COVID-19 has hit India’s urban poor more than those in villages: Report

Urban poor have seen a decline in income and have been left more hungry, though this was not the case earlier

By Shagun
Published: Friday 07 May 2021
Migrants leaving Delhi after the announcement of lockdown in 2020. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has left the urban poor in India poorer, more hungry and with less nutrition than their rural counterparts, a recent report has claimed.

Passage to the city had usually helped the urban poor in the country beat hunger, it added.

A large section of rural residents could cushion the blow of pandemic-driven economic disruption due to foodgrain via the public distribution system (PDS). The urban poor’s access to such ration, however, was minimal, according to the report compiled by Hunger Watch.

Hunger Watch is a loose collection of social groups and movements. It came together for a periodic study of the actual status of hunger, food access and livelihood security among various disadvantaged populations in the wake of the country-wide lockdown in March 2020.

This is the first report of the collective, based on interviews with 3,994 households across 11 states. The data was collected in October 2020 and compared with pre-lockdown levels on the same parameters.

The report, released May 6, 2021, showed that on average, urban respondents reported a 15 percentage point worse condition than their rural counterparts across all important parameters.

Incomes reduced by half or a quarter for more than half the urban respondents while it was a little over one-third for rural respondents. The consumption of grains and pulses were at least 12 percentage points lower for urban respondents.

Similarly, a decline in nutritional quality and quantity was more among the urban respondents as was the need to borrow money for buying food.

Some 54 per cent urban respondents had to borrow money for food. This was 16 per cent lower for rural respondents. Some 45 per cent rural respondents had to skip a meal in October 2020; nearly two-thirds of the urban respondents had to do so in the same month.

The social security schemes also had a relatively better coverage among the rural poor as rural areas had better access to PDS rations. A larger proportion of households in urban areas did not have access to ration cards.

“This calls for special attention on social protection measures including schemes for provision of subsidised food and employment guarantee in urban areas,” the report said.

It added that given the massive shock experienced by the urban poor, it was hoped that there would be an announcement of an urban employment programme in the Union Budget. But that did not happen.

Stalked by hunger

Overall, levels of hunger and food insecurity remained high, with little hope of the situation improving without measures specifically aimed at providing employment opportunities as well as food support.

Roughly two-thirds of nearly 4,000 persons interviewed by Hunger Watch reported that the quantity of food they consumed in October 2020 had either “decreased somewhat” or “decreased a lot” compared to before the lockdown.

Things were much worse for socially vulnerable groups such as households headed by single women, households with people having disabilities, transgender people and old persons without caregivers.

For instance, 58 per cent of the older people without caregivers had to go to sleep at night sometimes without a meal. This was the case with 56 per cent of households headed by single women and 44 per cent of households with disabled persons.

The net of hunger became more widespread as more people had to start skipping some meal in a day. Even among those who never had to skip meals before the lockdown, about one in seven had to skip meals “often” or “sometimes.”

The survey found that 27 per cent of the respondents had to go to bed without eating “sometimes” and about one in twenty had to go to bed without eating “often” in October, 2020.

The numbers are similar for those who had to skip meals in the same month. Some 56 per cent of the respondents “never” had to skip meals before. There is a 10 percentage point increase in the number of people who had to skip some meal in the month preceding the survey period.

This, even when India had a record food grain production at 296.65 million tonnes in the 2019-20 crop year (July-June), beating the target of 291.1 million tonnes and four per cent higher than the last year.

Despite this, the additional support provided for poor and informal sector workers introduced as part of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana as well as the Atmanirbhar Bharat package, ended in October 2020.

It was only recently announced again for two months in the wake of lockdown-like restrictions in several states, but that too only for ration card holders.

The figures in the Hunger Watch report are alarming, especially when seen in conjunction with the recent rounds of NFHS (National Family Health Survey) data.

The NFHS data has shown either a worsening or stagnation in malnutrition outcomes such as prevalence of stunting and wasting among children and high levels of anaemia among women and children.

The NFHS survey was conducted in 2019, before the onset of COVID-19 or the lockdown.

The food insecurity has prompted more people to enter the labour force. The Hunger Watch survey found a staggering 55 per cent increase in the labour force among the respondents.

This included about 15 per cent of respondents who had to enter the labour market and about 40 per cent who were seeking work but had not got employment yet. It also noted a silent rise in child labour as well.

The report also pointed out that the economic crisis was deepening as people who lost their jobs were yet to find replacements and little had been accomplished after the lockdown for the revival of livelihoods in the informal sector.

It said:

For nearly a quarter of the respondents, the incomes had halved from pre-lockdown levels and for about one in five households, the incomes had reduced by a quarter. Since the majority of the respondents already had low incomes to begin with, a further reduction in household income is akin to taking a bullet train to hunger.

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