The sudden national lockdown in March 2020 worsened the hunger situation in the country. But the haves weren’t losing their appetite over this.
Cast your mind back to the last one-and-a-half years of Covid-19. The haves took up learning new culinary skills, with banana and sourdough bread becoming the hot favourites while the hands that toiled to build our cities and kept it going were forced to leave, egged on by fears of no banana and no bread otherwise. Well, at the same time, many senior citizens, the disabled, immobile and the poor who lived alone in Mumbai were also consumed with similar fears. The sudden national lockdown in March 2020 worsened the hunger situation in the country. But the haves weren’t losing their appetite over this. The fact is, many worried more about having to do their own work and having to shut shop and blamed the migrant workers for leaving. The fact is, Mumbai and other cities, having so much, let this class down, unable to assuage its basic fear – starvation. The workers worried their children would die of malnutrition and hunger, while we complained about missing being able to eat out and the non-availability of our favourite food.
Just last week, the UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank released a report which said, globally, 149.2 million children under 5 suffered from stunting in 2020. Worse, the report says these symptoms may take years to manifest. “These numbers may increase substantially due to constraints in accessing nutritious diets and essential nutrition services during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the full impact on stunting possibly taking years to manifest.” South Asian countries have the highest wasting prevalence of any sub-region in the world. This report has taken into account the programmes to combat malnutrition in 12 states in India. According to the Global Nutrition report (2020), malnutrition remains one of India’s biggest challenges. The fact is, many poor, and especially migrant workers, had said they would die of hunger before the virus could kill them. In September 2020, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2020’ report stated that 189.2 million people in India were undernourished and 34.7 per cent of the children under five years in India were stunted.
Since the national lockdown last year, states like Maharashtra have been under severe restrictions, even though offices have been re-opened. Strict corona protocols have been put in place, with work-from-home rules. Places had just begun reopening when a new lockdown was imposed in April 2021. A majority of small businesses have shut shop, vendors have lost jobs and incomes. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy said India lost 3.4 million salaried jobs in April this year. Nine million salaried jobs were lost within two months from February and employment dropped from 82.2 million in February to 76.7 mission in March and 73.3 million in April. A major impact of lockdown – the Indian economy was to lose 10-31 per cent of its GDP. This continued lockdown has only shrunk our economy 7.3 per cent in the last one year. The growing fears of unemployment have got our economists worried, but worse is the increasing number of people who are being denied basic food and nutrition. Now, one need not be a scholar to know that if such a young population goes hungry and grows malnourished, it will remain in the lowest category of labour, that too IF they remain alive to work. In most cases, they will remain ill, stunted and unable to contribute to the economy. Experts say this affected large number will reduce the economic growth. But what is more worrisome, the malnourished will continue to be deprived of education, employment opportunities, health benefits and any sort of security. The girls and women will continue to remain vulnerable and this too, will reflect in the growth of our nation. This, of course, means the gap between the rich and poor will continue to increase. Experts say a more holistic approach is needed to tackle the problem.
Now, with the new challenges posed by the pandemic, there will be a need for our leaders to first, admit to this problem. They need to involve stakeholders to give suggestions whose implementation will be allowed without the forced, Central decision-making approach that exists in the current dispensation. This is like literally asking for the skies. When we say there is a problem, that itself is being overlooked deliberately. It obviously means the failure of our Central government, something that the leaders will not allow. Do you remember how the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government flatly denied migrant workers had died of hunger? In fact, the Centre told this lie in our Supreme Court. This data was not even accounted for, thereby denying us citizens the fundamental right to even known how many exactly died of hunger, malnutrition, lack of medical aid, etc. But the fact is, as people lost jobs, we read of deaths by suicide increasing, for lack of funds to buy food. Just as hunger deaths were reported, the then Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal proclaimed that no starvation deaths had been reported till May 15, 2020. This false claim was made at a time that major cities faced acute shortage of food. A few months later, being a part of team that researched gender discrepancies in media reporting during the Covid-19 pandemic, I came across a handful of reports of deaths due to hunger in small towns in Maharashtra in Marathi newspapers. The situation was far worse in Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
At the time of the national lockdown, essential shops too were shut, in many areas. In most places, the shelves were empty and the biggest problem was that there were no supplies for quite a few months. The picture was grim and many in the middle class too feared they would die of hunger. At that time, Khaana Chahiye, a non-profit organisation, stepped in to provide free food in Mumbai, while in many parts of Mumbai, the local Shiv Sena shakhas began distributing food to the many homeless, lonely people, through the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation network. Many individuals too began giving feeding people. But these are not permanent solutions to the problem of providing every citizen two square meals, and that too, basic nutrition. Our leaders are in a rush to make India a $5 trillion economy. But on what basis – where only two, three corporate giants will run this country that has a huge workforce which is poor, stunted and unable to contribute to the economy?
Well, experts say that by 2030, India will have the highest workforce, yet another statistic that will please investors and many bhakts. This will help drive a nationalistic feeling among those who don’t want the details. What is the use of thumping your chest for having the largest workforce, while many children continue to go hungry? This is a colossal failure of the entire nation. The fact is, we, as informed citizens, need to badger the government to take corrective steps and ensure all sections of our society get proper and adequate nutrition and basic food to eat.
But here, the ideology driven by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, of dividing the society and depriving many sections, Muslims and others below the poverty line, of their basic right to survive as citizens is eating into our economy. Even governments, like the one in Maharashtra, that are seemingly seen to be taking some steps to re-open the economy, need to address these issues. This is the time that schemes to provide food to the poor must continue and it should be ensured that they reach remote tribal areas, where hunger and malnutrition continue to prevail. There needs to be more effort in employment generation, especially since the lockdown has only driven people to cut costs, downsize and pare down the workforce. This is only the beginning of new problems, apart from the pandemic – or be ready to face civil unrest and increased crime.
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)