A migrant worker feeds her child water while they wait in a queue for transport to reach Ahmedabad railway station to board a train to their home state of Uttar Pradesh. | Amit Dave/Reuters
A spectacularly uncaring, unaccountable state has abandoned Indians to their fate. Bodies are piling up, pyres burn late into the night, and corpses are buried in anonymous mass graves. Loved ones are choking to death because their governments failed to secure them oxygen. Vaccines have fallen short in a country that prides itself as the vaccine factory of the world. Black marketeering thrives in life-saving hospital beds, medicines and oxygen concentrators. Confused lockdowns have once again spurred the panicked exodus of millions of migrant workers. Hunger mounts in the households of informal casual workers who have nowhere to flee. The central government cynically encourages massive religious congregations and election rallies, as a chief minister threatens to arrest you under the National Security Act and confiscate your property if you complain that you cannot find oxygen to save your loved ones.
The second wave of the pandemic is again holding the country hostage. It is shaking the foundations of our republic, betraying its iridescent pledges of equality, justice and fraternity. All the while, as the economy contracts alarmingly, tens of millions of impoverished Indians face an invisible calamity of mass hunger and stolen jobs.
It will be hard for generations of the working poor in India to erase the memory of the national nightmare that began when, with less than four hours’ notice, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on March 24, 2020, the peremptory closure of the country’s economy. This was a public act without precedent in the history of India and, given its scale and the negligible state support offered to the working poor, in the history of the planet. An intense humanitarian crisis resulted from this harsh lockdown, creating a massive explosion of hunger and joblessness countrywide, beginning with cities and towns. That the severe lockdown would lead to an eruption of mass anger was inevitable in a country where nine out of ten workers continue to be informal, and millions eat what they earn each day. Most workers in India have little or no social protection or savings to shield them against calamities, much less against calamities created by state policy.
What aggravated this humanitarian crisis was the tight-fistedness of the Indian government, which offered additional cash and food transfers amounting to less than 1% of the gross domestic product to people whose livelihoods were disrupted by the lockdown, far lower than most countries that resorted to extensive lockdowns. While those people were still reeling from the impact of the largest lockdown in the world with one of the smallest relief packages, on came the lethal runaway second wave of the greatest global health emergency of a century.
Shadowed By Hunger
The first to be hit by hunger almost immediately after the first lockdown were the labouring poor in cities and towns. In these places the economy is largely held aloft by the poorly paid labour of millions of workers with few labour rights and even less social protection. I have for the last two decades worked extensively with urban homeless people and street children. From them I have learned that, although hunger is always just a heartbeat away for the urban labouring poor, there is very rarely mass hunger in urban India. If you are willing to work without contracts, elementary rights and security in low-end, unhealthy, highly exploitative work, violating your dignity, you are likely to earn enough to feed your body and to bring food to the plates of your children and elders. Even a young street child newly arrived in the city after escaping an abusive family learns in a week or two how to gather and sift plastic and waste from trains and trash dumps and sell these for a couple of hundred rupees a day. Waste work has no entry barriers and many stigmatised people, such as Rohingya refugees and the poorest Indian migrants, turn to this lowest-end livelihood to survive and bring food to their children each day.
Millions of workers also gather every morning at street corners across the country at what are called labour addas to offer their labour to a willing bidder on terms of his choice. On days when all this fails, they always have gurudwaras, dargahs, temples and churches to fall back upon. It is this lifeline to some work and food – however exploitative and humiliating – that was snapped thoughtlessly, and I believe with profound cruelty, by the union government in March 2020. This led to tens of thousands scrambling for food charity at street corners across the country. They would sometimes stand for hours in queues two kilometres long for a small ladle of watery rice and dal, or sometimes they would fall over each to reach the front of the line, fearing that the food would run out before their turn.
Consequences of the lockdown were also felt in Indian villages. In large parts of the countryside, the economy is not powered primarily by farm incomes, which remain low and uncertain, dependent on fickle monsoons and markets, but instead by remittances. It is these remittances from young men, and sometimes young nuclear families, who migrate to the cities and towns that ensure the survival of their families in the village. But the lockdown thoughtlessly and precipitously snapped this tenuous lifeline too, and impoverished aged parents or wives, who had to become the providers. These parents and wives funded the survival and travel of millions of dogged migrants who left the cities, braving police batons, disinfectant sprays, incarceration and arduous walks of several hundred kilometres to return to the place they called home.
Despite our petitions in the Supreme Court and calls from the political opposition as well as social groups, the government refused the elementary demand that since formal sector workers were getting salaries during the lockdown, at the very least informal sector workers should get minimum wages during the period of the lockdown (a transfer of Rs 7,000 a month to every household) and free food transfers in a universal and expanded public distribution system. In newspaper columns with economists Prabhat Patnaik and Jayati Ghosh, we tried to make the case for this support in an economy which had abruptly shut down. We calculated that this would not cost more than 3% of the GDP. Had the union government heeded the demand, the migrant exodus, the explosion of hunger and the unprecedented contraction of the economy could have been mitigated, if not substantially avoided. Even using a purely utilitarian paradigm, compassionate public policy would have yielded returns for the health of the economy. But we believe that there is a deeper ethical question here, beyond utilitarian outcomes, of the paramount duty of the state to protect its people from sinking into an acute and chronic hunger and livelihood crisis created by its decisions.
Instead, the prime minister appealed to the charity of employers to pay wages to the workers during the lockdown. Only 15% informal workers have identifiable employers. Even if many of these heeded the prime minister’s appeal, what would happen to the food needs of the remaining 85% of informal workers? And more fundamentally, social protection of workers is a matter of labour rights, more so in a calamity created by state policy. Their survival cannot be left to the indignity of uncertain and reluctant charity. A few months after the prime minister’s appeal for munificence, the Finance Ministry spoke of a “new normal where self-protection is inseparable from economic activity”. This too implied a retreat from the government’s responsibility of ensuring social protection of workers. The budget for 2021-’22 did not contain any new packages for social protection, while many states weakened legal rights of workers, and allocations for social protection schemes – including anganwadi services, social security pensions and so on – reduced in real terms.
Abandoned By The State
The tragic epic journeys of the migrant workers briefly caught national and international attention, forcing a reluctant union government to ultimately restart trains, although these often had no food and water, were hard to book seats in, and sometimes took days to reach their destinations. At least 80 people died during these travels, of hunger, thirst and exhaustion. But the conscience of the rich and middle classes, and of governments, is notoriously fickle and shallow. Today, as I write this a year later, if you rely on newspaper headlines and television discussions, you would imagine that hunger and joblessness unleashed by the lockdown are already a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Hunger Watch is a loose collection of social groups and movements, the Right to Food Campaign and the Centre for Equity Studies, that came together for periodic study of the actual status of hunger, food access and livelihood security among various disadvantaged populations in the wake of the nationwide lockdown in March 2020. Our resolve was to not allow governments and people of privilege to forget the mass (and preventable) suffering of hunger and joblessness until it was resolved. Here is our first report, based on interviews with 3,994 households across 11 states in October 2020. Dipa Sinha, who teaches in Ambedkar University, Kavita Shrivastava, General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and Rajendran Narayanan, who teaches in Azim Premji University, coordinated the survey, data analysis and report writing, with Naveen Gajjalagari, Nawasha Mishra and Aysha. It is a very rooted and engaged study, conducted on the ground not as much by formally trained researchers as by people drawn from, and working closely with, these dispossessed segments of people. There is a commitment to not just study and report, but to help organise the groups to access their rights.
I quote from the findings of the first Hunger Watch report:
“(L)evels of hunger and food insecurity remained high with little hope of the situation improving without measures specifically aimed at providing employment opportunities as well as food support. Families are using different coping mechanisms – we have seen children being withdrawn from schools and sent to work, assets and jewellery being sold, money being borrowed to buy food, massive reductions in the quantity and quality of food consumed.”
As a district officer, I have witnessed such food distress in rural and tribal India after repeated failure of the monsoon and chronic drought. But never, in all my adult working life within and outside government, have I seen it in urban India. The survey found, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the impact of hunger and joblessness was more acute in cities and towns than in villages. This is probably because two massive and legally-binding social security programmes for food and livelihood security – the National Food Security Act and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act respectively – helped impoverished rural families and the returning migrants to survive better than in urban India. In urban India, circular or seasonal migrants typically lack ration cards, and despite repeated demands over years, there is no urban employment guarantee programme.
Hunger Watch notes that the recent National Family Health Survey-5, based on surveys before the lockdown, shows in most states either “a worsening or stagnation in malnutrition outcomes such as prevalence of stunting and wasting among children and high levels of anaemia amongst women and children”. This makes the consequences of the lockdown on the survival, nutrition, health and productivity of millions of the working poor even more disastrous and inter-generational, depriving another generation of Indians the opportunities to survive with dignity, assured decent work, assured and sufficient food and nutrition, and free healthcare.
Roughly two-thirds of the nearly 4,000 people interviewed by Hunger Watch reported that the quantity of food they consumed in October 2020 had either “decreased somewhat” or “decreased a lot” compared to before lockdown. Even more calamitous than this was the impact of the lockdown on socially vulnerable groups, such as households headed by single women, households with people having disabilities, transgendered people and old persons without caregivers. In our survey, 58% of older people without caregivers, for instance, had to sometimes sleep at night without a meal. This was also the case with 56% of single women-headed households, and 44% of households with persons with disabilities.
It has been estimated that in just two months of lockdown, workers in the informal sector suffered a wage loss of nearly Rs 653.53 billion, which is almost the annual budget for the MGNREGA for 2020-’21 (Estupinan and Sharma, 2020). The data on economic contraction suggests that the impact on livelihoods has been severe and has affected women and Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and women more (Abraham and Basole, 2021). Among the economically and socially vulnerable groups surveyed by Hunger Watch, there is evidence of a sharp fall in the consumption of food grains, pulses, vegetables, eggs and meat, as compared to the pre-lockdown period. The collective observes that a direct rise in unemployment has led to a serious decline in incomes and, in consequence, in food access and consumption.
Hunger Watch also finds worryingly that little has been accomplished after the lockdown for the revival of livelihoods in the informal sector. Its report says: “For nearly a quarter of the respondents, the incomes had halved from pre-lockdown levels and for about one in five households, the incomes had reduced by a quarter. Since the majority of the respondents already had low incomes to begin with, a further reduction in household income is akin to taking a bullet train to hunger.” Though jobs are shrinking rapidly, the report notes that the crisis and food insecurity have prompted more people to enter the labour force. The Hunger Watch survey finds a staggering 55% increase in the labour force among the respondents. It notes a possible silent rise in child labour as well.
Our survey finds that more than half (and in urban areas nearly three-quarters) of those interviewed had no ration cards. This barred most from accessing the small benefits of food and cash transfers that governments made during and after the lockdown.
The report ends with a number of recommendations, including a universal public distribution system that provides every individual with 10 kilomgram grain, 1.5 kilogram pulses and 800 gram cooking oil for at least the next six months; distribution of nutritious hot cooked meals, including eggs, through anganwadi centres and midday school meals while following all safety guidelines related to distancing and sanitisation; revival of all services under Integrated Child Development Services, including growth monitoring, additional supplementary nutrition for severely malnourished children and nutrition counselling; ensuring 200 days of employment per rural household under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act with timely payment of statutory minimum wages; and urgent creation of a National Urban Employment Guarantee Programme, since the survey finds that the urban poor were worse hit by the lockdown.
Hunger Watch Report concludes that “the stringent national lockdown and the rising spread of the pandemic has resulted in deep economic distress resulting in a crisis of livelihoods, food and healthcare”. The economic crisis continues and deepens. “People who lost their jobs are yet to find replacements. Work, even where it is available, is even more irregular and for fewer days.”
I have no idea if India’s policymakers, lawmakers, civil servants and senior journalists will make the time to read the Hunger Watch Report. Will they heed the harrowing and disgraceful evidence it musters of mass hunger and persisting livelihood loss? Will they heed its counsel to introduce programmes to help millions of working poor people and their families to survive the catastrophe into which they have been thrown? It’s anyone’s guess. Economists calculate that a small tax on just India’s super-rich (who have incidentally expanded their wealth substantially in the pandemic) would be more than enough to finance all this.
If they fail to act, the distress, hunger and joblessness of India’s working poor are likely to fester for at least a generation. These, aggravated by the new wave of lockdowns during the second wave of the pandemic, will deepen into widespread chronic hunger and malnourishment for many more years. A generation of children may have to drop out of education and lose all chances of escaping the dead-end poverty of their parents. And millions who had escaped poverty will slip back into the quicksand, finding it harder to escape. If governments do not urgently undertake measures such as those listed at the end of the Hunger Watch Report to give adequate food and cash transfers to the working poor, they will remain culpable in the immense and preventable suffering into which millions of India’s working poor have been thrust.
What is imperative is urgency and commitment, and more fundamentally public compassion.