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Recognizing Hunger Amidst a Pandemic: Insights from India

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

Swati Parashar │ 18 May 2020

Indians have historical, spiritual, and socio-political connections with hunger. Historically, many thousands have died in famines engendered by colonial and postcolonial governments and their policies. Spiritually, hunger has engendered self-realization and oneness with the divine. This is manifested in weekly and annual religious 'fasts' observed by people of various religious denominations, to 'cleanse' both body and soul. Socio-politically, hunger is realized through resistance, and social movements that utilize hunger as a strategic tool and build the notion of community around the suffering body denied its natural sustenance. Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of the anti-colonial struggle popularised hunger as a strategy of protest, which has been adopted in many resistance struggles in contemporary times. Hunger has been a powerful metaphor in popular culture through fiction, films, novels, theatre, and other forms of art.

For a country that so intimately 'knows' hunger, it should not come as a surprise that hunger emerged as a significant concern when the lockdown was announced by the Government of India to contain the rising cases of COVID-19. On 24 March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown for three weeks restricting mobility and suspending public activities, a decision that affected 1.3 billion people across the country. This lockdown announcement was preceded by a 14-hour voluntary public curfew on 22 March. On 14 April, the Modi government extended the lockdown for another two weeks. The latest extension lasts until 31 May, with certain relaxations and demarcations of affected areas into different coloured categories needing specific responses.

This unprecedented lockdown announcement was followed by the mass migration of daily wage labourers working in the informal economy across the country, mostly in big cities to their hometowns and villages. No immediate assurances of support came from the central and state governments for these workers who not only feared losing their livelihood but also eviction from their rental lodgings. The lockdown additionally unleashed rumours and uncertainties about travel restrictions and work in the future. In such dire circumstances, the desire to escape hunger and return 'home' prompted thousands of migrant workers to undertake long and risky journeys (sometimes on foot or in transport provided by state governments) to reach their villages and towns. Heartbreaking stories of their arduous journeys, undignified deaths and enormous suffering continue to be raised in the media. In contrast to the plight of these tired and hungry workers either on the move or stranded in different cities, stories of nonresident Indians being 'rescued' and flown in from locations abroad continue to highlight the glaring inequalities in the country.

It must be put in context that the association of hunger and migration has a long history. Indians suffering from mass starvations, diseases and famines have always migrated to new lands in search of economic opportunities. The Indian indentured labour arrivals in Fiji, Mauritius and the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries were enabled through the apathy of the (colonial) state and its policies that led to devastating outbreaks of famines and epidemics in India. During COVID-19, we are witnessing reverse migration, back from places of work in big cities to semi-urban hometowns and rural villages, a phenomenon that might become the trend in such situations of urban economic precarity that engenders mass hunger. In both cases, the fear of hunger remains the most important reason for the catastrophic movement of people both from and to their native places as they reconstruct their notions of 'security' and 'home'.

Hunger and starvation remain a major concern for a large number of people unable to earn daily wages in India. The International Labour Organization estimates that about 380 million people work in India's informal economy in various jobs in cities that include those employed to wash and iron clothes and textiles, cobblers, tailors, salon workers, private security guards, vegetable and fruit vendors, construction workers and domestic help. Food aid is critical to avoid situations of mass starvation, which are very common during pandemics and epidemics. The UN and other international agencies have warned that the pandemic has slowed down the agriculture sector and food is not reaching markets due to disruptions in the global food supply chains.

There are no reports of food shortages in India, and abundant agricultural production is expected this year. However, there are concerns about people's buying capacities, available food-grain transportation and markets for farmers, and appropriate storage and distribution. In the absence of strategic and swift government intervention, many will find it difficult to access and purchase food. Against this emerging backdrop in India, the haunting issue of farmers' suicides has been repeatedly highlighted by the media since 2006. These suicides are the result of rising inequalities in the corporate-owned agrarian sector and the overall government and administrative apathy. As we discuss in our research project, most famines and mass starvation in history have occurred not due to crop failure and absence of food stocks, but due to restricted supply chains and public policies that severely affected buying capacities.

History provides many examples of hunger as a silent killer during epidemics and pandemics. We know that in the past, far more lives have been lost to food 'scarcity' in the most vulnerable and poor communities than to the disease itself. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which hit India the worst, famine-like conditions left people severely undernourished and weak, forcing them to move into densely populated cities where most deaths occurred. In the case of India, which lost 5% of its population in the 12 million who perished in the Spanish Flu pandemic, women died in greater numbers compared to other places. Women were used to eating less in times of scarcity and were malnourished; their bodies incapable of fighting the virus. Moreover, they were also the ones who tended to sick family members at home and, thus, were more likely to contract the disease.

In the case of COVID-19 and its impact, the Government of India initially announced a financial relief package to deliver free food to roughly 800 million beneficiaries. This was supplemented by Rs 20 lakh crore (nearly $270 billion) stimulus package to revive the economy affected by the lockdown, announced by the Government last week. This package is being appreciated for its generous plans to rehabilitate those hardest hit by the lockdown, especially migrants and farmers. Agriculture infrastructure, small-scale enterprises, food distribution and transport, are areas that will receive financial relief and attention. Free food has been promised to fleeing and jobless migrants for the next two months as part of this fiscal stimulus. However, concerns remain about the implementation and bureaucratic hurdles in making food available through the government's public distribution channels and welfare schemes.

The severity of the issue has been particularly understood by NGOs and civil society, whose responses to the pandemic have been extraordinary and unprecedented. Community kitchens and civil society initiatives have been successful in providing rations to the poor and feeding the hungry. In many cases, the local administration is working with these NGOs and civil society volunteers to minimize the impact of both the lockdown and the pandemic.

The inability of the vulnerable and the poor to access food would have disastrous consequences for a country as big, densely populated and diverse as India. Hunger deaths and (exacerbated) food insecurity could severely impact efforts to contain the pandemic and attend to people's health needs. The pandemic itself is not going to be India's biggest challenge, but managing its fallout and minimizing hunger and suffering for the least privileged is going to be a huge task ahead. In that the central and state governments have to forget petty politicking, work towards collective goals and provide spaces to civil society and NGOs, to emerge as reliable allies.


Swati Parashar is Director of the Gothenburg Center of Globalization and Development (GCGD) and Associate Professor in Peace and Development at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Follow her on Twitter @swatipash.


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