The Long Shadow of Hunger in India
From tribal communities in the forests to daily wage workers in the metros, hunger afflicted millions of Indians throughout the last year. Meanwhile, the central government had massive stocks of grain
The Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s ill-conceived and heartless response have left the people of India devastated. The unprecedented loss of jobs and earnings due to repeated lockdowns pushed a large section of the people to the brink of starvation. Meanwhile, a fumbling administration provided inadequate relief in terms of food grains and some financial help for a few months to only a section of the people. Chilling stories of people eating grass and wild tubers, begging for food from neighbors and charities, taking loans on brutal interest rates just to survive, or simply cutting down on meals emerged from across the vast country. Among the worst hit were the most marginalized communities like forest-dwelling tribals, landless agricultural workers, industrial workers whose factories remained closed, and the vast segment of the population that depends on daily wage work in informal services or sectors like construction and hospitality.
Bhuwaneshwari, belonging to the forest-dwelling Pulayar community, lives with her family inside the Anamalai Tiger Reserve in the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Unable to sell forest produce due to lockdown restrictions or access the government relief without a family ration card, they survived on porridge made from wild tubers during the lockdown in April and May 2021.
“I walk 10 km into the forest every morning to collect produce. It takes me around two hours to reach our spot. We start at 8 am and return by 5 pm. During the lockdown, we harvested groundnuts. We stocked it up in the hope that we could take it down later and sell it at the mandi (market),” Bhuwaneshwari told Newsclick.
"How long can we go on surviving on these tubers?" she asked in desperation.
Like many other tribal communities in India, their only source of income is minor forest produce. The suspension of the public transportation system during the lockdown severed their source of livelihood and cut them off from the rest of society. More than 40,000 such tribal families in Tamil Nadu do not have a ration card, which would entitle them to subsidized food grain.
RECORD HARVEST, YET AGRI-WORKERS HUNGRY
Landless workers and marginal farmers also faced the brunt of the crisis. Although farming continued through the year and India produced a record harvest of food grains – some 395 million tonnes – wages of agricultural workers and the meager returns of marginal farmers fell, and indebtedness increased. There are over 140 million landless laborers in India.
Mohammad Khan, a marginal farmer of South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal State, owns 2.5 bighas (about 0.4 acres). He leases out 1.5 bighas and grows vegetables on the rest. The lockdown and restrictions saw him struggle for food because transportation for his meager vegetable crop was unavailable.