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Monday, June 21, 2021

Beyond Covid: We must address the hunger crisis in India

For millions, still suffering from the after-effects of the first Covid wave, 'dal-chawal' is the oxygen needed to survive.

Written by Anshu Gupta |
Updated: May 21, 2021 9:06:56 am
The first wave of the pandemic was proof that Indian villages are not really part of development agendas, and even in times of crisis they come last (Representational Image)

The second wave is a “top-up” crisis. With millions of families already in deep distress due to the first wave, we must look beyond the issue of oxygen and pay attention to abject hunger among the millions of people in the country.

Let’s start with the unfolding disaster, and contrast it to March and April of 2020. Last year, lack of food and rations was the big visible crisis. But this visibility was limited to migrants whom we could see and till the time they were in the larger cities, we were able to provide them food. As soon as they moved 100 km away, and even further into villages, they were out of our radar. As soon as they became invisible, their needs were largely ignored by governments, agencies and the media.

The first wave of the pandemic was proof that Indian villages — comprising more than half of the country’s population — are not really part of development agendas, and even in times of crisis they come last, after the needs of the big cities have been attended to. Farmers are merely seen as providers of our food, and distressed farmers as migrant workers or labour in our factories, buildings and homes.

I remember several conversations with many corporates and funding agencies last year where their entire funding focus was on the distribution of ration kits in the metro cities. It was hard to convince them that the problem extended outside these large urban centres — that even a Ghaziabad is a part of the NCR — leave alone districts in rural areas. I would often tell them that problems are not just in Gurgaon and Gachibowli — our offices might be there — but the larger problems are being faced in Giridih and Gadchiroli. The large value funds were available more for the cities than for rural India.

This time the story is only marginally different.

The second wave has brought on a health crisis. The conversations, therefore, are about oxygen cylinders, concentrators, ventilators, ICU beds, drugs and so on. In the absence of proper infrastructure and interventions, we have become dependent on each other during this wave, contacting friends and families on WhatsApp to save our loved ones.

What we are forgetting, however, is that there is has been suffering and stress for more than a year now, with families already in deep distress due to lack of livelihoods, reduced income, no access to sufficient food. Hunger is a continuous disaster for large parts of our population.

Moreover, cities, towns and entire states like Maharashtra, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh have been in lockdown for a while now. Last year, as soon as the national lockdown was announced, people started distributing food. This year, there is almost no talk on that front. It’s all about oxygen and beds.

One reason is the huge fear all around, across income classes. With the Covid-19 infection affecting the middle and wealthy classes, they are afraid to step out of their homes to provide support to the less fortunate. Second, with many of their families and friends afflicted and in danger, they are focussed almost entirely on arranging oxygen and beds for them, to the exclusion of all else.

But for most lower-income families in cities, their oxygen is dal chawal. They don’t have anywhere to access food because the issue of hunger has been completely ignored. Not just in villages, but in cities as well. Many of the migrant workers who had come back from the villages after the first lockdown was lifted can no longer afford to go back. They have stayed back despite not having proper work, and hence no food. But this time around, there is no arrangement for food and, unlike last year, most do not even have the savings to make it through this wave.

Things are unlikely to get better soon.

With increasing supply, employers are driving down the rates for daily wages. In many cases, there just isn’t any work for thousands of people. One can see this at the labour chowk in Sarita Vihar in Delhi, where workers crowd around in the morning waiting for daily wage work. Typically, before the pandemic, employers would come, hire these men and the chowk would be largely empty by 10 am. Now you can see them milling around even during the late afternoon, only to turn up again the next day, and again. Their only concern is how to take care of the hunger faced by their families.

As the wave moves into rural India, it’s already too late to get it equipped and prepared with resources. When metros like Delhi and Bangalore have been unable to deal with the scarcity of resources, what hope do the smaller towns and villages have? Even simple things like access to paracetamol, which can help address the disease early, are likely to be a challenge in the numbers needed, given the high positivity rates.

And missing in all these conversations is the plight of the more vulnerable groups — the LGBTQIA community, HIV-positive populations, sex workers, people with disabilities, people suffering from leprosy, and so on. They have almost no access to relevant resources — basic cotton bandages and balm for patients with leprosy, ARV medicines and a nutritious diet to counter the effect of the medicines for people with HIV. They are the missed-out communities, in a sense.

It is important to understand that while the second wave is about health, it doesn’t mean that hunger is not an issue. The second wave is about ventilators and oxygen to keep people alive, but for most, getting access to basic medicines such as paracetamol and others can be lifesaving. For millions today, access to simple dal chawal is no lesser than access to oxygen.

However, as the curve slopes downward and cases reduce in the big cities, we will stop thinking about this as a disaster. Because it will no longer check off the following three boxes which are how people like us think of disasters — is there media attention, is it impacting us in the big cities, and are there dead bodies?

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 21, 2021 under the title ‘They are still hungry’. The writer, a Magsaysay award winner, is founder of Goonj.

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