Coronavirus: India’s lockdown becomes hunger games

for millions of country’s poorest

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 8:00 pm, 16 April, 2020

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  • Restrictions on movement in the nation of 1.3 billion people have been brutal on the poorest, with many falling through what patchy safety nets do exist

  • A US$22.5 billion crisis package unveiled last month was supposed to help, but the relief is not reaching everyone who needs it

People being transferred to a shelter in New Delhi during India’s coronavirus lockdown gesture for food that was being distributed on Wednesday. Photo: Bloomberg

India’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday extended until May 3, has been brutal on the country’s poor.

Restrictions on movement in the world’s second-most populous nation of 1.3 billion people – put in place in late March – have hit rural migrant workers and other labourers especially hard.

In the eastern state of Jharkhand, 42-year-old Nirel Lakda has not worked in over a month. Even before the lockdown, he struggled to get by, earning 300 rupees (US$3.91) a day as a casual labourer. Now, the single father of two young daughters has run out of money and food, and relies on the charity of his sisters to survive.

“Between paying for food and my daughter’s school bills, I had barely anything left to save,” he said.

Casual labourer Nirel Lakda, 42, has been forced to live off his sisters’ charity after not working for a month. Photo: Kunal Purohit

According to government data, nearly 67 per cent of India’s population is eligible for subsidised grain under the country’s National Food Security Act, which acts as a kind of safety net for the poor by providing essentials at affordable prices via its public distribution system.

Or at least, that’s the intention. Observers say problems with the way food is allocated and a reliance on census data that is almost a decade old mean at least 100 million of the country’s poorest are not covered by the system at all.

Lakda is among them. For more than a year, he has been unable to get any subsided grain because he moved away from his home – a hamlet on the outskirts of the state capital of Ranchi – to the small town of Lohardaga, about two hours’ drive away, for work.

“The government did not allow me to [have] the food grains in that town [and then] when I came back, I found that they had cancelled my eligibility,” he said, adding that this forced him to spend about half his monthly earnings on food.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seen on a mobile phone as he announces an extension to the country’s lockdown in a televised speech on Tuesday. Photo: Xinhua

A US$22.6 billion crisis package unveiled by Modi’s government on March 26 was supposed to help the country’s poor survive the nationwide shutdown that aims to slow the spread of the virus, which had infected at least 12,380 people and caused 414 deaths in India as of Thursday.

The package includes provisions for the distribution of free staples such as wheat or rice to some 813 million people for three months, as well as free cooking gas for women in rural areas and financial help for farmers, construction workers and the elderly.

Yet as Lakda’s example shows, the relief is not reaching everyone who needs it, leaving many of India’s poorest and most vulnerable fighting to survive.

In Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, 23-year-old Sugriv Rajmunshi has been living on a building site for the past three weeks, unable to return to his home in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district – more than 35 hours away by train.

He and five others had been building part of a private school in the city’s east when work was halted by the lockdown, which was imposed just four hours after Modi announced it on March 24.

With so little advance warning, Rajmunshi was left with little choice but to stay in Mumbai and try to wait out the shutdown, living off the money he had earned working on the site – 500 rupees per day. This barely got him through the initial three-week period, however.

A civic worker sprays disinfectant on a policeman as a precaution against coronavirus in a slum in Mumbai. Photo: AP

“My rations will last me only for a day more,” he said on Wednesday. “After that, I will neither have food, nor any money to buy food.”

Authorities in the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, had promised that labourers like Rajmunshi would have enough food to last through the lockdown. But he says he hasn’t received any state support, and he isn’t alone.

On Tuesday afternoon, thousands of migrant workers took to the streets of Mumbai, assembling outside a railway station to protest against the lack of support and demand that they be allowed to go back home. The police had to resort to force to disperse them.

Migrant workers shout slogans during a protest in Mumbai against the extension of India’s lockdown on Tuesday. Photo: AP

Uddhav Thackeray, Maharashtra’s chief minister, said on Tuesday night that his government was providing three meals a day to nearly 600,000 migrant workers, who he described as being “a bit rattled” despite these measures.

“The workers [thought] that trains would be [running again] and they would be able to go home. We are taking care of their needs and requirements,” he said.

Such assurances do little to help Rajmunshi, however, who now lives inside the half-built school he helped construct. He did not take part in the protest and says he is willing to stay in Mumbai, “but if the government does not want us to go back [home], it should at least give us food grains or else we will die of hunger,” he said.

A daily wage labourer in New Delhi stands in a queue for free food at a construction site where activity has been halted amid the lockdown. Photo: Reuters

Reetika Khera, a development economist and associate professor with the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, said the government’s food security schemes were “severely undercovering the country’s poor”.

And while Modi’s administration cannot be blamed for causing the coronavirus pandemic, she said the ensuing “humanitarian crisis is definitely a creation of this government”.

What baffles observers like Khera is the fact that government warehouses are filled to the brim with grain. Data from the state-run Food Corporation of India shows that in March, there were 87.2 million tonnes of rice and wheat in storage – yet that same month only 3.52 million tonnes were distributed through the public distribution system.

“The government has become the biggest hoarder of food grains,” Khera said. “It is just sitting on this excess at a time when people are literally dying.”

India’s government has stockpiled tens of millions of tonnes of rice and wheat, yet it is not reaching all those who need it. Photo: Xinhua

Ravi Kant, secretary of India’s Department of Food and Public Distribution, told This Week In Asia that state governments – which have “joint responsibility” to operate the country’s National Food Security Act alongside Modi’s administration – should do more to “provide any benefits over and above those envisaged” by the act and help those who miss out.

In a statement on Tuesday, the federal government claimed subsidised grain had been distributed to 52 million families since the lockdown was enacted, with 320 million families receiving cash handouts so far.

But this still falls short of covering the 400 million people – more than the entire population of the 

United States – whom the International Labour Organisation estimates are informally employed in India.

Their lack of job security means they stand to be hit hardest by the country’s looming economic downturn – GDP growth is expected to tumble to just 1.9 per cent this financial year, according to the International Monetary Fund’s latest projections. In January, the IMF had estimated yearly growth of 5.8 per cent.

A woman shouts about the scarcity of food at a protest in a Mumbai slum on Tuesday. Photo: AP

Under new guidelines to be implemented from Monday, however, millions living in India’s rural areas will be allowed back to work despite the lockdown. Agriculture and related sectors including farmers’ markets, logistics, repair shops and brick kilns will be restarted, with protective measures such as the mandatory wearing of face masks or coverings to be enforced.

Some factories will also be reopened but staffing will be limited and working hours staggered, while factory owners will be required to try and provide dormitories for workers or arrange special transport to and from the plants.

Refineries, coal production and some construction will also be permitted. What effect all of this will have on workers’ livelihoods, and the virus’ spread, remains to be seen.

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