Invisible in the pandemic fires, a slow burn of hunger and distress across India

Invisible in the pandemic fires, a slow burn of hunger and distress across India

Sanju Devi stood wearily, clutching a cloth bag outside a ration shop. It had been a month since Delhi had gone under lockdown to contain a deadly surge of coronavirus cases and over three weeks since the prime minister had announced extra foodgrains for two months for 800 million people enrolled under the National Food Security Act.

But, in Bhalswa, a dirt-poor working-class neighbourhood in India’s capital, 18 days into the month of May, Devi’s family of five were still to receive even their regular monthly rations.

“Usually, the rations are distributed in the first week,” said the middle-aged woman. “But this month, I have made several rounds of the shop, each time they say the stocks are yet to arrive.”

The ration shop owner, who stood by overhearing the conversation, clarified: “The CM ration has come. But we are waiting for the PM ration.”

By CM or the chief minister’s ration, he meant the regular monthly supply of 250 quintals of wheat and 66 quintals of rice that the Delhi government sent for distribution among the 1,455 beneficiaries enlisted at his shop, each entitled to at least five kilo of foodgrains. The PM – or prime minister’s – ration was an extra five kilo of foodgrains per person that the Central government had allocated for two months as part of its pandemic relief scheme.

While the regular monthly rations had arrived on May 8 – late by the usual standards – ration shop owners in the area decided to put the distribution on hold till the extra rations were in. “It doesn’t make sense to have people come to collect their grains twice while disease is spreading,” said Sudesh Sharma, the ration shop owner. “It is unsafe for them, and for us.”

For Sanju Devi, the delay has meant buying food at higher prices at a time when the family income has dried up. Her husband, who works as a shop assistant, hadn’t been paid since the lockdown began. They contemplated heading back to Bihar with their three daughters, but calculated a return journey would cost them around Rs 5,000. “We would still have to buy food in our village in Patna,” she reasoned. “And even if we locked up the house in Delhi, we would have to still pay rent.” Just two days ago, she had borrowed money to pay the rent of Rs 2,400.

In March 2020, the Central government had put a billion-plus Indians under strict lockdown on four-hour notice, stopping all work and transport across the country. As income and food dried up in the cities, hungry and desperate rural migrants walked hundreds of miles home, with nearly a thousand dying in the crisis.

This year, there has been no national lockdown. But localised shutdowns now cover virtually the entire country. All of India’s large cities, which run on the labour of rural migrants, have restrictions in place. In Mumbai, it is the sixth week of lockdown; the fifth in Delhi; the third in Kolkata; and the second week in Chennai.

Yet, barring extra food rations, which have been unevenly distributed, governments have barely announced any economic support for the working-class.

If the lockdown last year came down as a hammer, this year, it feels like a thousand cuts. Obscured by the dramatic and distressing images of death in the second wave of the pandemic, a slow drip of distress is going unnoticed, not just by the government, but even by other citizens, leaving the urban poor to fend for themselves.

Sanju Devi (left) and Sheela Devi had both turned up at the ration shop to make enquiries.

‘No one is helping the poor’

Bhalswa exists in the shadow of a giant garbage dump. In April last year, Scroll.in had seen a 2-km long queue here, leading up to a bhandara or community kitchen run by a charitable organisation.

Residents recall those days wistfully. “We would go to the bhandara with our ration card,” said Lokendra, a frail-looking man who goes by a single name. “They would check our card. For the four members listed there, they would give us two meals each.”

“But this year, there is nothing,” he complained, bitterly. “No one is helping the poor.”

A mechanic at a truck garage, Lokendra’s work had stopped even before the lockdown started. “The police took away all oxygen cylinders, the hospitals needed them,” he said. “Without oxygen, there can be no denting-painting.”

As he stood in a queue outside a ration shop which had started distributing grain on May 17, Lokendra reeled off reasons why the current lockdown was worse than the one in 2020: “Last year, we got double rations for several months. There were community kitchens, people were doing daan-punya (charity). The government sent Rs 500 into the accounts of women. Even the price of cooking gas was slashed.” This year, he said his family of five was trying to make a kilo of potatoes last three days.

Lokendra, a truck garage mechanic, hasn’t earned a penny ever since the lockdown began.

But others in the queue pointed out a major improvement since last year. “This year, at least the police aren’t beating us up,” said Meshar Jahan, whose husband and son sold vegetables on the street. “Tarbooz ki, kharbooz ki, chahe sabzi ki” – whether musk melons, or watermelons, or vegetables, the shops were open, she said.

For the self-employed, “halka phulka” or small-time work continued. Deepak, who goes by a single name, said he was able to cycle around, offering carpenter services. There were fewer takers, and daily business was down from Rs 400 to Rs 150. “But at least we can have dal roti.”

It was the factory workers, the shop assistants, the daily wager earners who were facing an income wipeout. Tarsem Singh, 42, who worked at a factory making LED bulbs, hadn’t been paid his monthly salary of Rs 6,500 since the lockdown began. “The owner says stay safe at home,” Singh said, adding that the factory hadn’t paid its 30-odd workers during last year’s lockdown either.

Most workers seemed reconciled to not getting wage payments from their employers. “Only when work happens can they pay, where will they generate money from,” said Sheela Devi, whose son, employed as a driver by a taxi service company, had gone without his regular payments.

Those who could leave the city, had left already, said Meshar Jahan. “There are 8-10 locked up homes in my lane. The city has emptied out.”

Sheela Devi is reconciled to her son’s employer not paying him during the lockdown.

230 million slip below poverty line

Several surveys done last year documented the debilitating impact of the lockdown on India’s working-class. A livelihood survey by the Azim Premji University found 90% respondents had cut down on food intake. As incomes fell, borrowings rose. Even employment patterns shifted. “Nearly half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work,” a report by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the university noted.

The result was a staggering increase in poverty levels. According to the report, as many as 230 million people fell below the national minimum wage poverty line because of Covid-induced economic distress.

The second wave of Covid-19 is deepening this distress.

In Mumbai’s suburb of Bandra, on May 19, Mohammed Roshan was among the 30 men waiting for food distribution to begin. Until the lockdown started, Roshan earned about Rs 700 a day as a worker in the catering business. Now, he was living off meals distributed by Christian institutions in the area. The municipality also came by with food every day – puri bhaji, often – and occasionally people driving by stopped and dropped off packed meals.

“I used to live in a room with other men in Antop Hill, but after work dried up with lockdown last year, I couldn’t afford the rent,” said Roshan, wearing a hoodie and a baseball hat with a Batman logo. “I gave it up and have been sleeping on the streets since. I bathe in the sea and wash my clothes on the shore.”

In Chennai, 46-year-old V Latha sells flowers near the famous Parthasarathy Swami temple. After the city introduced stricter restrictions on May 15, roadside shops like hers are expected to shut down by 10 am. “I can only run the shop between 6 am and 10 am. How do they expect me to sell anything?” she asked. Worse, with the temple closed during the lockdown, her customer base has shrunk.

This year is tougher on her family, Latha said. “When the lockdown came last year, I had some savings to dip into. Since then, I have depleted the little savings I had and I now run my business on borrowed money.”

V Latha has taken a loan which she is no longer confident of repaying. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan

In Kolkata, Monica Roy’s husband works in a private store that is shut due to the lockdown. “His wages have been stopped by the owner,” she said. “We are now living on our savings.” Roy had queued up outside a ration shop on May 19. “We don’t get much but at this point every little bit helps,” she explained.

Since the first lockdown came into place in March 2020, West Bengal government has waived even the subsidised price of food rations. The extra foodgrains allocated by the Centre for the months of May and June had also reached ration shops in the state.

Mohammed Nizamuddin, who stood in the queue with Roy, explained how critical this allotment is. “I work as a labourer at Chandni [a large hardware market],” he said. “But that has shut. And with no buses, I can’t even look for work in other places. We are able to survive due to these rations.”

People gather outside a ration shop in Kolkata. Photo: Shoaib Daniyal

Not just food, cash assistance is needed

But extra food rations for two months are barely enough as a relief measure, say economists, especially since millions of poor people remain outside the food security net.

To start with, free rations must be extended till the end of 2021, say the researchers at the Azim Premji University in their report. Secondly, food assistance should not be limited to those with ration cards, economist Jean Dreze argued yet again in a recent piece: “Excess food grain stocks are huge, and still growing – there is more than enough to cover many of those who have been left out of the PDS [public distribution system] so far.”

Delhi government announced food support for those without ration cards but is yet to announce operational details. Last year, it ran an e-coupon system, which, despite glitches, provided a measure of support to those outside the public distribution system. It is unclear why the government hasn’t simply revived it. The national ration card portability scheme, called One Nation, One ration, is still not working in most states.

Dreze argues more durable social security measures are needed, including cash assistance. “Cash offers some valuable flexibility in a situation where people have diverse needs – some for food, others for medicine or oxygen or transport,” he wrote.

The report by the Azim Premji University researchers calls for a cash transfer of Rs 5,000 for three months to vulnerable households, apart from an expansion of the rural employment guarantee programme and the introduction of a new urban employment programme. “These measures, taken together, will amount to approximately I5.5 lakh crores of additional spending and bring the total fiscal outlay on Covid relief to around 4.5% of GDP over two years,” it states. “We believe that this large fiscal stimulus is justified given the magnitude of the crisis.”

With reporting by Shoaib Daniyal in Kolkata, Sruthisagar Yamunan in Chennai and Naresh Fernandes in Mumbai.

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