A Zomato Food deliveryman amid the Covid-19 lockdown in Gurugram on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, on April 7, 2020. Photo: NurPhoto

Dola Mohapatra is the executive director of Rise Against Hunger India, a hunger-relief organization. He recently spoke to Asia Times about the increasing concern of hunger and food security arising because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and excerpts of that interview appear below.

Mohapatra has worked in various capacities in the humanitarian sector including responding to global emergencies (conflicts and natural disasters) in Asia, Africa, the US and other parts of the globe. During his more than 30 years of work in the non-profit and humanitarian sector, he has been active both on the ground running field-level operations and as senior management at the national, regional and global levels providing strategic leadership and guidance to field units.

Sachi Satapathy: Before the coronavirus outbreak, more than 820 million people worldwide did not have enough to eat. How do you see this situation further escalating in the post-pandemic era?

Dola Mohapatra: Protracted conflict, climate-change issues and poor economic management by various governments were already making things look difficult. These factors have contributed to the spike in the number of people suffering from chronic hunger in the past three years after a steady decline in the previous years.

Even without fully accounting for the impact of Covid-19, the recently released Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) 2020 says that 265 million people are estimated to suffer from acute food crisis – a 100% increase in the number of people who are facing acute food shortages. 

As the impact of Covid-19 gets more and more clear, this number is certainly going to further increase. If drastic measures are not taken, the crisis will lead to large-scale humanitarian emergency as defined in the integrated food security phases, as defined by Food and Agriculture Organization [see below].

See the source image
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization

Given the scale of joblessness, economic disruption and massive slowdown across the globe, the global economy will take a long time to bounce back. Covid-19 has left no country unaffected. Though there is no official estimate yet, and it is too early to get one’s head around a definite number, I would not hesitate to say that almost a billion people would face food security issue in the coming 12 to 18 months.

Large-scale lockdowns, border closures, quarantines, and restrictions of movement have severely affected both the supply and demand sides in the supply chain. We have already seen visuals of farmers dumping their produce for lack of storage and transport facilities to the market, while in cities and urban locations, perishable commodities are either unavailable or the price is going up.

SS: In times of a pandemic and accompanying economic crisis, food security is a key concern for governments throughout the world. Do you think the governments of low-income and developing countries such as India are doing enough to address this? What will be your advice?

DM: In most of these countries, the majority of the workforce is [in] the informal or unorganized sector. In India, for example, the estimates vary between 70% to 80% of the total workforce [being in] the unorganized and informal sector. The challenge is to be able to make sufficient food available to people at the lower economic strata and those who have been rendered jobless or are without economic opportunities to earn their livelihoods.

While most governments are trying to help this group through various social protection and welfare measures to cope with the challenges posed by the pandemic, field reports from various countries clearly show how these measures have not been enough. The world over, there have been reports of massive exodus of people, incidents of riots and looting, simmering social unrest and armed violence.

No one can definitely predict when the economic activities will be back to full normalcy.  Given this uncertainty, it is imperative that governments are prepared to provide minimum food guarantees to their people for six to eight months.

The Indian government has through its PM [Pradhan Mantri] Garib Kalyan Yojana assured supply of food grains to people who fall under the National Food Security Act (there are criticisms in some quarters that the volume is less, but this is certainly a good measure as long as the field units receive the stocks on time and delivery at the local unit level is streamlined). 

In some countries, where children used to get midday meals, dry ration is being provided for the families so that kids get food when the schools are under lockdown. 

In terms of clear suggestions, the following priorities emerge:

  1. Streamline its procurement, storage and supply-chain management system to make sure food commodities are available at all locations, especially at potential hunger hotspots.
  2. Refine the delivery and distribution system so as not to deprive anyone of food who needs it at this time (for instance, sometimes not having a ration card or ID proof has barred households from accessing welfare measures).
  3. Allocate cash subsidies for families to be able to purchase other essential items.  

SS: Food shortages or food inflation will harm the population, especially the vulnerable poor, who even on normal days can spend up to 60% of their income on food. Does India have enough food for everyone to last us through the pandemic?

DM: India is lucky in some ways actually in terms of availability of stocks. To provide Minimum Support Price to the farmers and make food grains available to the weaker sections at nominal cost or as safety net protection/welfare measures under the Public Distribution System (PDS), government has a well-defined procurement policy. 

Also, as per the National Food Security Act, the Food Corporation of India is mandated to keep a buffer stock of 5 kilograms of food grains for all those who are covered under the act (nearly 800 million people).

SS: With very few savings and a poor social security net, families in rural India are having fewer meals, borrowing money and braving the threat of police violence in order to go out and work. What should be the government strategy to address such situations as Covid-19 looks like it will continue for few more months?

DM: Going by the government’s recent announcements, one would tend to think that it is fully seized of the matter. Saving lives without completely jeopardizing people’s livelihoods has been the recent focus of the government. This has prompted government authorities to slowly ease lockdown norms and allow reactivation of economic machinery with certain precautionary measures in areas that are not majorly affected by the pandemic. 

It is going to be a huge challenge to get back to pre-lockdown status for many reasons, but primarily because the majority of workers have moved back to their native places or have been internally displaced. Government economic package to businesses, factories, manufacturers and employers should compulsorily include a mandatory component of ensuring health and well-being of the workforce, not as a labor welfare measure, but as an essential element of economic reactivation. 

This should be made universally available to all the workers regardless of their nature of engagement – casual, contractual, temporary or regular. Other labor-friendly provisions such as … health insurance, free food or rations, safe transport or stay arrangements within the premises will go a long way in rebuilding confidence among the workers to bring them back to work.

SS: Do you agree with the view of many experts that India’s lockdown means no food for rural and urban poor? Is this the only alternative before government? What are your biggest concerns right now?

DM: Though I am not a health expert, from what I have read here and there, I don’t think there was any alternative available before the government. We have seen how a sudden surge in Covid-19 … cases overburdened the health system in countries with much better infrastructures.

So India did not have a choice but to slow down the spread through lockdown measures.  One could, however, argue that the government machinery was not adequately prepared to deal with the consequences of the lockdown. 

It is an undeniable fact that there could have been better arrangements to avoid large-scale internal displacement, panic and fear among the masses, especially the migrant laborers [and] contract workers, daily wage earners. What the government did later should have been done before executing the lockdown. Even now, we are getting complaints from many migrant workers about not getting enough food, not knowing where to go, and not fully sure what is in store for them in the days, weeks or months to come. 

While pandemic-related messages have been very loud and clear, and there is a fair degree of compliance among the people, there was little or no communication about how people who depend on a daily wage or live on welfare measures will get their food and whom to approach in case of emergencies. By the time this mechanism was set up, panic had set in among the people. 

Also, the relative vacuum in clear communication led to a spread of misinformation, fake news and propaganda. I have been receiving calls for the past few days, for example, from many West Bengal migrant workers saying my number was given to them to contact for a 1,000-rupee [US$13] allowance being offered by the WB government (thankfully, the calls have stopped now).

SS: India is a country where people are much more at risk from the serious consequences of poverty if they go several weeks without working. What is your view of what’s likely to happen to these poor migrant workers if things are basically shut down for a month or two?

DM: The pandemic has clearly revealed how countries like India are less prepared to deal with the challenges faced by migrant workers. According to a release by the International Labor Organization, “the pandemic has exposed serious gaps in social protection systems around the world, particularly for some categories of workers, such as part-time workers, temporary workers and self-employed workers, many of them in the informal economy.”

Estimates of rural to urban migration vary significantly, but it will be safe to say that around 120 million migrant workers, most of them in the informal sector, form the majority of the workforce in urban areas. Estimates also suggest that they contribute nearly 10% of India’s GDP. The recent set of data released by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) shows a steep rise in unemployment level (26%) due to lockdown and closures.  This is going to further exacerbate if the lockdown continues further.

Further, the trend of massive movement back to the villages has caused a heavy burden on the rural employment situation too, with limited or no opportunity for the labor force to earn a decent income in their native villages. 

In summary, we are looking at a grim picture if measures are not taken quickly. At the minimum, it has to be ensured that these workers get food and safe shelter with access to sanitation [and] drinking water. 

Also, urgent steps should be taken to set up an inter-state coordination mechanism so that these workers are able to access provisions without running around here and there. Third, some sort of health-insurance system will assure them that they can get state support if they suffer from any ailment during this period (Covid-19 or otherwise).

SS: Under such circumstances, the lowest strata of the society, comprising daily-wage workers, construction workers, contract laborers, and street vendors have been the worst hit. These vulnerable groups have lost the only source of their income and are now under the threat of dying from hunger. How is your organization planning to scale up for this in coming weeks?

DM: The mission of Rise Against Hunger India is to ensure that vulnerable people have access to food at all times. The organization aims to achieve this through direct provision of food aid to those in urgent need and through other projects that enable communities to achieve sustainable livelihood and food security.  

During emergencies such as Covid-19, Rise Against Hunger India’s packaged meals (dry uncooked mix of rice, dal, dehydrated vegetables and a sachet with a mix of 23 micronutrients/minerals) come in handy as the meals are safely packaged, are hygienic, have a shelf life and are easy to transport. Also, with the micronutrient mix, the meals are wholesome and nutritious. 

Though our initial goal was to reach some of our regular beneficiaries with about 1.2 million meals for a period of three months, we were inundated with requests from our NGO partners and others from many parts of the country. In the past four weeks alone, we have served over 700,000 meals and are on our way to complete 1 million meals by end of April. 

Subject to funds availability, we are now getting ready to organize an additional 2.5 million meals. This will enable us to take care of 150,000 people for three months.

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries.