Govt. has an active role to play during the pandemic in terms of nutritional support, education & jobs, says IFPRI report
Titled Global Food Policy Report 2021: Transforming Food Systems after Covid-19, the report by IFPRI has cited a survey conducted in rural India during April last year that found that in roughly half of the households, women were spending more time fetching water and firewood in comparison to the earlier months (i.e. pre-pandemic period) of 2020. Joblessness accompanied by lost incomes because of stay-at-home orders frequently contributes to increased domestic violence that affects mostly women and children, says the IFPRI report.
Due to the sudden announcement of the nationwide lockdown with only four hours’ notice, the existing transport systems were found to be unprepared to adapt themselves quickly so as to meet the requirements of millions of migrants returning to their villages (i.e. origin located in rural areas). This contributed to a surge in coronavirus infections among the returnee migrants. The sudden announcement of the countrywide lockdown caused panic among the informal and migrant workers, and in the absence of transportation, many of them trudged on foot to their ancestral villages. It needs to be mentioned here that many of the returnee migrants died during their journey on foot due to starvation, hunger, exhaustion, police brutality, road accidents and various other reasons.
In those countries where safety nets were already in place or where a database of informal and migrant workers existed, it was relatively easy for the governments to provide assistance to such workers, mentions the Global Food Policy Report 2021. It should be noted here that in a recent judgement by the Supreme Court of India (please click here, here and here), which is related to the suo motu writ petition (civil) 6/2020 IA no. 58769/2021, it has given directions for time-bound registrations under the various portals and laws to ensure that social security benefits reach the migrant and informal sector workers.
When it comes to employment, it is found by the IFPRI report that the pandemic lockdowns have disproportionately affected workers in the informal sector. Although the informal sector does not guarantee social protection to the labourers, it is observed that in India, informal shops (relying on family labour) have remained active during times when formal retailers (in the food supply chains) had to shut down because of the pandemic.
The pandemic-related short-term shocks to labour markets may also have long-term consequences in terms of nutrition, poverty, and overall wellbeing, particularly for children living in South Asia. Nearly half of all poor people in India cannot afford a nutritious diet. With massive joblessness in informal sectors, poor households have experienced a reduction in diet quality that will likely have long-term impacts on their productivity. Besides, the majority of children were deprived of formal schooling during the pandemic because they did not have access to the internet. Unless appropriate policy actions are taken, the pandemic’s lasting impacts will exacerbate inequality, reduce lifetime earnings, and limit the ability of these children to escape poverty in the future, warns the IFPRI report.
During the pandemic, it became clear that the Government’s biggest problem was not how to make direct benefit transfers to the beneficiaries (such as migrant workers, daily wage workers and informal sector workers) but whom to pay. Notwithstanding the country having a multitude of social safety nets at both the national and state levels, it does not have a unified beneficiary database or social registry in place.
This year's Global Food Policy Report discusses how the State Government of Bihar reached out to the migrant workers from Bihar who were stranded in other states without income and no access to social assistance during last year's lockdown period. Through its Corona Sahayata scheme, the Bihar State Government provided direct cash transfers to the tune of Rs. 1,000 (around US$15) into the bank accounts of each migrant worker so that they could return home. Applicants for the scheme had to provide proof of residence outside Bihar and a bank account registered in Bihar. They also required access to a mobile phone in order to receive the transfer. The Bihar State Government received about 30 lakh applications within a month of the scheme’s launch, out of which roughly 2 million were verified and paid before the end of May last year. The IFPRI report, however, points out that with restrictions on mobility, bank accounts may not be the best option for delivering transfers. Besides, as is the case with all digital transfers, people who lack digital access were excluded during the implementation of Corona Sahayata scheme. It can be mentioned here that migrant workers are often unable to obtain proof of their residence in the destination states because such rent agreements are not formalized on paper. Hence, many of the stranded migrant workers could have failed to access the benefits under the Corona Sahayata scheme. It should be also added here that a fake news was circulated on social media last year that under the Corona Sahayata Yojana scheme, the Government of India was giving Rs. 1,000 to anyone.
Explaining how the South Asian countries responded to the pandemic, the IFPRI report says that although India imposed a strict travel ban, leaving many migrant workers stranded, Bangladesh declared its lockdown a “general holiday” without a travel ban, and about 1 crore city-dwellers were able to return to their villages without panic. The Prime Minister of Pakistan deemed a complete lockdown unfeasible, given the country’s level of poverty and the nature of livelihoods.
The IFPRI report observes that the physical stores that partnered with e-commerce giants like Walmart-Flipkart, Amazon or JioMart prior to the Covid crisis, were able to stay afloat during the pandemic. However, businesses with modern large-scale operations like Future Retail in India, which were unable to follow this strategy, eventually tanked.
E-commerce giants like Walmart-Flipkart drew on the services of its own Ekart Logistics, both to make its own deliveries and to sell logistics services to other e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail firms. On top of that, it invested in the logistics start-up Shadowfax, an e-platform that links local logistics SMEs to e-commerce companies. BigBasket partnered with Uber-India and Rapido (an online bike-taxi firm) in April 2020 for meeting increased online food orders to customers. The report mentions that large retailers such as Reliance have been facilitating “local” e-commerce by SME retailers through JioPay and JioMart (Reliance’s e-payment and e-commerce divisions). Although these changes were introduced prior to the pandemic, they rapidly accelerated last year, providing new opportunities for small and medium food businesses and delivery intermediaries. It should be mentioned that there is an alternative perspective too that has been presented by a few technology experts. They think that the Government should regulate platform companies (like Amazon, Flipkart and JioMart), prevent market consolidation by the digital monopolies and enable alternative platform models for the benefit of brick-and-mortar retailers and traditional mom-and-pop stores.
The Global Food Policy Report 2021 says that in comparison to Sri Lanka, which spent 1.4 percent of GDP (about US$1.2 billion) in response to the crisis, India spent over 12 percent (about US$287 billion) of GDP. Barring Afghanistan, the overwhelming share of government expenditure in the South Asian countries was for monetary and fiscal policy measures, suggesting that while initial emphasis was on protecting the poor and stabilising food prices, the focus later shifted to stabilising economies. India and Pakistan, experienced negative growth of -7.2 percent and -0.4 percent, respectively, causing an overall contraction of 5.4 percent in the regional economy.
The IFPRI report cites two studies which indicate that the initial support package called Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) was timely and effective in reaching the smallholders. Similarly, surveys by IFPRI and national partners in seven Indian states indicate that disrupted health services have been restored and are adapting to the new challenges. However, the massive loss of human lives during the second wave of Covid-19 in India contradicts this finding (please click here and here).
Global Food Policy Report 2021: Transforming Food Systems after Covid-19, released in April 2021, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), please click here to access
Press release: 2021 Global Food Policy Report finds lessons from COVID crisis for reducing inequities and enhancing resilience of food systems, dated 13 April, 2021, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), please click here to access
Public database of reported deaths that have happened as a result of the lockdown, please click here to access
Press release: Fake news on WhatsApp claims Government giving Rs 1000 under Corona Sahayata Yojana, Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, dated 25 April, 2020, please click here and here to access
News alert: Second wave wreaking havoc on rural lives. Will it impact rural livelihoods as well? Inclusive Media for Change, 13 May 2021, please click here to access
News alert: India learns a bitter lesson for disregarding crucial warnings and recommendations on Covid-19, Inclusive Media for Change, 6 May 2021, please click here to access
Covid-19 has pushed half of India’s poor away from nutritious food: report -Parthasarathi Biswas, The Indian Express, 14 April, 2021, please click here to access
E-commerce platforms: Corona Warriors or Disaster Capitalists? -Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chamy, Kafila blog, 13th April, 2020, please click here to access
Image Courtesy: Global Food Policy Report 2021: Transforming Food Systems after Covid-19, IFPRI