Bengaluru: The pandemic-induced lockdowns have had a profound impact on livelihoods, affecting poor Indians' food intake, studies show. In October 2020, more than half the respondents of a Hunger Survey said their rice/wheat consumption had declined during the lockdown and ensuing months. Two in three reported that the quantity of food they consumed "decreased somewhat" or "decreased a lot".

A June 2021 report of the Stranded Workers Action Network on migrant worker distress during the second wave found that they had inadequate dry rations, no work and less than Rs 200 cash available.

There is no shortage of foodgrain stocks in government granaries. In its March 2021 report on price policy for kharif crops, the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices reiterated its recommendation to dispose of excess foodgrain stocks to "save huge carrying cost of excessive stocks and ease storage space constraint". Despite additional offtake of foodgrains and higher exports during 2020-21, rice and wheat stock as on February 28 was nearly 2.7 times more than the stocking norms--58.2 million tonnes, for the quarter beginning April 1.

These stocks should have been used to alleviate the distress caused by the second wave of the pandemic, says Anjali Bhardwaj, transparency activist and founder of the Delhi-based Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) or Society for Citizens' Vigilance Initiatives. Bhardwaj is also a member of the Right to Food Campaign, which advocates for the universalisation of the Public Distribution System (PDS), social security and right to work. To ensure that poor and vulnerable households do not go hungry, PDS must be universalised, she says.

Food rights groups and activists have highlighted the plight of migrant workers and the poor, and made submissions in the Supreme Court. Yet, "adequate steps have not been taken showing total apathy and lack of political will", she tells us in an interview.

Edited excerpts:

In October, Hunger Watch survey reported that even after the end of the national lockdown, the hunger situation was "grave". Has the access to food essentials and rations improved since and during recent statewide lockdowns?

Nearly 90% of India's workforce is in the informal sector, with a large percentage working as daily wagers. A lockdown results in the cessation of earning opportunities for them. The national lockdown in 2020 was imposed at an extremely short notice, without adequately addressing the two grave challenges the working poor and migrants faced due to loss of livelihoods: the inability to feed their families and themselves, and the lack of resources to pay for their accommodation at work destinations. This led to the widespread distress the nation witnessed, with migrant workers walking hundreds of miles to return to their villages.

The government announced the PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) to provide extra 5 kg of foodgrains (to individuals) and 1 kg of dal (to households) free of cost [every month] for 800 million ration card holders under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). The PDS became a lifeline for those in rural and urban areas. But millions of poor not covered under the food security system--especially migrant workers who often do not have the necessary address proofs and documents--were in distress. Eventually, nearly two months after imposition of the lockdown, under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, the Centre made provision to provide free foodgrains for two months for up to 80 million non-ration card holders.

Even after the lockdown was lifted in 2020, economic activity has not resumed fully. We [Right to Food Campaign] have been asking the government to take cognisance of the acute distress and unemployment. The PMGKAY and the Atma Nirbhar Bharat scheme were stopped despite issues [of access to food essentials].

In the second wave, most states imposed lockdowns. Governments have been in denial about the distress--stating that there has been no national lockdown. If governments had learnt lessons from the national lockdown, they would have been able to alleviate the distress during the second wave to a large extent. They should have provided similar food security measures for ration and non-ration card holders. Unfortunately, it seems no lessons were learnt to tackle the second wave.

PMGKAY was restarted by the central government [to last] until June [2021] and then extended until Diwali for ration card holders, but it has not restarted the Atma Nirbhar scheme for non-ration cards, who are often the poorest and most marginalised.

More than half the migrant workers in Delhi-NCR who had called a workers' helpline in May 2021 said that they had less than two days of rations left, no income and almost no savings due the lockdown. The Supreme Court (SC) has ordered states to ensure access to food dry rations. Why are states slow in responding?

We approached the SC in the ongoing migrant workers case, demanding that a system be created to provide support for those without ration cards. The SC asked the states to provide dry rations to migrant and stranded workers who do not possess ration cards. The court directed that the Atma Nirbhar or a similar scheme be initiated. Unfortunately, the Centre has not acted and most state governments have not put adequate measures in place.

The first wave visibilised the problem. In the second wave, there has been a focus on the acute health crisis, but the fallout of the economic crisis has not grabbed headlines like it did last year.

Even before the pandemic, millions in India lived in poverty and hunger has been a reality for many. Child malnutrition has been extremely high. There has been a policy failure and the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. Existing laws and schemes do not reach the unorganised and informal workers. In the 2018 Shramjeevi Mahila Samiti case, the court gave directions to create a national database of unorganised sector workers. It was supposed to be created by the Centre and data added by the states. This portal is still not functioning.

The Right to Food Campaign has consistently demanded the universalisation of the PDS. That is the only way to create a comprehensive food security net in the country. Targeted PDS under the National Food Security Act leads to the exclusion of a very large number of needy families. The unwillingness to universalise the PDS, especially at this time of crisis, is absolutely inexplicable given the record high foodgrain stocks in the country--nearly 100 million tonnes. There is no reason why the government cannot open its granaries to ensure that no one goes hungry. Despite our submissions to the SC and the government being aware of distress, adequate steps have not been taken showing total apathy and lack of political will.

Affidavits filed by the state governments in the Supreme Court show that most states do not have proper schemes to provide rations to people not covered under the NFSA. Following the directions of the apex court, the Delhi government has announced a scheme to provide foodgrains to 2 million people without ration cards.

There has been a tussle between the Delhi government and the Centre over the door-to-door delivery of PDS, which the Centre has not approved. Food rights activists and networks have raised concerns including the lack of public consultation in the drafting of the scheme, the possibility of ineligible beneficiaries getting ration and the need for consent from ration card-holders for home delivery. Your comments?

During the national lockdown in 2020, the Delhi government said it would provide rations to 1 million who do not have ration cards. But the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan (DRRAA, a food rights campaign) moved the High Court highlighting that 1 million is wholly inadequate, and anyone who requires ration must be provided it. Following the High Court's orders, under the Delhi government's e-coupon scheme, in 2020, it provided ration to nearly 7 million people without ration cards. This shows how inadequate the coverage of the National Food Security Act is in Delhi.

DRRAA has again challenged the cap of 2 million imposed by the Delhi government this time. Further, it is a one-time provision of ration, which is totally inadequate. Whatever little savings the working poor had, have been used up during the lockdowns. The Delhi government must issue temporary Covid ration cards, and provide rations to all those in need till the pandemic ends.

The Centre must also restart the Atma Nirbhar Bharat scheme, and assist all state governments in providing rations to migrant and other unorganised sector workers who are not covered under the PDS. All state governments must move towards universalisation of PDS, and also use their own resources, where necessary, to provide ration for those left out. States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu are already doing it.

The door-to-door delivery is fine in principle, but there are many potential implementation challenges, like monitoring the quality of ration delivered or time of delivery. At the ration shop, bad quality foodgrain can be rejected and people can collectively complain. But at home this will be difficult. There has been no public consultation on the scheme. The government can undertake a pilot without disrupting food security. Also, if the Delhi government is keen on doorstep delivery and is being stopped by the central government, it could issue ration cards to those not covered under the PDS currently and deliver rations to them at home. The central government cannot stop the Delhi government from doing that. If the experience is successful, it can be used to advocate for door-step delivery to National Food Security Act beneficiaries.

The Centre had announced in May 2020 that it would ensure 100% portability of ration across the country by March 2021. In June 2021, it told the Supreme Court that by December 2020, 86% of the population that qualifies under the National Food Security Act in 32 states/UTs had been bought under the One Nation, One Ration Card (ONORC) system. But migrants found it hard to access dry nations even during state lockdowns. How has ONORC worked on the ground?

Nobody can deny that portability, in principle, is good. However, the implicit assumption here is that a person has a ration card. ONORC can help only those who have ration cards. With no universalisation and rampant exclusion of poor families from the PDS, talking about ONORC, without expanding coverage under the National Food Security Act, is misleading. Also, there is a problem with the way in which portability is sought to be achieved--through Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. Experience has shown this leads to huge exclusion errors because: ePOS (electronic point of sale devices) do not work due to poor internet connectivity and irregular electricity supply in many parts of the country; biometrics do not match, especially for those who do manual labour, etc. In Delhi, the ePOS was discontinued because it was leading to large-scale exclusions. [Unless] effective mechanisms are put in place to override these problems manually, the poor and vulnerable will suffer. In effect, to resolve a problem, the solution being proposed might create even bigger challenges.

Food distribution must be universalised during the pandemic so that people do not go hungry, and eventually solutions like smart cards can be used to ensure portability.

Anganwadis and mid-day meals are critical to nutrition programmes for children. How has this been managed in the last one year considering the logistical challenges and anxieties thrown up by the pandemic?

Anganwadis and mid-day meals are critical for childrens' nutrition both in rural and urban areas. Schools have been shut down due to the pandemic. While a hot, cooked meal for children is the best solution, if that is not possible during the pandemic, adequate dry ration and some cash transfers can be provided to ensure nutrition for children. Currently the cash transfers are barely Rs 4 a day. The fall-out of poor implementation of mid-day meals and other food security schemes for children can be seen in increased malnutrition and hunger in children.

The Delhi government said that it would give around 2.5 kg a month as dry ration for children in lieu of MDMs, which was provided in December 2020 for the preceding six months. Nothing has been provided since December.

More than 97% of people in India have become poorer, and the middle-class is estimated to have shrunk by 32 million due to the pandemic. What changes would you recommend to policy around access to food and related entitlements?

Like I mentioned, to ensure food security, the PDS must be universalised. With overflowing granaries, there is no excuse for anyone to go hungry. The food basket must be expanded especially with cooking oil prices at a 11-year high. Pulses need to be added.

Governments must not try to impose technology-based solutions that may lead to exclusion in accessing foodgrains in PDS. Finally, there must be a system to ensure that every family has some cash. Families need to buy vegetables, the young children need milk. Emergency cash transfers need to be ensured for families in economic distress due to the pandemic.

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