The Challenges of Managing a Hunger Crisis Amidst a Public Health Emergency

A Centre for Policy Research ground report points to a mass hunger crisis among migrant workers in Delhi post-COVID-19 lockdown. It highlights the current disconnect between the government’s well-meaning responses to the crisis of hunger and health among the most vulnerable populations.

The much-awaited relief package for the poor announced by the Union finance minister on March 26 in the wake of the COVID-19 related lockdown in the country has entirely left out migrant labourers who have consistently fallen through the cracks of the social welfare system in India. They are ineligible for PDS rations at destination, face barriers in registering themselves on the Building and Construction Welfare Boards, and often lack IDs and paperwork to access any targeted schemes with eligibility criteria.

Our ground report on the repercussions of the 21-day lockdown  on vulnerable populations in Delhi reveals that it has unleashed a mass crisis of hunger among migrant daily wage workers in Delhi who, now unemployed, lack money to buy their own food and have lost access to doles usually available at religious institutions, which are now also shut down.

For our report we interviewed NGOs running shelters in Yamuna Pushta, Jama Masjid, Sarai Kale Khan, Pahar Ganj, Motia Khan and Nizamuddin as well as union representatives and community organisers with deep contacts in communities across north-east, north-west and south Delhi. It is clear from their accounts that the government will need a fresh imagination to sustain this vulnerable segment which remains trapped in hostile urban environments without means to sustain themselves.

In Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement on March 21 of free food at the 200-odd homeless shelters in the city caused a mass movement of daily wage workers from other areas towards shelters in Yamuna Pushta, Jama Masjid and Sarai Kale Khan, among others. This population includes ‘houseless’ migrants who live in Delhi on the streets, labour chowks, shops and work sites over varying periods to earn for and return to their families in other parts of the country.

Also read: Coronavirus Lockdown: ‘Food Riots Are a Very Real Possibility,’ Says Pronob Sen

Consequently, the non-governmental shelter managing agencies (SMAs) which are tasked with sourcing and distributing food at these sites themselves, are unable to bear the additional loads, faced as they are with shortages of supplies and no upfront monetary or in-kind resources from the government.

Long lines and crowding at shelters at the time of food distribution defeated the very purpose of the lockdown and exposed large numbers to disease, COVID-19 or otherwise. For instance, from among the estimated 8-10,000 homeless men living in Yamuna Pushta, NGO Aman Biradari identified 69 TB cases out of 1,200 men tested along the 1.8 km stretch.

Imagine the additional vulnerability of these populations to COVID-19 in conditions of crowding, exacerbated by an influx of workers from other parts of the city. It doesn’t help that shelters also face acute shortages of sanitisers and disinfectants required to maintain hygiene at this time, nor have adequate quarantine facilities been set up in preparation for more cases.

The shelter at Yamuna Pushta. Photo: Rajesh Kumar

On March 25 the Delhi government announced relief measures in response to the hunger crisis, including the setting up of ward-wise hunger helplines and kitchens in schools across municipalities. These measures do have the potential to address the growing crisis – but implementation has lagged behind announcements.

On March 26, the helpline was not functioning, and the government and NGOs were responding to numerous SOS calls from hungry communities in adhoc ways. For instance, about 250 families, or 750 people, in Kabir Nagar in north-east Delhi were without food until the government heard about their condition and hurriedly delivered meals. As of March 27, government kitchens have become operational in 325 schools. How these measures will pan out remains to be seen. Early field reports indicate that areas such as Kabir Nagar, Seelampuri and Maujpur that are far from such schools will continue to depend on adhoc food provision.

In comparison to the broad measures outlined by the Centre, the Delhi government’s steps are more in line with the emergency food needs of daily wage labourers. But making pronouncements without planning institutional arrangements to implement them often proves to be an act of cruelty, albeit unintended. In comparison, states like Kerala and Rajasthan have experimented with universalised provisioning of food to its daily wage labourers.

COVID-19 is teaching the world that the best proposals fall flat if they do not consider ground reality. Emergency-time policy responses like a lockdown echo business-as-usual attitudes and systems. They fail to keep in mind the ability, or lack thereof, of daily wage labourers and migrants to comply as well as the barriers they face in securing basic amenities.

Also read: Thousands Confront Hunger in Delhi as Lockdown Leaves Daily Wage Workers Helpless

In Delhi, as in other cities in the Global South, it is common for the government to sub-contract provision of services to private and non-governmental agencies. The challenges of coordination between stakeholders in such arrangements – in deciding how best to secure and deliver resources, share and act upon reliable information – deepens the crisis for the most vulnerable populations.

Governments are morally bound to ensure institutional arrangements before making politically expedient announcements. For instance, Delhi’s construction worker welfare board has a mere 55,000 of an estimated 200,000 workers registered in it, and is currently defunct. Labour ministries need to find ways to revive such institutions, vital to the delivery of social welfare, at this time of emergency.

Lastly, the crisis of hunger should not distract us from the enormous health crisis at hand. The instance of a mohalla clinic doctor testing positive for COVID-19 indicates that low-income communities are already at risk, more so owing to the congested and insanitary conditions in which they live. The Delhi government’s responses to the crisis of hunger and health appear disconnected at present and the immediate challenge for the Delhi government is to arrange the human resource and institutional requirements that support their proposals in a way that they simultaneously address acute hunger and the potential future risks of disease contagion.

Ashwin Parulkar is a Senior Researcher and Mukta Naik a Fellow with Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.