Hunger games

With the crippling economic effects of the lockdown and barely sufficient ration provided by the PDS system, India’s most vulnerable sections are heading towards a nutritional emergency

Nutrition is the most important issue to sustain life. It is all the more important for children who need special care and therefore special nutrients to grow. For a healthy nourishing diet, meals need to have proteins, fats and carbohydrates alongside nutrients like minerals and vitamins. Normal functioning of the human body requires a balance between nutritional intake and metabolism. The imbalances manifest as nutritional deficiencies. The body requires many different vitamins and minerals that are crucial for both body development and preventing disease. These vitamins and minerals are often referred to as micronutrients and should be an essential part of our diet.

Protein, fats and carbohydrate are the staple food for our body. Protein is the building block of muscles, skin, enzymes and hormones and it plays an essential role in all body tissues. The richest sources of protein include cheese, pulses, legumes, fish, meat, eggs and dairy products.

Likewise, carbohydrates are an important component for providing energy to the body. Essential fatty acid requirements —a few grams a day—can be met by consuming approximately a tablespoon of polyunsaturated plant oils daily.

The symptoms of a nutritional deficiency depend on which nutrient the body lacks. However, there are some general symptoms related to nutrition deficiency. These include pale skin, fatigue, weakness, difficulty in breathing, unusual food cravings, hair loss, periods of lightheadedness, constipation, sleepiness and heart palpitations. Other symptoms include- the feeling of fainting, depression. tingling and numbness of the joints, menstrual issues such as missed periods or very heavy cycles, poor concentration etc. It is therefore important to have all nutrients in our diet.

This is even more important in special situations as is the case today because nutritional requirements are more pronounced during illness periods and are essential for developing immunity to fight back diseases. The whole world is engaged in the fight against COVID-19. Several measures have been thought of. Lockdown is one such measure which the governments presume will slow down the spread of disease and buy time to develop facilities to care for the sick.

The lockdown announced suddenly on March 24 changed the lives of people drastically. For about 15 per cent of the population, it was an issue only of staying indoors. However, they were able to feed themselves, do some other learning for which they had sufficient time now; their children could soon be absorbed in the online classes and continue their education. The purpose of the lockdown, to prevent community spread through physical distancing, wearing masks and washing hands with soap and water or sanitisers was served in this section of society.

But for the rest — nearly 85 per cent — it turned out to be a nightmare. Their miseries kept on growing as they suddenly lost their earnings. The daily wage earners like the construction workers, rickshaw pullers, e-rickshaw and auto drivers, taxi people, etc., suddenly became incomeless. Likewise, those self-employed as mechanics, vendors, etc., suddenly lost their livelihoods. Similarly, helpless situations were created for the workers in the factories, shops, malls, in the corporate sector or the micro small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector. The domestic workers who are invariably women were asked not to come for work. The wage earners and employees expected salary from the employers for the lockdown period. But only 8 per cent have been paid wages after March 22. It is this section who form the vast majority of our population and earn every day to fill their belly. Most of them have meagre or no savings at all. According to a CMIE survey, 66 per cent said that they only have enough money to feed themselves for a week after which they will have to borrow. For these people, even staple food has become a dream, let alone talks of a balanced diet with all essential micronutrients. Their children lost their schooling as an online facility is something impossible for them. Living in shanty areas and sharing rooms, they are unable to maintain physical distance, unable to wash hands regularly in the absence of regular supply of water, soap and also due to non-availability of proper masks.

Despite demands by several social organisations, trade unions and political parties, the Government did not pay any heed to give help of Rs 7,500 per month to this section. As a result, they did not get even one square meal a day. In a survey by the Health Ministry of India, 44 per cent of the respondents said that they have been missing one meal per day.

A leading economist Aunindyo Chakravarty has said that the food materials supplied to the poor through ration cards keep most of India's poor just above subsistence level, with a few square meals a week, a shanty with a leaky roof to live in, and torn, ragged clothes to wear. In terms of daily expenditure per person, 30 per cent of the people spent just Rs 37 per day. This included all expenses — food, shelter, fuel, clothing, health, education, mobile phone. The government's rural financial inclusion survey of 2017 tells us that around 5.7 crore rural families have a monthly income of about Rs 4,000 only. That works out to Rs 27 per head, per day.

A survey conducted by Azim Premji University (APU) found that '74 per cent were consuming less food today than before the lockdown'. Another survey, conducted by Farzana Afridi and her colleagues in low-income neighbourhoods of Delhi, found that 80 per cent of the respondents had not earned any income during the lockdown. With non-existent or meagre income during the lockdown, 90 per cent reported 'financial stress, and about half were too anxious to sleep at night'. In such situations, universal coverage under the Public Distribution System can salvage the problem to an extent even though the PDS offers little more than a protection against starvation. It cannot ensure adequate nutrition, let alone a decent standard of living, as pointed out by a well-known economist Jeane Dreze.

India's present ranking on the Hunger Index of 102 out of 117 countries is going to get worse in the coming period as the government is now accepting a fall in GDP below zero.

With 12 Crore people losing jobs affecting around 55 Crore people, the situation is going to be extremely grim. Children of nearly 85 per cent of the families will be left without milk and essential micronutrients which is essential for their physical and mental growth. Governments have to realise that it is not just a few kilograms of wheat or rice and some dal but all sorts of food including vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meat, egg, etc., that are also necessary for a healthy nation. With the present scenario being what it is, we are likely in for a severe nutritional health emergency as well.

Views expressed are personal

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