What took the lakhs of migrants back ‘home’ in the past few days was the urgency for food, mainly, the surety of the next meal. But there are those who have either been left behind or stayed back in the city, without any work, income or savings. The grimmest question that faces them is the availability of the next meal, which is often assured courtesy a government centre, good Samaritans, charity groups or NGOs.
Ramu (23) came to Delhi from Etah in UP a few months ago and works at a halwai’s shop “near Shahbad Dairy”. As he eats the khichri and rotis with pickle handed to him by an Aman Biradari team, Ramu says he specialises in cooking “rasgullas and bhaturas” but all that seems distant now, with his Rs 400 a day having disappeared, as nothing is open now.
Of the lakhs of migrants who throng the metropolises, “500,000-600,000”, as per the central government’s affidavit to the Supreme Court Tuesday, have walked back to their villages in a rushed and haphazard exodus.
Just outside the Kashmere Gate railway station, it is now about those who did not leave. With no home in the city to call their own, they surge on sighting charity food vans.
There are still those outside the government community centres, with the Delhi government saying it will set up 4,700 centres and feed “10-12 lakh more” daily. The government said it is feeding “4 lakh” persons every day already.
Puja Devi (50) is a single woman who lives on the road now. Her late husband in Patna was run over by a vehicle, so she now relies on alms outside a temple in Ghaziabad. Raj Bahadur from Nepal runs a thela (hand-cart), but as there is no business now, he sleeps rough on the street. Neeraj, a rickshaw-puller, makes only two trips to the sabzi-mandi at Darya Ganj in the morning. The offer of free meals is something he cannot afford to miss.
Hunger is a problem hard to correctly estimate, say food economists, and coupled with disease, the consequences are of another order. Former Health Secretary, Keshav Desiraju, says, “Consider tuberculosis, it flourishes amongst the hungry. We statistically found those who are hungry to have TB, the most terrifying statistic we are battling, and then with coronavirus, hunger would make them even more vulnerable. It is the government’s, corporation’s and the city municipality’s job to feed the hungry, as with migrants going away, there is not only a displacement of lives and the economy, there is a violation of the lockdown and now, with hunger, greater vulnerabilities of Indians to this disease and any other disease that happens to lurk.”
Most economists think hunger cannot be overemphasised enough. Out of 117 countries in 2019, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) found India to be at 102, a status considered “serious”. Siraj Hussain, former Union Secretary, Agriculture and Food Processing, says: “The GHI score is based on four parameters — undernourishment; child wasting, the share of children under the age of five who are wasted (low weight for height); child stunting (children under five who have low height for age) and child mortality under five. Under the National Food Security Act, priority households get 5 kg food grains per person per month. This is only about half the monthly requirement. Amid the lockdown due to the crisis caused by coronavirus, workers in the unorganised sector need to be provided cooked food.”
Reetika Khera at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIM-A has done estimates which establish that “Hunger is a serious problem in Bihar-Jharkhand, UP, and possibly even in pockets of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and tribal belt of Rajasthan and MP”.
These are the states which have the maximum number of those with out-migration too, to the metros. According to a survey in six of the most vulnerable states in 2011, “at least 22% of the respondents remember missing a meal in the past three months”.
States like Kerala, Odisha, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu were first off the block to offer cooked food for the impoverished to enable a better battling of the health emergency. But, says economist Himanshu, “There is a direct link between hunger and diseases. The problem of hunger and malnutrition gets compounded at the time of COVID-19 as the virus hits the elderly and the immune-compromised. What hunger and especially malnutrition does is beat down immunity. So the profile of those affected by COVID-19 may take a different journey here.”
Says Biraj Patnaik, former Principal Adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court, responsible for monitoring the food and employment schemes in the right to food case: “Between 2001 and 2017, the Supreme Court had passed multiple orders to prevent hunger and starvation deaths in the landmark right to food case. It would be instructive for governments, both Central and State, to revisit those orders which effectively brought to a halt the starvation deaths. For India’s vulnerable under lockdown, the support they have received from the central government (and many states) so far, to paraphrase Krushchev, is in the nature of the support that a rope gives to a hanged man. Unlike governments across the world, state policy in India has shifted the onus of dealing with the pandemic on the citizens rather than thinking through and planning for the vulnerabilities our poorest citizens would face, before announcing the lockdown.”
COVID-19 and the suddenness of the lockdown has revealed India’s economic and social underbelly in ways which may be a crisis, but also an opportunity, if sought to be faced up to and addressed.
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