Fighting coronavirus: Food riots are a real possibility, says Pronab Sen

Pronab Sen
Former chief statistician Pronab Sen has warned that if food requirements of migrant workers with no income are not fulfilled amid a countrywide lockdown, then ‘food riot’ may be a real possibility. 

In an interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Sen said that if the coronavirus pandemic spreads to rural areas, containment will be impossible. In the wake of the countrywide lockdown to combat the coronavirus threat, thousands of migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other states have started returning to their home states from cities, including Delhi and Mumbai.

“The problem is that if food is not made available (to migrant workers) and this, we have experienced in this country earlier, we had food riots during the times of famine...we could have food riots again if food is not made available. Let’s be clear about this,” the economist said while replying to a question on the impact of the lockdown on India’s vulnerable section.

“If the supply system comes unstuck, if the requirements of people who have no income are not met, then food riots are a very real possibility,” Sen asserted.

On Friday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had said that from Saturday, the government will be serving lunch and dinner to nearly 400,000 people at over 224 night shelters, 325 schools and other locations 

“Now, if we are in a situation when a very large number of population are forced to come together at a very short period of time in order to access food, whether it is cooked meal in rain basera, or what they have done in Punjab and Uttarakhand, which is that shops will open only three hours in the morning, a classic curfew model... you will probably get a higher spread of infection because of this....,” Sen observed.

Sen said panic had been created by the prime minister’s incorrect use of the term ‘curfew’ to describe a lockdown. A curfew is very different and not only did that word make people over-react but it was also probably responsible for the behaviour of the police.

Speaking about the impact of the lockdown on farmers, Sen said the fact it coincided with the rabi harvest and procurement period made it particularly tricky. If primary mandis stay frozen and inactive, or if they function but secondary mandis do not buy from them, farmers could be badly affected. He pointed out this was a problem the finance minister had not addressed. However, if mandis function then the front-loading of PM-Kisan would cover their interim needs. But there is no clarity on whether mandis will function.

Sen said that in India’s federal system the real burden of helping the most vulnerable would fall on state governments but they do not have the capacity to raise resources for this nor all the necessary permissions from the central government. He said the Centre must immediately give them the necessary authority and agreed that so far there is no public sign the Modi government has done so or is going to do so.

Speaking about the finance minister’s economic package, Sen said on the assumption there were many more steps planned, this was a good first step. At this stage, the crisis did not call for a big increase in the fiscal deficit because the problem was largely a supply-related freeze and not a demand-related concern, he added.

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