Rising food insecurity: Tackling hunger during the coronavirus crisis

Topics Coronavirus | food security | Hunger

People in certain pockets of UP thronged shops to stock up on food items on Wednesday. As people rushed to the shops, the administration cautioned the public against panic buying and assured home delivery of essentials. Photo: PTI
Napoleon once famously said that an army marches on its stomach. Many argue that the present countrywide lockdown is causing widespread poverty and consequent hunger, making it that much harder for the nation to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this context, the work of Dilli Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan (DRRAA), Right to Food Campaign in Delhi, is notable. For the last few years, this group of activists, academics and frontline field workers has been advocating on issues related to food security and monitoring Delhi’s public distribution system. Today, however, the good folk at DRRAA are working overtime. “In the last few weeks, even we, who have been working on food security-related issues for so many years, have been taken aback by the extent of economic vulnerability of the country’s lower income groups,” says Annie Raja, member of DRRAA. “In the last two weeks, the food insecurity we’ve witnessed even in the nation’s capital, has left us shaken.”

She recounts how when they took relief supplies to a migrant labour colony in Kirti Nagar in Delhi, it nearly resulted in a riot. “The number of packets was just not enough,” she rues. “We realised that there was only so much that organisations, corporations or individuals could do; food is every citizen’s entitlement and the government’s responsibility!”
Consequently, DRRAA has been monitoring the state and central government’s relief measures and highlighting the gaps in the process. “The idea isn’t at all to simply criticise the government,” says Raja. “We believe that if the government plugs the loopholes that we identify, public health and food security infrastructure can be strengthened.”

To this end, DRRAA has been monitoring the functioning of ration shops and feeding centres through a network of volunteers and ration cardholders. Till April 5, 150 on-ground audits were conducted on 34 ration shops. “We found that 10 of the 34 (29 per cent) shops were closed during working hours,” says Anjali Bhardwaj, member of DRRAA. “Of the 15 shops which were open and distributing grains, 14 were found to be distributing grains in accordance with the enhanced entitlement of 7.5 kg per person on priority category ration cards and were following some system for social distancing.”

DRRAA activists aver that there is no system of grievance redressal, so for example, people don’t know where and how to complain if their ration shop is closed. Further, Raja points out that although Delhi government has announced that PDS subsidised foodgrain will be available even to people without ration cards, the procedure for access is difficult. “They have to fill an online form with 25 questions to get an e-coupon!” she says. “As many don’t have the means to do this, we believe that this exercise could end up being one of exclusion rather than inclusion.” Adding to this is the fact that Aadhaar is still mandatory for accessing any government social security scheme.

Based on their findings, DRRAA is advocating certain changes. “Information about ration available, the timing of functioning of ration shops and the quantity of free ration to different categories of cardholders each month should be disseminated widely in local languages through boards at ration shops, display of posters and public announcements in low-income settlements,” says Bhardwaj. “Also, there should be a helpline number for complaints displayed prominently outside ration shops.”

DRRAA is also advocating that access to food be further simplified and during this present economic and health crisis, food should be available to all who ask for it. Some of this advocacy seems to have reached the government’s ears. “In the initial days of the lockdown, we had highlighted that by shutting down schools, children dependent on the school midday meal would be deprived of it,” says Raja. “The government has agreed, in principle, to do something about this.”

Meanwhile, the hunger crisis that they have witnessed on the ground has been so severe that DRRAA members have been forced out of their watchdog role to do relief work. “Much of our present effort is directed towards ensuring that people don’t starve during the Covid-19 lockdown,” says Bhardwaj.

“DRRAA has responded to SOS calls for food requirements of over 35,000 people and has been able to raise over Rs 8 lakh, which has been directly transferred to those in need.” Going forward, DRRAA will have its work cut out. “Many more are going to need government support in the form of food, pensions and scholarships after this lockdown,” says Bhardwaj. “We'll do what we can to ensure their voices are heard by the government.”

on Facebook. To contribute towards their food relief campaign or get involved in monitoring the ration shops in your area, email at delhirtf@gmail.com

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