The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an emerging crisis for the global as well as Indian economies. The most recently discovered coronavirus is disrupting fundamental systems and industries, which include agriculture and food systems. It is also endangering the livelihoods of workers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO) specified that a' crisis within a crisis' could come out among populations who are already malnourished, weak, and vulnerable to disease. As per the IMF, International Monetary Fund, projections, India's GDP is projected to grow at 1.9%, which has since been downgraded to 0.2 – 0.5 percent by several rating agencies. One of the most serious impacts is expected to be on food security. The continuing lockdowns across the country may affect labour and input availability for agricultural operations. The stoppage of transportations will seriously disrupt food supplies. The continuous fall in rural incomes is expected to adversely impact food demand and overall economic growth. Even before the COVID-19, 113 million people struggled with severe food insecurity due to pre-existing shocks or crises. They were already on the acute end of the hunger spectrum. They were weak and less-equipped to fend off the viral infection.
Although COVID-19 is a health crisis, it could also lead to a food security crisis if proper measures are not taken. The world is facing food and nutrition security challenges. According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, UNFAO (2020), more than 820 million people worldwide are suffering from hunger. Other global outbreaks like Ebola, SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19 all have a negative impact on food and nutrition security, particularly for vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, and the poor. If COVID-19 continues into the critical spring planting period, the production of staple food crops such as wheat, rice, and vegetables will be affected as it is unclear if agricultural inputs can be distributed promptly. If staple production is affected, the impact on food security could be grave. Food shortages could lead to an increase in demand, which could lead to an increase in prices, making it more difficult for people in poor countries to buy food. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have widespread impacts on labour force globally. Migrant workers are among those bearing the burden of the catastrophe.
As per The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, UNFAO, the four pillars of food security are availability, access, stability, and utilization. These indicate the physical availability of food, economical access to food, the stability of the availability and health status. Among these four pillars – availability and access become extremely important. As for the availability of staple food grains, the second, advanced crop production estimates estimated the wheat output as 106.21 million tons and 15.53 million tons of rice. More than 80 percent of the wheat output has already been harvested, and procurement has been brisked with nearly one-third of the targeted procurement being completed on 30th April.
Food security consists of two key elements: economic access, which tells us whether people have enough money to buy food and physical access, which tells us whether people can find available food. The COVID-19 pandemic may also cause a shortage of food in developing countries due to ongoing and arising issues associated with both economic and physical accessibility. The Global Food Security Index, GFSI, uses 34 qualitative indicators across the three core issues of affordability, availability, quality, and safety to set a quantitative food security standard. On the 31st of March 2020, as the world was struggling to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) issued a joint statement that uncertainty about food availability could spark a wave of export restrictions, creating food crisis on the global market.
The nationwide lockdown, which was announced on 24th March 2020, at very short notice, has caused immense distress to migrant workers around the country. Thousands of migrant workers walk across India during a desperate plan to reunite with their families in their native places. As part of reforming labor law, a Bill has been introduced in Parliament called Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code of 2019. The proposed code seeks to merge 13 labour laws into one piece of legislation. The inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979 is among them. Still, the activists fear that specific safeguards given to migrant workers may be lost due to this consolidation. The majority of migrant labourers are panicked and eager to return to their native places as there are no jobs, food, or proper shelter available to them.
The Indian workers are dying on their long journey home. Tens of thousands of migrant workers suddenly lost their source of income due to the lockdown. Overnight, the cities that they had helped build and run appeared to have turned their backs on them. So as hunger loomed, they were forced to travel back to their villages. For many, walking was the only option. Some traveled for a few hundred kilometers, while others covered more than a thousand to go home, and many never made it. Some of the migrants had young children, while others had pregnant wives. The life that they had built for themselves packed into their ragtag bags.
Lallu Ram Yadav, along with his cousin Ajay Kumar had joined the desperate scramble to find a way home. While they were returning from Maharashtra to a village in Uttar Pradesh's Allahabad district on foot, they had just entered the Madhya Pradesh state, and they still had a long way to go. Still, they decided to take rest before starting again. Unfortunately, Lallu Ram never woke up. "Nobody helped us. My cousin didn't need to die – but it had been a choice between hunger and therefore the long journey", says Ajar Kumar.
The issue of migrants is a nationwide problem. There are images of poor and hungry workers walking back many kilometers to their towns and villages and have shaken even the foremost committed believers of India's uneven growth story. At several places, media reports suggest that lakhs of workers are still stuck at their workplace, that is, Delhi, Surat, or Mumbai, and they are struggling to even access food. Some migrant workers returning to Madhya Pradesh from Maharashtra, where they worked in a steel factory, fell asleep on the railway tracks and was crushed to death by a train carrying goods on 8th May 2020 fatigued by their long journey on foot. Another incident occurred when five migrant workers returning from Hyderabad and Telangana to their homes in Uttar Pradesh died when the truck carried them, and many others overturned on 9th May 2020. Thus, the issue of migrants has become a national problem.
Impacts of COVID-19 on the Agri-food Sector: Food Security Policies of India
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted some activities in agriculture and its supply chains in India. The low availability of migrant labour is interrupting harvesting activities, particularly in the northwest, where wheat and pulses are major crops. Agricultural commodity prices have declined because all the hotels, restaurants, sweetshops, and teashops are closed.
Meanwhile, poultry farmers have been miserably thumped due to misinformation, particularly on social media, that the chickens are conveyors of COVID-19. The nationwide lockdown has also affected agricultural activities and supply chains through input distribution, harvesting, procurement, transportation, marketing, and farm produce. Shortages of fertilizers, plant protection chemicals, veterinary medicines, and other inputs could also affect agricultural production.
The Government of India announced that most agricultural activities are on the essential activities list and thus agricultural field workers, farming operations, agencies engaged in procurement of agricultural products under state governments or the Agriculture Produce Market Committee, inter and intra-state movement of harvesting and sowing related machinery and manufacturing, units packaging fertilizers, pesticides and seeds are excluded from lockdown restrictions. More importantly, the Government has also directed public and privatesector companies to provide high-quality seeds to farmers for the upcoming planting season. Additional grain allocations to registered beneficiaries will be available for three months. Cash and food assistance to persons engaged in the informal sector, mostly migrant labourers, is available under the newly created Prime Minister Citizen Assistance and Relief in
Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) fund. The Government emphasizes continuous observing of agricultural supply chains to guarantee that they function at the capacity required to meet the food security demands of low to no-income populations. Other initiatives allow for the free movement of fruit and vegetables, and farmers' open-air market stalls and weekly open-air market stalls will continue to support the sale of vegetables. Nutrition programs like Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), mid-day meals, and anganwadis, rural childcare centers, are recognized as necessary services to provide rations and meals to recipients at home. The Government has transferred INR500 per month to 200 million women via the Jan Dhan financial inclusion program.
Overall, it can be stated that the right to food is one of the basic fundamental rights for all human beings. The right to food is protected under the International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. It is recognized in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ICESCR. Public Distribution System or PDS is an Indian food distribution system, established under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs; it evolved as a system to manage the scarcity of food grains and distribute it at affordable prices. It is operated under the joint responsibility of the Central and State governments.
Lastly, I would like to conclude by stating that COVID-19 is a global issue and requires coordinated regional and global responses. The policies and initiatives target the agriculture and agri-food sectors to support essential businesses and local, regional, national, and international supply chains. Furthermore, policies must secure that both the economic and physical elements of food security are met amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
This article contributes to current COVID-19 research by exploring the links between global health pandemics and food security. The longer COVID-19 measures stay in place, the more challenging the recovery process will be for ensuring smooth food production, accessibility to staple food and nutrition, and trade among countries.
University of Calcutta