Coronavirus lockdown: As hunger grows, the fear of starvation is real

Kabir Agarwal*

April 23, 2020

Tek Narayan and Shyam Kishore Singh are migrant labourers who were employed at a construction site earning Rs 300 a day. Since the lockdown was announced, they have been stranded at the site, which is located on the outskirts of Meerut. Their homes are over 1,200 kilometres away in Latehar, one of the most backward districts of one of India’s poorest states – Jharkhand.  As migrant labourers they face many other problems – they are not entitled to the benefits of India’s public distribution system (PDS) because they work outside their home state. They could have accessed the PDS if they had a ration card.

Of the two migrant workers, Narayan has a ration card and his family back home is able to access the PDS and has been provided free grain ration for April.  But Singh’s family does not have that vital document and this his family of seven in Jharkhand is not covered by the National Food Security Act (NFSA). “They are buying from stores using what remains of the money I had sent last month. We had applied for a ration card last year, but the application is still pending,” said Singh.

Narayan, Singh and Singh’s family are outside the purview of the PDS – and thus won’t be entitled to the 5 kilograms of free grain in addition to regular entitlements that finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced as part of the PM Garib Kalyan package. All for different reasons. Narayan is ineligible, even though his name exists on a ration card because he is not in his home state. Singh would not have had access to the PDS even if he was in his home state because his name doesn’t appear on a ration card. Singh’s family is in their home state but ineligible because they don’t have a ration card.

There could be, by some estimates, over 100 million people who are not entitled – even as they face food insecurity – to the PDS because they are not covered under the NFSA.    Under the NFSA, 75% of India’s rural population and 50% of the urban population is supposed to be covered by the PDS.  This proportion varies in each state and is higher in poorer ones. For instance, 86% of the rural population in Jharkhand and 60% of the urban population is supposed to be covered by the PDS under the Act. Kerala is on the other end of the spectrum, at 52% of the rural population and 39% of the urban population, These proportions are used to determine how many people in a particular state are entitled to food grains under the PDS. That determination is then used by the Centre to allocate food grains to states.

A key issue here is that the population database used to determine the number of people who are entitled to the PDS is the Census of 2011 – data that is nine years old. India’s population has grown since then and the 2011 Census projection was 1.35 billion by 2020.  Meghana Mungikar, Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera’s estimate is 1.37 billion,  using 2016 birth and death state-specific rates to calculate population growth rates.  Using the population projections for each state and the NFSA coverage ratios, they calculate that 108.4 million people in India are excluded from the PDS. That is about 8% of India’s population or over four times the population of Australia and about the same as Ethiopia – the second most populous country in Africa. In fact, there are only 13 nations in the world which have a population of more than 108 million.  So, India has more people who are outside the food security net of the PDS than there are people in 182 of the world’s 195 countries.

Mungikar et al do warn that the 108 million number could be a slight overestimate because in certain states, the growth rate of the urban population would have been faster in this decade than the growth in the rural population.  “So, for states like Maharashtra, which have a faster rate of urbanisation, the estimates could be slightly high. But only slightly. And in any case, UP and Bihar have the highest under coverage numbers and the rate of urbanisation in these states is much lower,” said Khera.  The PDS undercoverage is highest in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, at 28.5 million, followed by Bihar at 17.7 million, and Madhya Pradesh – another slowly urbanising state – at 9.5 million. These three states alone account for 55 million, or slightly more than half of the total number left out in the country.

Undercoverage means that state governments are reluctant to issue fresh ration cards as they have already expired their quotas, which have remained frozen since the NFSA was put in force. For instance, Jharkhand stopped issuing new ration cards several years ago and the applications of 8.4 lakh households – like Shyam Kishore Singh’s – are pending.  “If the Central government is using updated population figures instead of 2011 figures, all these applications could be accommodated within the Central quota,” say Mungikar et al.  Since they are not, the possibility of hunger for the ones that are left out will grow.

It is important to note here that 108 million is not the entire population that is excluded from the PDS. It is, in fact, only a fraction of it. According to Dreze, the actual coverage of the PDS is about 60% and not 67% as is mandated under the NFSA.  And among the remainjing 40% of the population, several million more are now made food insecure due to the pandemic-induced extended lockdown. “People who would earlier not be eligible for PDS are now food insecure. Consider the situation of even an Ola or Uber driver who has not earned for 20 days,” said Khera.  This number could be significantly high as well. An estimated 90% of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector – like the Uber driver – characterised by minimal job security and low wages.

Another worrying statistic comes from the Azim Premji University’s state of working India report of 2018. About 85% of India’s workforce – assuming 68% of the workforce is male, based on Census 2011 – earns less than Rs 10,000 a month. And about 50% of the workforce earns less than Rs 5,000 a month, or less than Rs 166 a day. Even this income would now have, in the case of most of these workers, been wiped out owing to the lockdown.  A report released by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) on March 27 noted that 50% of the 11,000 workers they have been in touch with had rations left for less than a day.  The report adds that 96% of the workers had not received rations from the government and 70% had not received any cooked food. And to compound problems, 89% of them had not been paid by their employers during the lockdown period. 

Another category of people left out of the PDS net is inter-state migrants such as Narayan and Singh who are stranded in Meerut and are increasingly vulnerable given that the lockdown has now been extended until May 3.  According to estimates, India may have between 120 million and 150 million internal migrants who work in cities as domestic help, construction workers, in brick kilns and in the transport sector, among others. They are now made extremely vulnerable as their sources of incomes have dried up and most would be in cities where they do not have ration cards or a safety net.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on March 24 to announce the initial 21-day lockdown period, he did not mention how food security for migrant workers, or indeed other vulnerable groups, would be ensured by the Centre. Facing an uncertain and fraught future, between 5 and 6 lakh workers, according to the Centre’s submission before the Supreme Court last week, walked from the cities to their homes in villages.  Sitharaman’s package announced two days after Modi’s lockdown announcement also did little to provide comfort and security for the migrant workers.  Modi’s third address to the nation, where he asked citizens to turn their lights off at 9 pm on April 5, also did not mention any measures the Centre would take. Nor did his fourth one, which extended of the lockdown for almost another three weeks.  He did appeal to citizens to take care of the poor and their food security and urged businesses to not lay off employees, essentially relying on charity and largesse.

This reliance on benevolence of those who are better-off as state policy is also evident from a submission made by the Centre to the Supreme Court last week. It showed that in 13 states, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had set up more food camps and fed more people than the respective state governments had done, while the Centre had done nothing of the sort. In India, 9,473 camps had been set up NGOs, while 7,848 had been set up by state governments.

Sitharaman’s relief package – the only measure so far undertaken by the Centre to deal with the consequences of the lockdown – did not contain anything on food security of those left out of the PDS net.  The 5 kilogram of additional grain and 1 kilogram of pulses that she announced will not reach the more than 100 million who are not eligible for PDS due to the use of Census 2011 data. It will not reach the millions of migrant workers who are stranded away from their home states with no source of income. “There are several more categories which will be left out,” said Nikhil Dey, co-founder of the rights group Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan. “Homeless people, beggars, the elderly, denotified tribes. These people are not on anyone’s radar.”

According to several policy analysts, economists – including nobel laureates Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee and former governor of the RBI Raghuram Rajan – activists and politicians – including Congress president Sonia Gandhi – the solution lies in universalising PDS for at least the next six months. That is, providing food grains and pulses – the provision of which has in any case been slow off the blocks – to every individual regardless of whether they have a ration card. Khera believes this will be self-selecting. “You and I are not going to line up to get these rations. So that is not a worry. On the other hand, the people who need the grains can get them,” she said.  Dey contends that universalisation should be done even if it means that a few people who don’t need the grains will use the system to access them. “How does it matter? They will only eat it. Nothing more,” he said.

India’s stock of food grains ensures that this can be done, as Dreze pointed out recently. As of March, the Food Corporation of India held 77 million tonnes of rice and wheat stocks, which is more than three times the required buffer stock. This stock will go up further as the government plans to procure 40 million tonnes of wheat during the rabi harvest, which will occur soon.  An average of the last three year’s shows that the PDS needs about 54 million tonnes of food grain to ensure provisions for one full year. And Dreze estimates that an additional 20 million tonnes would be needed to universalise the system for one year.  “Given the stock of food grains we hold, there is no difficulty in doing this for a year at least,” he said.

Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee and Raghuram Rajan, have suggested that temporary ration cards be issued for a period of “perhaps six months with minimal checks to everyone who wants one and is willing to stand in line to collect their card and their monthly allocations.”  They continue that “the cost of missing many of those who are in dire need vastly exceeds the social cost of letting in some who could perhaps do without it,” they write.  Khera also has a solution to ensure that the same individuals don’t take provisions more than once a month. “Just use indelible ink so that they can get the provisions once a month and not again in the same month,” she said.

Dey says that in addition to universalising PDS, the government needs to ensure that community kitchens are set up and function in urban areas. “There will be hungry people who are unable to cook for a variety of reasons. The government needs to ensure cooked food to address the needs of migrant, unorganised sector workers, and the homeless and destitute populations,” he said.

India ticks the two key checkboxes to ensure these food transfers are delivered: adequate stock of grains and a system of delivery through PDS and mid-day meal schemes.  If, however, the universal food transfers are not ensured, millions could face starvation. “We will face widespread hunger, destitution, and many starvation deaths. It would be amoral and foolish to not respond promptly and decisively to ensure some level of universal food security while expecting people to fight this pandemic,” said Dey.

According to information compiled from news reports, starvation deaths have already begun.  With the FCI godowns filled to the brim with food stocks, it is important to recall Amartya Sen’s study of the 1943 Bengal famine in which he found that it was not shortage of food but lack of access to it that led to starvation deaths.  “The people who died in front of well-stocked food shops protected by the state were denied food because of lack of legal entitlement, and not because their entitlements were violated,” Sen wrote in his 1981 book Poverty and Famines.

This blog was first posted at and is reposted here with permission

*The Wire