Jobless and penniless, scores of migrant workers face a food crisis and may lose the battle for survival

The national lockdown, which completes 68 days at the end of its fourth phase on May 31, has pushed India’s migrant worker population into a vortex of uncertainty and despair. Jobless and penniless, thousands of them continue to fight the unprecedented situation, hoping to make it to the other side of the crisis. Many, though, are losing the battle for survival.

Ajit Kumar Rai, a 38-year-old daily wager in Ludhiana, committed suicide on May 9 after failing to source rations for his wife and two children for the past 10 days. Originally from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, Rai and his family had been living in Ludhiana for the past 15 years. Rai used to earn Rs 400-500 a day, but the lockdown wiped out his source of income. Rai’s wife told the police that it was the frustration of not being able to provide food for the family that drove him to give up his life.

Two deaths occurred in Jharkhand in April from alleged scarcity of food. The victims, Somaria Devi, 76, and Upasi Devi, 72, belonged to the state’s Garhwa and Ramgarh districts, respectively. Their husbands are casual labourers. When local administration officials visited Somaria Devi’s home after her death, they found no food stocks, and arranged for 10 kilos of foodgrains for her husband. Local officials found the situation same in Upasi Devi’s home and assured her husband foodgrain supplies. While the government has been working its machinery to ensure food security during the lockdown and voluntary organisations have stepped forward to help, it seems the scale of the migrant crisis has eclipsed the efforts.

Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal had said on May 15 that the country has not seen any starvation in the past three months due to the COVID-19 crisis. A month ago, however, the Union ministry of social justice and empowerment released data suggesting that an estimated 12.5 million people in 10 metropolises were at the risk of acute food shortage due to the Covid outbreak—Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Indore, Lucknow and Patna. The ministry said efforts were being made through local administrations and NGOs to provide food to these people, but it was an uphill task. An official in the ministry said beggars and nomads were at the greatest risk.

Under the Centre’s Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has announced various measures to mitigate the hardships faced by migrant workers. This includes distribution of free foodgrains and pulses to 80 million migrant labourers (five kilos per person per month for May and June 2020). The benefit of this initiative will, however, depend on the efficiency of our delivery mechanism.

Before the lockdown, the Supreme Court had, on February 10, imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh each on the state governments of Punjab, Nagaland, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand and the Union ministries of law and justice, women and child development, social justice and empowerment and rural development for failing to file affidavits regarding the measures being taken to provide food security to the destitute and homeless people as well as those not having Aadhaar cards. In November 2019, the court had asked the Centre to respond to a petition demanding the setting up of community kitchens to bring down cases of starvation and malnutrition. The petition had claimed that hunger deaths and malnutrition were rising rapidly.

For a country that aims to become a $5 trillion economy by 2024 and a global economic superpower, starvation can be a serious embarrassment. Making the future look despairing is the International Labour Organization (ILO) assessment in early April that the COVID-19 crisis may push 400 million informal sector workers in India deeper into poverty.

Attributing hunger as the cause of death is riddled by its own complications. Three years ago, when 64 children died after eating a toxic fruit on empty stomach in Odisha’s Malkangari district, the administration declared that the deaths occurred due to high fever. The toxicity may have resulted in the fever, but the initial pang that drove the children to eat the toxic fruit was severe hunger. The post-mortem reports had confirmed death from consumption of poisonous fruit. An official of the Union ministry of social justice and empowerment said that given the conclusion of the post-mortem reports, these deaths could not be technically termed as hunger deaths.

Global health watchdogs have sounded an alarm about hunger deaths in developing countries. In 2019, the Global Hunger Index ranked India 102nd among 117 countries. This when India is the second-largest producer of rice and wheat and the food and civil supplies ministry says the country’s warehouses have enough stock to feed people for the next three years. The question then is: how much of this foodgrain reaches the hungry and needy and how much of it ends up rotting? The poor’s access to government-supplied foodgrains through the public distribution system has been ration card-based, adding to the unequal distribution. Now, on May 22, the Centre has asked state governments to provide free ration to even those who do not possess ration cards or Aadhaar cards. It is hoped that this dole will reach the needy before it’s too late.

Sujit Thakur

Courtesy IndiaToday