The long shadow of hunger in India

From indigenous communities in the forests to daily-wage workers in the metros, a lack of food has afflicted millions of Indians over the past year.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s ill-conceived and heartless response to it have left the people of India devastated. The unprecedented loss of jobs and earnings owing to repeated lockdowns pushed a large section of the people to the brink of starvation. 

Meanwhile, a fumbling administration provided inadequate relief through foodgrains and some financial help, for a few months, to only a section of the people. Chilling stories of people eating grass and wild tubers, begging for food from neighbours and charities, taking loans with brutal interest rates just to survive, or simply cutting down on meals emerged from across the vast country. 

Among the worst hit were the most marginalised communities, including forest-dwelling indigenous people, landless agricultural workers, industrial workers whose factories remained closed, and the vast segment of the population that depends on daily-wage work in informal services or sectors such as construction and hospitality.

Bhuwaneshwari, who belongs to the forest-dwelling Pulayar community, lives with her family inside the Anamalai Tiger Reserve in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Unable to sell forest produce owing to lockdown restrictions, or to access government relief without a family ration card, they survived on porridge made from wild tubers. 

Undated: Bhuwaneshwari and her family, who live in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, survived on porridge made from wild tubers for two months during the lockdown. (Photograph by Sruti MD)

“I walk 10km into the forest every morning to collect produce. It takes me around two hours to reach our spot. We start at eight in the morning and return by five in the evening. During the lockdown, we harvested groundnuts. We stocked it up in the hope that we can take it down later and sell it at the mandi [market],” Bhuwaneshwari said.

“How long can we go on surviving on these tubers?” she asked in desperation.

Like in many other indigenous communities in India, her family’s only source of income is minor forest produce. The suspension of the public transportation system during the lockdown severed their source of livelihood and cut them off from the rest of society. More than 40 000 such families in Tamil Nadu do not have a ration card that would entitle them to subsidised foodgrains. 

Record harvest, yet agri-workers hungry

Landless workers and marginal farmers also faced the brunt of the crisis. Although farming continued through the year and India produced a record harvest – some 395 million tonnes – of foodgrains, wages of agricultural workers and the meagre returns of marginal farmers fell and indebtedness increased. There are over 140 million landless labourers in India.

Mohammad Khan, a marginal farmer of the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal state, owns a 2.5 bigha (about 0.4 acre) plot of land. He leases 1.5 bighas to someone else and grows vegetables on the rest. 

The lockdown and restrictions saw him struggle for food because transportation for his meagre vegetable crop was unavailable. “Hunger is perennial in my hut. Skipping meals is a regular habit,” he said. 

Cyclone Yaas, which hit the coastal region in May, damaged his ramshackle hut. His patch of land was inundated, dealing a blow to any chances of escaping from the grip of hunger.

24 December 2020: Mohammad Khan, whose hut was damaged by Cyclone Yaas in May, weaves a net to catch fish. (Photograph by Sandip Chakraborty)

S Somas, an agricultural worker in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, solely depends on daily wages earned from working in the paddy fields or banana and rubber plantations. But he and his family suffered immensely during the two lockdowns in March 2020 and April 2021 because of fewer workdays and inadequate government support. 

“Since March 2020, the number of days we have worked has been reduced considerably. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act [a rural job-guarantee programme] was also stopped for a considerable part of the last year,” Somas said.

“The farmers suffered losses due to the fall in prices. We depend on them for their jobs and so our income was hit as well.” 

India was suffering from chronic and pervasive hunger even before the pandemic struck. According to a 2020 estimate by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, at least 189 million Indians suffered from severe hunger. The Global Hunger Index 2020 placed India in the 94th position among 107 countries afflicted by mass hunger. 

The National Family and Health Survey of 2015-2016 found that 59% of children up to the age of five were anaemic, as were 53% of all women. Over 38% of children were stunted and nearly 20% were wasted – both indicators of chronic malnutrition.  What the pandemic did was to worsen the situation, and the government had no answer.

Urban India suffered too 

It was not just rural areas, where nearly two-thirds of Indians live, that suffered. In urban areas, the harsh lockdown restrictions, brutally enforced by the police, and the free hand given to employers to dismiss workers without any financial compensation left millions on the verge of complete destitution, and even death. Urban areas also have millions of informal workers, including personal service providers, small shopkeepers and vendors, maintenance personnel and industrial workers. 

Mitesh Prajapati, 30, a diamond polisher in Surat, Gujarat, was the sole earner in his family of four. After the first lockdown last year, he could not get any work, like many others in the sector. The family managed to survive for seven months by borrowing food from neighbours or taking loans. But Prajapati was struggling to provide for the treatment of his ailing mother. 

At the beginning of July 2020, he fell ill and was advised to get tested for Covid-19. But Prajapati, unable to bear the added expense of his treatment, jumped into a river on 4 July, embracing death rather than the pain of living. 

15 April 2020: Raghu and his family, who come from Karnataka state, are migrant workers in Tamil Nadu. They have not received any support from the government or political parties because they are not registered voters. (Photograph by A Neelambaran)

“He was under immense mental pressure. Apart from the usual expenses, our mother is ailing and needs medicines every month. When the doctor suggested he might have Covid-19 and should get tested, he saw it as another expense and couldn’t bear the thought of it,” said his brother, Hitesh Prajapati.

In Aligarh, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, NewsClick found Guddi, 43, the mother of five children, at the district hospital after battling intense hunger for over two months. Her husband, the sole breadwinner in the family, died of Covid-19 last year, forcing her to earn a living as a factory worker for Rs4 000 (about R790) a month. 

But a few months ago, the factory shut down owing to the lockdown. Her eldest son Ajay, 22, began working for daily wages at a construction site, but the second wave snatched away that job. Gradually, their savings got exhausted. 

“Hunger and disease affected us so much that we could not walk or talk properly. The situation became worse after our neighbour stopped giving anything. We would beg them for food, but how long could they feed us when everyone was struggling?” recalled a distraught Guddi, who is now stable. 

She talked about how her entire family survived only on water for days on end. They were finally rescued by a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) and taken to the hospital. 

Undated: Hungry people get a meal at a community kitchen in West Bengal. (Photograph by Sandip Chakraborty)

Informal sector workers suffered in these areas too. Vimla Devi, a domestic worker in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh state, and her husband, a construction worker, both lost their jobs. With two toddlers to look after, she bitterly complained about not receiving any help from the government. 

“The second wave of the lockdown virtually pushed us to the brink of starvation. If NGOs and social groups had not come forward to help, we would have died of hunger by now,” Ram Suresh Yadav, president of National Federation of Railway Porters, told NewsClick in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.

Neeru from Samba in Jammu and Kashmir summed up the desperation while talking about her father Deshraj Kumar, 63, who used to sell vegetables but lost his income during the lockdowns, ran up an enormous debt and now washes utensils at weddings.

“There were days when he thought it’s better to end his life than to survive like this. I kept assuring myself that things would be fine. But I was wrong. How will we pay off our debt? We have no savings. And the coronavirus doesn’t seem to go away. I don’t want him to starve again,” she said.

Warehouses overflowing with grains

If India had such a bountiful harvest, how were people suffering from hunger at this scale? Driven by the record foodgrain output, government warehouses were overflowing throughout the pandemic. According to the government’s own monthly data, during April and May 2020, when the harsh lockdown was in place, the foodgrain stocks were 57 million tonnes and 64.4 million tonnes, respectively. This is two to three times the statutory stocking norms, which include strategic reserves. 

Yet the government refused to distribute the grain. It announced that only 5kg of rice or wheat would be given in addition to the usual quota of grain given through the public distribution system. Not only was it insufficient, but it ignored the harsh reality that people didn’t have oil, fuel and so forth to cook the food. In June 2021, foodgrain stocks were at a record high of nearly 91 million tonnes, yet the government continued to hold on to it, refusing to distribute it to hungry people.

Trade unions repeatedly demanded that essential items such as cooking oil be included in the public distribution system. But this went unheeded, as did the demand for some cash help to families.

Struggle for relief – and change

As the country’s people reeled under the deadly pandemic and governments abandoned them to their fate, the Left forces emerged as the most consistent fighters for lives and livelihoods. There were widespread agitations for universalising the public distribution system, expanding the commodities covered under it, increasing additional foodgrains to 10kg per person per month, providing direct financial support of Rs7 500 a month for all families who do not pay income tax, and the withdrawal of anti-people laws passed by the central government. 

Despite the restrictions owing to the pandemic, protests in workers’ residential areas and factory gates were held throughout last year and, on 26 November, an all-India general strike was successfully observed. Since November, farmers have also been on the roads against the corporatisation of farming through three controversial laws. These different strands of resistance have coalesced now.

Left organisations have also been at the forefront of providing relief material to distressed families. This has been done in an exemplary fashion by the Left-led state government of Kerala. Within the first two weeks of the lockdown, 1 255 community kitchens were set up by volunteers, which provided around 280 000 meals a day. In the initial lockdown period, before the grocery and ration kits supplied by the state government started reaching households, these kitchens were the primary means by which Kerala ensured that its people were not hungry. Community kitchens became a boon for nearly 500 000 migrant workers, called “guest workers” in Kerala, unlike in other states where migrants suffered heavily. The state government also set up more than 1 000 janakeeya hotels (people’s hotels), which provide meals at subsidised rates. 

Apart from the government’s efforts, left and progressive organisations distributed relief material, including food and daily-use items like soap, to destitute families. For instance, the Democratic Youth Federation of India actively continued its  Hridayapoorvam project, providing lunch to patients and their attendants in government medical college hospitals. 

13 May 2020: Food vendors on Chennai’s iconic Marina Beach in Tamil Nadu have been hit hard by the pandemic owing to the lack of visitors. (Photograph by Lakshmi Kanth Bharathi)

The activists of the organisation also took steps to provide parcelled meals and groceries to those in need. Kerala’s success in tackling food insecurity during the pandemic is as much because of community efforts as efficient administration. In West Bengal, “red volunteers” mobilised on a massive scale to help those suffering by arranging medical attention and providing daily food necessities. 

Similarly, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions provided kits of food and necessities in almost all of India’s states over three months with the help of donations from the people. 

The economic crisis created by the Modi government has been characterised by high levels of unemployment and a lack of food and basic rights like healthcare and education for a large mass of people. At the same time, the top echelons of society, especially corporate bigwigs, have accrued huge profits. This extreme inequality has created a simmering sense of anger and discontent that will play out in the coming months. 

[With reporting by A Neelambaran and Sruti MD in Tamil Nadu; Sandip Chakraborty in West Bengal; Abdul Alim Jafri in Uttar Pradesh; Damayantee Dhar in Gujarat; Azhar Moideen in Kerala; Kashif Kakvi in Madhya Pradesh; and Sagrika Kissu in Jammu & Kashmir]

Hunger in the World is a collaborative series produced by ARG Medios, Brasil de Fato, Breakthrough News, Madaar, New Frame, NewsClick and Peoples Dispatch.

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