HomeEquality & JusticeIndia's poor fear starvation more than COVID-19

India’s poor fear starvation more than COVID-19

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a countrywide 14-day lockdown to contain the new coronavirus on March 24, daily wage laborer Gansham Das wondered how he’d be able to feed and look after his two daughters.

Das lives in south Delhi’s Madanpur Khander and he worked in a nearby factory which saw him, on a good day, earn up to Rs 300 or (5 US$). Now the factory has closed, and the government keeps warning its 1.2 billion citizens not to venture out unless for essential needs such as buying groceries and medicine.

The 46-year-old’s worries began to mount when the government extended the lockdown by another week and his savings began to disappear. Now any food he had in supply has likewise run out.

Stuck in lockdown he now says he is out of options.

“I can’t even beg out on the streets. We are all desolated, devoid of any way to earn a living,” Das said. “In such conditions, I wonder how my family can eat.”

Das is one of the many daily wage earners currently in dire straits due to the lockdown. 

Government data reveals that out of the country’s 535 million labor force, nearly 400 million of them live a hand to mouth existence.

Volunteers in Caritas head office in New Delhi are pack food relief for those in need. (Photo by Peerzada Ummer)
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Rashmi Devi, a 38-year-old domestic worker, is also in a tough situation after being fired a day after the lockdown was ordered. Devi, who lives in a shanty near northwest Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, has a 9-year-old son and a husband crippled by an accident two years ago.

After the lockdown, she said her employer didn’t allow her to enter his house, fearing that she could be carrying the virus.

Devi couldn’t even get her pay for March and now she and her family are relying on her savings which are running out.

“It was only me earning money in my family. I have no money to buy medicine for my husband or food for my son,” Devi told LiCAS.news.

“The government didn’t think about us when putting the entire country under lockdown,” she said. “The poor will die of hunger and not by the virus for sure.”

The federal government led by pro-Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been under heavy criticism from several quarters over its sudden decision to impose the nation-wide lockdown.

Sonia Gandhi, leader of the country’s main opposition party the Indian National Congress, accused the BJP of plunging the poor into chaos due to the unplanned manner of the lockdown.

Praven Mishra, a Delhi based social activist, told LiCAS.news there are fears there will be a surge in deaths due to starvation.

“The economically weaker sections of society have absolutely no means to feed their families,” Mishra said.

“You have to keep in mind that there are hundreds of people who die every day in India due to starvation — virus or no virus,” he said, adding that the government needs to have in place robust mechanisms to deal with the looming crisis.

Father Paul Moonjely, executive director Caritas India said the lockdown has helped to contain the spread of the virus, but it has created misery for vulnerable communities, including daily wage earners.

“India is fighting a war on two fronts — the campaigns against the virus and the pervasive hunger and starvation [from the lockdown],” Father Paul said.

Rations being distributed to destitute families by Bishop Udumala Bala of Warangal, Hyderabad. (Photo by Peerzada Ummer)

To help those going hungry, the priest said church-supported agencies have started food distribution centers and community kitchens in slums, city peripheries, migrant transit points and areas with a considerable migrant population

“Caritas in collaboration with the local NGOs and government organizations are providing culturally appropriate food and provisions and distributing them to families and persons living in distress,” Father Paul said.

“Caritas India partners have so far mobilized 23,902 volunteers for leading the relief distribution activities,” he said.

He added that there are as many as 507 church agencies have been involved in providing relief to 2.36 million people.

He added that 130 community kitchens have been set up to provide food to those in need while about 5,000 people have been given shelter.

There have been 10,450 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 358 deaths due to the virus in India as of April 14.

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