By Bhabani Prasad Mahapatra in Ranchi, May 28, 2020: May 28 is observed as World Hunger Day and there are 820 million people in the world who don’t have enough food to eat. To make things worse, COVID-19 has brought an increased risk to our vulnerable communities. On this World Hunger Day, millions are virtually surviving on the brink of extreme poverty in our country.

The World Food Programme (WFP) projects that acute hunger is likely to double by the end of 2020. In 2015, the global community pledged to end hunger by achieving food and nutrition security by 2030. But it seems well-nigh impossible to achieve the target considering the ripple effects of novel coronavirus on the lives and livelihoods around the world.

According to the David Beasley, executive Director of World Food programme (WFP), the world is on the brink of hunger pandemic, worse than the Covid-19 pandemic. The issue of hunger has come to the forefront after the worldwide lockdown in the wake of Coronavirus outbreak.

The world economy has gone for a toss and it is estimated that it will contract by minus 3 percent in 2020-which will even be worse than 2008 global economic crisis. For India, the real GDP growth will be only 1.2 per cent or even less in 2020. As per UNFAO, more than 820 million people across globe are already suffering from hunger. If the lockdown continues, vulnerable sections like women, child, poor, migrant labourers, workers in unorganised sectors will face hunger and hence food and nutrition insecurity.

To address the food security challenges, all countries need to ensure the availability, access and consumption of nutritious food. The national food security is affected via food supply chain (FSC)-which comprises agri-food wholesale, processing, logistics, retail, and food service. In recent times, FSC in India has been shifted from traditional to transitional making India one of the fastest agri-food economies in the world.

The food economy in India is largely urban. It is 80% composed of non-food grains, 60% on post-farmgate, and 85 % dependent on small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs)-which are clustered near town. Another feature of FSC in India is the dominance of private sector contributing 95 percent of the purchased food and 5 percent contribution comes from government via public distribution system(PDS).(Reardon et al., 2020).Due to lock down, this availability of food is being threatened due to malfunctioning of forward and backward linkages of FSC. Therefore the challenge before the government is to make the food system functional with minimal food waste. This requires innovative practices from government and SMEs. At the same time, the farmers health needs to be taken care of.

Access to food is mainly affected by purchasing power which is again influenced by poverty, unemployment and inflation and the pandemic is expected to increase poverty and unemployment in the world. As per an estimate, for every global economic slowdown of one percentage point, the poverty would increase by 2 % or 14 million people worldwide (IFPRI,2020).

Similarly, as per a recent report of International labour Organisation (ILO), the pandemic is expected to affect the livelihoods of people. It is expected that the 6.7% of global working hours will be wiped out in the second quarter of the year (2020) which is equivalent to around 195 million jobs world-wide.

Since more than four-fifths of the world’s workers live in countries affected by total or partial lock down, the pandemic will cause huge loss to livelihood support of the bread winners and their families in these countries. In India, due to reverse migration of labours, the supply of labour is increasing in rural areas. It may reduce the farm wage as well as non-farm wage.

It is noted that the rural non-farm employment (RNFE) largely depends on the food sector located in rural, peri-urban areas. In India, large informal sector is particularly vulnerable. Out of the national total 465 million workers, around 91% (422 million) were informal workers in 2017-18. According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), India’s job loss rate tapered to 23.97% in the week ended May 10. Naturally, the prolonged unemployment will further make the inroads for the food insecurity of the population.

The pandemic as a global health crisis will also affect the food and nutrition security of the vulnerable community due to rise in prices of food. When the Ebola epidemic hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014, rice prices in those countries increased by more than 30 percent and the price of cassava -a staple in Liberia, sky rocketed by 150 percent.

2008 food price crisis was caused by droughts in Australia and Argentina, increasing oil prices, rising use of food grains for biofuel production and trade policy failures. These prompted many countries to impose duties on rice exports or banned rice exports, altogether. Rice prices doubled in 6 months in that year and this was due to panic behaviour of some countries.

COVID-19 may provoke countries to restrict the food exports which may lead to rise in price of food at international level. At domestic level, the monitoring of the price of essential food products needs to be done with a proper information dissemination mechanism.

The consumption of nutritious food can provide a deterrent to the infection of Covid-19 into human body. Nutritionists always focus on dietary diversity and this will be affected due to disruption of supply chain. Similarly, malnutrition will also increase due to healthcare failures, as already strained healthcare systems are forced to divert resources from a range of nutritionally important functions–including antenatal care, micronutrient supplementation, and prevention and treatment of childhood diarrhoea, infections, and acute malnutrition- toward combating COVID-19.

In India, food availability is ensured due to bumper harvest. During lock down, food security is ensured by continuation of government mandated food transfer. But to ensure nutrition security, the vulnerable community needs access to nutritious food with better purchasing power.

Government of India has declared a Rs 20 lakh crore package to stimulate the economy. It is really welcome to find a few major policy decisions related to land, labour, liquidity and law and a major component of these policies is supply driven which will incentivise the producer to invest. A noteworthy declaration was related to allocation of Rs. 40,000 crore to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) over and above the budgetary allocation of Rs 61,500 crore.

This is expected to address the livelihood needs of the unemployed migrant laborers along with rural unskilled labour. But the demand of the consumers including those of vulnerable section needs a lift with helicopter money with a revised and broad based income transfer scheme. The government may think of designing a broadened unemployment insurance scheme for laid off employees.

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