expected for such a country with such poor development indicators, Covid-19 hit India’s poor hard. To compound the problem, the Indian government put in place what was the world’s harshest lockdown with little planning.

A new paper by economists Jean Drèze and Anmol Somanchi has now analysed survey data (collated here) to look at the impact of India’s first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 on food deprivation. Their conclusion is grim: “the lockdown and the economic recession that followed led to a severe nutrition crisis”.

Income crash

The first impact of the lockdown was obviously on incomes and employment as India put in place the world’s harshest restrictions which shut down almost all economic activity.

Average income decrease from pre-lockdown

Source Reference period (2020) Avg income reduction (%)

Bertrand et al. 

April-May 42
Dalberg April-May 56
CSE-APU (Round 1) April-May 64
IDinsight+ (Round 1) May 72
CEP-LSE May-July 48
IDinsight+ (Round 2) July 68
IDinsight+ (Round 3) Sept 74
CSE-APU (Round 2) Sept-Nov 50
IDinsight+ surveys non-agricultural households. 

Across the board, surveys showed a drastic drop in incomes compared to pre-lockdown levels.

A survey by IDinsight, a data analytics organisation that focuses on the social sector, found that the average weekly income of non-agricultural respondents crashed from Rs 6,858 in March 2020 to Rs 1,929 in May, and was still around that level in September. The proportion of non-agricultural respondents who reported zero days of work shot up from 7.3% in early March to 23.6% in the first week of May and was still as high as 16.2% in the first week of September.

Another survey by consulting firm Dalberg found that primary income earners of 52% of households were unemployed in May despite having a job before the lockdown and another 20% were still employed but earning less than before.

Drèze and Somanchi argue that this hit was not temporary and it was “doubtful that income and employment ever regained their pre-lockdown levels before a second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic hit the country in early 2021”.

Heightened food insecurity

Expectedly, shrinking incomes would lead to food insecurity.

Food Insecurity

Indicator and Source Reference period (2020) Incidence (%)
Eating less food than before (%)
CSE-APU (Round 1) April-May 77
ActionAid (Round 1) May * 67
Hunger Watch b October 53
CSE-APU (Round 2) Sept-Nov 60
Smaller meal size or fewer items in meals (%)
PRADAN+ (Round 1) April * 68
IDinsight+ (Round 1) May 26
PRADAN+ (Round 2) June * 55
Gaon Connection June-July * 46
IDinsight+ (Round 2) July 14
IDinsight+ (Round 3) September 13
RCRC (Round 2) Dec 20 - Jan 21 * 40
Fewer meals (%)
PRADAN+ (Round 1) April * 50
PRADAN+ (Round 2) June * 43
Gaon Connection June-July * 38
Eating less than two meals a day (%)
ActionAid (Round 1) May * 34
ActionAid (Round 2) June * 19
Note: In cases flagged with an asterisk the reference period for these indicators is not explicit. Hunger Watch sample focuses on particularly vulnerable groups and pertains to cereal (rice and wheat) consumption.

Like with incomes, surveys across the board pointed an alarming rise in food insecurity. Depending on the survey, between 53%-77% respondents argued that they were eating less after the pandemic hit than before. Even more alarmingly, lifting the lockdown had a rather small effect.

A survey by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the Azim Premji University, for example, found that even in the September-November period, the proportion of people eating less than what they did before the start of the pandemic was as high as 60%. (It was 77% during the lockdown).

The situation was even worse amongst poorer groups. The non-profit organisation ActionAid found that 35% of surveyed informal, mainly migrant workers were eating fewer than two meals a day in May. Similarly, a survey by Pradan, another non-profit, covering informal sector workers in rural areas of 13 states found that half of them were eating fewer meals than before.

Drop in nutrional quality

The quantity of food was not the only red flag – so was its nutritional value. Data from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (see charts above) shows that while expenditure on cereals remains almost constant, there was a drastic decline in money spent on nutrient and protein-heavy food such as eggs, meat, fish and fruits. And this holds across income groups. On meat and fish, in fact, the expenditure of the top 25% income group drops to levels below that for the middle 50% pre-lockdown.

Thin silver lining: PDS (but more needs to be done)

The silver lining in this was the performance of India’s public distribution system, which supplies either free or highly subsidised foodgrains to Indians. During the lockdown, both state governments as well as the Union government announced relief measures such as free and increased rations. Dalberg, for example, notes that as many as 89% of Indians received PDS grain during lockdown. Moreover, a similar number also received free grain as per temporary lockdown schemes.

The table below summarises the survey data. Scroll right to see the entire table.

Source Reference period (2020) % of sample households that received grain from PDS % of sample households that had a ration card % of households with card that received grain from PDS % of households with card that received free grain from PDS b
PRADAN+ (Round 1) April - - 84 -
Dalberg April-May 89 87 92 92
NCDHR April-May * - 80c 83 -
CSE-APU (Round 1) April-May 78 - - -
RCRC (Round 1) April-May * - - - 88d
RCRC (Round 2) April-June * - 90 - 92 e
MicroSave (Round 1) f May - - 91 -
PRADAN+ (Round 2) June * - - 84 -
Gaon Connection June – July 63 83 71 -
MicroSave (Round 2) f September - - 94 -
IDinsight+ (Round 3) September 68 75 89 88
CSE-APU (Round 2) Sept-Nov - 91 91 -
In cases flagged with an asterisk the reference period for these indicators is not explicit. Free grain column refers to supplementary foodgrain rations distributed for free under PMGKAY. NCDHR Includes APL cardholders. In RCRC (Round 1), 52% had received free grain “more than once” and 36% “only once”, at the time of the survey. In RCRC (Round 2), 50% had received free grain “thrice or more”, 31% “twice” and 11% “once”, at the time of the survey.

Given that a second Covid-19 wave in India this summer had led to most of the country going under state-implemented lockdowns, the paper recommends that a “second, stronger wave of relief measures is essential to avoid a repeat of last year’s tragic humanitarian crisis”.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Jean Drèze, has also recommended cash transfers as a way to help Indians hit hard by the pandemic lockdowns.

Unfortunately, far from better relief measures, Indians are finding that even a repeat of last year’s assistance is running into trouble. The Hindu reported that almost a third of ration card holders have been unable to access free rations allocated by the Union government due to distribution issues at the state level.

Complete information on all surveys can be found here.