In response to the Covid-19 crisis, India has imposed one of the longest and strictest lockdowns anywhere in the world. While the lockdown may have been effective in managing the spread of Covid-19 cases, it will be devastating to forget that India’s hunger situation was dire even before the lockdown was enforced. With the lockdown, there is a real threat that India’s death toll on account of hunger may increase to unforgivably higher numbers.

India’s hunger statistics are among the poorest in the world. India was ranked 102 out of 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2019. As a comparison, India was ranked worse than Pakistan and Bangladesh. The absolute levels of hunger, particularly among children, are even more troubling. More than 19 crore Indians are undernourished (GHI 2019). More than 56 lakh Indian children (0-4 years), that is, 4.9 per cent, are in the “severe wasting” category (UNICEF March 2020 report), which means that these children have extremely low weight-to-height ratio. Using UNICEF findings, an Indian Express report has claimed that more than three lakh children die due to starvation every year.

Thus, India faces an especially challenging trade-off between Covid-19 and hunger. The lockdown is likely to cause severe economic damage, which in-turn threatens to worsen the hunger situation due to lower earnings and higher unemployment among vulnerable sections of the population. Although a lockdown was probably necessary, the focus on preventing hunger deaths should be at par with the focus on preventing Covid-19 related deaths.

What can be done

In the short-run, two steps will be crucial in mitigating the hunger crisis. First, as argued by many economists, the government should immediately increase the availability of cooked and uncooked food, and increase cash support. Second, all levels of government must act on PM Narendra Modi’s promise to provide help during the ongoing rabi harvest. In particular, this help must be extended to those agricultural products that are not procured by the government, such as fruits, vegetables, etc.

If the reports of widespread wastage of these crops are accurate, then their cultivators, agricultural labourers, and supply-chain employees will be severely affected. These individuals often depend on earnings from the rabi harvest to evade poverty and under-nutrition. Thus, the Central and State governments should provide immediate assistance in harvesting, selling, and supplying these crops.

For the medium to long term, other than boosting the NREGA programme, the government needs to ensure the survival of micro enterprises within MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises). Due to their small size (less than ₹5 crore annual turnover), micro enterprises are vulnerable to collapse as demand shrinks due to the lockdown-related economic slowdown.

But, the survival of micro enterprises is crucial because they provide employment to more than 10.7 crore Indians (MSME annual report 2018-19), which is about 97 per cent of the total MSME sector employment. India’s unemployment rate has already crossed a catastrophic 23 per cent (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy).

If there is a large-scale collapse of micro enterprises, then we may see mass long-term unemployment, and consequent increase in poverty and under-nutrition among dependent families. Thus, micro enterprises need to be given priority in bailouts, loan waivers, and credit (which will soon be scarce). Further, micro enterprises should not be made to pay their employees’ salaries without assistance from the government.

Citizens must assist

In his latest address, PM Modi has promised high priority to the poor and needy during the lockdown. However, past experience with India’s hunger problem suggests that there is a significant gap between the government’s intention and its application. Therefore, individual citizens’ contribution can be valuable in the fight against starvation.

Assisting local families in need or assisting local non-governmental organisations working in the area of nutrition may be useful. An excellent way individuals and district-level officials can estimate the state of under-nutrition (in pre-crisis times) in their vicinity is to look at National Family Health Survey data online (the latest 2015-16 series), which provides district-level reports.

On a personal note, I was shocked to see that my home district of North-West Delhi had 17.8 per cent children in the “wasted” category. This when there was no major economic crisis. Now, an economic tsunami is coming, and all of us must act soon to counter hunger.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Economics, IIM Ahmedabad