In comparison to rural India which consists of safety nets such as MGNREGA and larger PDS coverage, urban India lacks the crucial livelihood safety nets in the form of employment guarantees and extensive food security coverage.
By Raj Shekhar
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the existing informality and crisis-like conditions of millions of households in India. The crippling impact of the pandemic, particularly on the informal sector has been pointed out in numerous studies over the past two years. As the State of Working India Report, 2021 says, an additional 23 crore households have fallen below the daily wage threshold of Rs.375 per day and there has been an increase in the informality among salaried workers. Despite the contribution of nearly 50 per cent of the country’s GDP with the presence of 86 per cent of the total workforce, the conditions of the workforce have worsened over the last two years.
The second Hunger Watch survey conducted by the Right to Food Campaign in 14 states across the country reflects a grim reality among large sections of India’s population. The level of food insecurity and a decline in income level post-COVID-19 pandemic has increased at a much staggering rate in the present times. Two-thirds of the respondents experienced a decline in income as compared to the pre-pandemic period. Another concerning situation is food insecurity which tells us that close to 80 per cent of the household reported some form of food insecurity in the month preceding the survey and 25 per cent reported severe food insecurity. The dietary diversity in terms of the quality and quantity of food intake has also been affected badly where 41 per cent of households’ consumption deteriorated to a great extent.
One of the important findings from the Hunger Watch survey conducted over 6,500 people is the continued distress in the urban households and compared to rural, urban India seems to be experiencing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately. The mass exodus of migrant workers from big cities of the country during the first national lockdown showcased the government’s failure to reduce inequality and ensure minimum wage to a large section of urban informal workers.
Families residing in urban areas under residential, social, and occupational vulnerability are experiencing precarity under the uncertainty of job and income loss over the past two years. A greater proportion of urban households (69 per cent) reported that their total monthly income at the time of the survey had declined compared to the pre-pandemic period. In urban areas, 40 per cent of the respondents lived in rented accommodation and of those 56 per cent had unpaid rent during the survey.
The catastrophic second wave had added to the miseries due to the rise in out-of-pocket health expenditures and overall livelihood crisis due to lockdowns. In urban areas close to 45 per cent of the households had some outstanding debt in which unpaid rent and major health expenditures were the major reasons. Compared to the pre-pandemic period, urban households have experienced a severe decline in the nutritional quality and quantity of food consumption. Consumption of milk, meat products, and fruits has declined whereas many families even reported not consuming these food items for months.
No safety nets in urban India
In this scenario, an increase in public spending is the immediate cure to the existing economic slowdown. The poor budgetary allocation in the social sector will prove to be disastrous. That is the situation thrown up by the union budget 2022-23. In comparison to rural India which consists of safety nets such as MGNREGA and larger PDS coverage, urban India lacks the crucial livelihood safety nets in the form of employment guarantees and extensive food security coverage.
Millions of households in urban areas with almost no social security provisions are surviving on the verge of sustenance. The need for urban employment guarantees to counter the existing informality is felt the most at present. An MGNREGA-like programme in urban areas operating in a more decentralised form under local urban governance bodies can alleviate the barriers in this path by covering a large pool of casual informal workforce with more employment opportunities.
Similarly, strengthening and expansion of the public distribution system coverage in urban areas is a critical requirement to deal with food insecurity. PDS entitlements with an additional five kilos of rations under PMGKAY (Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana) to the ration cardholders have been the only safety measures towards food security by the government that has performed well. Extension of PMGKAY till the time pandemic continues is necessary based on present conditions.
Tale of deprivation
The universalisation of the PDS would solve the problem of exclusion of vulnerable communities from the food security net. Expansion of the PDS to provide millets and other nutritious commodities such as oil and pulses while procuring these at minimum support price (MSP) is a demand being raised for the past few years. Revival of hot cooked meals under ICDS and midday meals should be done immediately to improve the nutritional status among women and children. Cash transfers with the help of available databases must be mobilized for income support to workers, indexed to the state minimum wage.
A survey like Hunger Watch tells a tale of deprivation of the majority of households across the country in similar situations. With growing inequality and slow economic growth over the last few years, the government’s foremost responsibility should be to ensure necessities to enable people live a dignified life. Urbanisation in the present form rejects the majority of the population from the mainstream and violates the constitutional obligations under a democratic structure. Allocation to various social sector provisions and their wider coverage must be ensured for us to move towards a more equitable society.
Raj Shekhar is a researcher, currently working with the secretariat of the Right to Food Campaign.
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