We are in the midst of an epochal transition. Covid-19 has triggered a civilizational crisis with no immediate end in sight. Many would reckon that India has done well to contain the pandemic. Yes, this is a crisis of humongous dimensions, involving mind-boggling complexities. With human lives threatened, livelihoods at stake, large-scale reverse migration, the economy in a tailspin, and the attendant disruptions, we need to work on a multi-pronged response mechanism.
The Union Government, along with the state governments, is working along these lines. A national economic package has been announced, with more in the offing. The economy is being opened up in a calibrated fashion — something that I’ve argued before. State governments are addressing migration woes. People are getting used to the idea of their homes being their second workplace. Indians are learning to manoeuvre their way in a post-Covid-19 world.
If, however, there is one imagery of the Covid-19 national lockdown that has stayed with most of us is that of migrant labourers trudging their way to their respective hometowns. Many such episodes have been reported from Delhi, Mumbai, Surat, parts of Telangana, and elsewhere.
More than ninety percent of the national workforce is in the unorganised sector. In the event of a national lockdown, it’s the poorest and the marginalised who are hit the most. Many of them will lose their sources of livelihoods, and thus, their two square meals a day.
A UN University report says that 104 million more people could slip below the poverty line in India due to the crisis. An ILO report, on the other hand, observes that around 400 million workers in the unorganised sector of India could sink further deeper into poverty due to this.
When the poorest don’t have enough for two square meals a day, it means that we, as a nation, have failed them. Look around and you will hear episodic stories of starvation deaths and malnourishment. The problem gets particularly exacerbated if the nation is in a period of prolonged lockdown.
It’s generally believed that democracy, and a free Press, are the best guarantees against starvation.
So, where have we failed?
Why are starvation deaths still happening? And what could possibly be done to ensure that starvation and hunger deaths don’t assume the form of a crisis in the uncertain times that lie ahead?
When I moved a Private Member’s Resolution, advocating for a Zero Hunger Act, in the Lok Sabha in 2006, I got overwhelming across-the-board support. A responsive political class, media, and civil society groups ensured that India had a National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013.
It gives legal entitlement to 67 percent of the population (75 percent in rural India, and 50 percent in urban India). Under the National Food Security Act, the government supplies 5 kg of food grains per person per month for priority households, and the Act currently covers over 81 crore people.
According to an estimate, this has helped more than 75 percent of rural India procure their monthly food grains at half the expenses, thus reducing hunger.
In the lockdown crisis, the government has increased the monthly quota of subsidised food grains to 7 kg per person, followed by an announcement of free distribution of 5 kg food grains, under PM Garib Kalyan Ann Yojna, for the next three months.
I believe that while the national spread of the Food Security Act is welcome, more needs to be done. Take, for instance, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Global Food Security Index, where availability, affordability, quality and safety of food are measured, and India ranks only on the 72nd spot in a list of 113 countries. Or, the Global Hunger Index of 2019, which ranks India at the 102nd position in a list of 117 countries. There is no gainsaying that India needs to do more and do it rather quickly to be hunger-free, starvation-free, and malnutrition-free.
As part of a long-term plan, India, like other countries, is working to end hunger, and eliminate malnutrition by 2030, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A 2019 Niti Aayog report says Goa, Mizoram, Kerala, Chandigarh are among the states and UTs that are doing well, but others are lagging behind.
I would like to argue that as India comes to terms with a new post-Covid-19 normal, we should work vigorously towards a hunger-free, malnourishment-free India, well before the deadline. Let this be a top national concern as we rejig our priorities in the post-Covid-19 world.
While the SDGs with the 2030 deadline were launched in 2016, countries like Brazil had launched a war on hunger way back in 2003, with its pioneering “Fome Zero” (or Zero Hunger) — towards providing everyone enough food, and right kind of food, for nutritional needs and well-being.
We should use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to undertake large-scale changes to be able to feed India — especially the most vulnerable sections – well.
I would recommend that under the NFSA, the 5 kg-food grain quantum be raised to 10 kg for the future. The government could consider introducing breakfasts, in addition to mid-day meals, in schools, to ensure that our future citizens are healthy.
I also think in these uncertain times, it’s time to make the NFSA coverage universal, what with the FCI godowns brimming, with more than three times the buffer stock that FCI is required to maintain. In other words, anyone going to a PDS shop must not be turned away because s/he doesn’t have a ration card. Some states have already acted in this direction.
A peculiar problem faced by migrant workers is that their local ration cards are not valid in other states. The union government is readying a “one nation, one ration card scheme”, and this needs to be prioritised. In the post-lockdown period, the issue has become particularly important, with large-scale reverse migration.
Another important problem pertains to the linking of Aadhar cards to the ration cards. In many rural areas, the identification infrastructure malfunctions. Glitches in the verification process must not become an excuse to deny someone food grains. Among other measures, I’ve argued earlier also, we need to universalise Direct Transfers to those living on the fringes.
Let the Covid-19 crisis usher policy changes that ensure that our poorest are fed well, their nourishment needs are taken care of, and their dignity is upheld. It’s only then that a united India will be able to script an inclusive growth story.
(The author is a former Indian parliamentarian and Chairman of Jindal Steel & Power Ltd.)