The second wave of COVID-19 pandemic has added to the persisting issues of food insecurity faced by millions in India. Even prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, India consistently has ranked poorly in all international rankings on hunger, ranking 102 among 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2019. With half the children under five in India being malnourished, the present Covid-19 crisis could further impact child nutrition and service delivery across the country that is in the grip of a ferocious second wave of COVID-19. The inability of those already on the edge of survival to grip a second economic shock cannot be ignored even as the current health crisis is creating havoc. Rural distress specifically needs closer examination and urgent policy attention. The Rapid Rural Community Response to COVID-19, a group of over 60 non-governmental organisations, has collected three rounds of data since the lockdown. The data provide key evidence of the nature and tenacity of food and financial insecurity among the poor residing in rural areas.
The most recent data suggest a persistence of cutting down on food even nine months after the first lockdown, during the seeming “revival” period. While 40% of the sample cut down on food during the first lockdown, an alarming 25% reportedly continued to cut down on food during the most recent survey conducted between December and January 2021. Households reported cutting down on nutritious food — 80% cut down on milk, vegetables, pulses and oil (around 50% reported cutting down on pulses alone). Disintegrating the figure, it is found that the poorer, socially marginalised Dalits, and those with lesser access to food security schemes (such as migrants) faced more severe food insecurity. Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand were among the worst performing States. These reductions will undoubtedly further accelerate the coming effects on children’s nutrition, as highlighted in the National Family Health Survey or NFHS-V (2019-20) and the Global Food Policy Report, 2021.
An alarming 25% [of respondents] reportedly continued to cut down on food during the most recent survey conducted between December and January 2021.
The loss in nutrition may have come as a consequence of people losing their jobs and/or being pushed into lower income brackets over time due to the nature and handling of the pandemic.
According to the Pew Research Center, the middle class in India has shrunk by over 32 million households in the last year and this downward shift in incomes is seen among poorer households as well. The survey suggests an over 70% reported reduction in incomes post the pandemic. While 55% of households earn less than ₹5,000 per month prior to the pandemic, around 74% reported doing so in December 2020-January 2021. It is thus unsurprising that around 30% households were also seeking loans, and among them, at least half of them reported needing loans for food, all indicative of the debilitating food and financial insecurities that poor households continue to face.
The second wave of the pandemic comes on the back of an uneven recovery and persistence of crippling food and financial insecurity among the poorest households, especially migrants. In the survey sample, 74% households had migrant members who had returned to the village during or after the lockdown (in mid-2020); 57% among them had gone back to the destination city by December-January, with 59% of those remaining also wanting to go back. There was limited support for migrants even in existing social protection schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). For example, among the poorest, households with migrants were more likely to seek work than those without (43% versus 32%) but less likely to get work (49% versus 59%) under the scheme.
The survey suggests an over 70% reported reduction in incomes post the pandemic.
It is clear that households have not had a chance to rebuild, and with many completely exhausting their savings and facing massive debt, they are bound to be more severely hit than last year. In fact, the second wave of the pandemic hits all sections of the society but the children are the one who ultimately faced the terrible heat of the second wave in terms of getting nutritious food. In the face of such a threat, including high unemployment that is steadily rising again, the state must ensure immediate, sustained action for example ensuring food security.
The Government has promised to restart the Pardhan Mantri Garib Kalayan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) with 5 kg of wheat/rice per person per month for the next 2 months. The government needs to provide similar support for longer periods; expand the current offering to include nutritious foods like pulses; address issues faced in existing schemes such as MGNREGA (like delays in wages); and new schemes such as a potential urban employment scheme should be explored. Food security schemes such as ration provided to children through anganwadis, Public Distribution System and mid-day meal scheme in primary schools need to be ramped up systematically and urgently. For migrants stuck in cities without work, community kitchens are required. The most vulnerable will need more predictable and stable support than ever before.