India is a country of contrasts. One such contrast is the fact that it is one of the world’s largest food producers – and home to one quarter of the world’s peoples afflicted by starvation.
This scenario is rooted in inequality. According to the World Food Programme, “in the last two decades, per capita income more than tripled, yet the minimum dietary intake fell. The gap between rich and poor increased during this period of high economic growth.” The Global Hunger Index (GHI) report last year positioned the country 92nd out of 104 nations, with the country being home to the largest number of undernourished people globally including one-third of the world’s malnourished children.
As with many health crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis. As my colleague Nicholas Parry wrote in the nascent stages of the pandemic in March of last year, many feared starvation more than the virus as a 21-day lockdown was imposed to curtail the virus’s spread. “Day labourers, the unemployed, the homeless, any who work day-to-day or who have been affected by economic stagnation compounded by the quarantine are now facing a dire choice: remain home and comply with social distancing measures (running the risk of starvation in the process), or breach the quarantine in search of a meal,” Parry wrote.
The crisis continued in the months to come. A survey by the Right to Food Campaign and other organisations interviewed 3,994 people across eleven states, finding that – as we summarised – “approximately 77 percent of families belonging to particularly vulnerable tribal groups families, 76 percent of Dalits, and 54 percent of the adivasis said they ate less food in the September-October period.
“The survey found that 56 percent of those surveyed never skipped a meal in the pre-lockdown period. Now, 27 percent of respondents do not eat before they go to bed, translating to one in twenty of the families covered by the survey. Meanwhile, nutritional value declined sharply: 71 percent said the nutritional value of their food had declined and forty percent said it had severely worsened.”
That survey came on the heels of a United Nations report published earlier in the year, which estimated that some 690 million people – 8.9 percent of the global population – are affected by hunger. This, the report said, is “up by ten million people in one year and by nearly sixty million in five years. The number of people affected by severe food insecurity, which is another measure that approximates hunger, shows a similar upward trend. In 2019, close to 750 million – or nearly one in ten people in the world – were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity.”
The pandemic has indeed exacerbated India’s hunger woes, though it certainly did not start them. Malnutrition in India has long been a scourge. In 2019, the Global Hunger Index found that the “child wasting rate is extremely high at 20.8 percent—the highest wasting rate of any country in this report for which data or estimates were available. Its child stunting rate, 37.9 percent, is also categorised as very high in terms of its public health [significance]…in India, just 9.6 percent of all children between six and 23 months of age are fed a minimum acceptable diet.” In the 2016-18 period, 14.5 percent of India’s population were undernourished.” Progress has been incremental. Last year, the GHI posited a 37.4 per cent stunting rate among children under five and a wasting rate of 17.3 percent. The under-five mortality rate stood at 3.7 percent. Malnutrition is responsible for two-thirds of child deaths in India.
The disruption to the food supply during COVID-19 is fuelling the starvation crisis. The Conversation notes that “the pandemic amplified the vulnerabilities of the national food system. It has disrupted local, regional and national supply chains, adding to the impacts of the country’s food waste problem. Small growers have had to sell their produce at a loss, if they have been able to sell it at all. Onions are rotting in containers, a consequence of plunging catering services.
“The lockdown measures resulted in severe labour shortages, delaying the mid-April wheat harvest by two weeks. In the potato-producing states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, increased demand from returning migrant workers pushed up prices by nine percent at the wholesale level and eleven percent in retail. Imports of food have also stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
There are systemic issues which need to be addressed. On India’s low GHI ranking, experts have pointed the finger at “poor implementation processes, lack of effective monitoring, siloed approach in tackling malnutrition and poor performance by large states behind the low ranking” according to Firstpost. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “nearly forty percent of the food produced in India is lost or wasted every year due to inefficient supply chains. A lack of cooling and storage facilities in India also means twenty percent of the entire food production gets lost before it reaches the marketplace” as summarised by The Conversation.
There is clearly much that needs addressing. The COVID-19 pandemic will make things inexorably harder with children especially vulnerable to the plague of starvation in India.
“As the crisis in India continues to spiral out of control, its impact on children is growing ever more serious. The surge in COVID-19 infections is forcing strict lockdown measures that have left many families without a source of income, pulling millions of children below the poverty line, and the poorest into even deeper poverty,” said Sudarshan Suchi, chief executive officer of Save the Children in India. “Lockdowns are necessary to control the spread of the virus, but there are unavoidable consequences to the control measures, which will have lasting impacts on children and families.
“The pandemic has reversed much of the progress India has made in reducing poverty and, as is too often the case, it is the poorest and most marginalised children who have been hardest hit. As the pandemic continues to pose a serious disruption to children’s learning, any hopes they had of moving out of poverty are fast disappearing.”
When the choice is present of shielding from a deadly virus or consuming a meal, something is broken. One death due to starvation anywhere is too many – especially in one of the largest economies on Earth. The pandemic has exposed the fault lines in a system that has broken down. One can only hope that, going forward, the lessons we learned translate into meaningful action and engender change for the better to create a more equal society where nobody sleeps on an empty stomach.