A bullet train to hunger -Dipa Sinha and Rajendran Narayanan

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published Published on May 13, 2021   modified Modified on May 14, 2021

-The Hindu

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of expanding social security nets

Pinki is a 28-year-old Dalit woman from Saharanpur, U.P. Her husband met with an accident during the national lockdown in April 2020. The two of them had to sell all their belongings for his treatment and subsequently became dependent on her parents. Such avoidable miseries were heaped on millions due to the unilateral national lockdown in 2020. The monthly report from the Finance Ministry in October stated, “From a trickle in not so distant past to now a sea of humanity coming out on the streets, the people of India have embraced the new normal where self-protection is inseparable from economic activity.” It attempts to poetically celebrate the spirit of resilience among the people by alluding to “self-protection” by shying away from the government’s responsibility of social protection. The experience for the poor is a kind of syndemic: a juxtaposition of the healthcare crisis due to the pandemic and the daily precarity of having to deal with hunger and uncertainty about livelihoods.

The rural-urban divide

As per the State of Working India report 2021 of Azim Premji University, nearly half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work between late 2019 and late 2020 and the poorest 20% of the households lost their entire incomes in April and May 2020. Considering the modest national minimum wage threshold of 375 per day (the Anoop Satpathy Committee), 23 crore individuals have been pushed below these minimal earnings. Poverty rates in rural areas have increased by 15 percentage points (pp) and by 20 pp in urban areas.

A worse impact on the urban poor was also observed in other surveys. For instance, many organisations affiliated with the Right to Food campaign and the Centre for Equity Studies, under the banner ‘Hunger Watch’ (HW), conducted a survey of nearly 4,000 households in 11 States in October 2020. The respondents were equally split between rural and urban. The survey focussed on understanding the hunger and livelihood situation among marginalised communities such as daily wage workers, single women households, people with disability, etc. The differential impact on rural and urban populations came across in this as well. Incomes reduced by half/quarter for more than half the urban respondents while it was a little over one-third for rural respondents. In October, in rural areas, 26% had no income while 30% had no income in urban areas. For only one in five rural respondents, the nutritional quality of food remained “more or less the same” in October compared to pre-pandemic levels. This was doubly worse for urban respondents. While 54% in urban areas had to borrow money for food, it was 16% lower for rural respondents. Nearly two-thirds of the urban respondents had to skip a meal while it was lower (41%) for rural respondents. Urban respondents experienced at least 12 pp more reduction in consumption of grains and pulses compared to rural. In summary, across 13 key parameters, urban respondents were 15 pp worse off compared to their rural counterparts. The conditions are worse when data are spliced by caste, religion and other special forms of vulnerability. For instance, 60% of Muslims, 51% of Dalits, 58% of older persons without caregivers and 56% of single women-headed households went to bed without a meal at least once. This pattern holds true across other parameters too. The number of respondents in each of these categories varies so they are not strictly comparable. However, the uniformity of these numbers across surveys indicates the disproportionate impact faced by some of these more vulnerable communities.

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The Hindu, 13 May, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-bullet-train-to-hunger/article34544332.ece?homepage=true&fbclid=IwAR1FOyqhH7J_OALTHePLIP4KbjgATOcAHe1b8Rz3C21bVaf9uCp8fp5MLKY

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