Locked Down and Hungry
In the days following the lockdown, Gauramma’s kitchen in their small house in Whitefield’s Garudacharpalya, ran out of food. As irony would have it, she used to cook in other people’s homes before the lockdown. Hunger was imminent for her and her three children aged between 10 and 13 years.
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Gauramma’s family arrived in Bengaluru two years ago. They knew nobody in the big city. And, when the lockdown was imposed, her husband, a taxi driver, was away in his home town Chitradurga.
“I hadn’t got my salary over the past month, and I didn’t have money to buy rations from the shop. I didn’t know whom to ask or call. I didn’t know how to reach the government,” says she. Help eventually came in mid-April, when volunteers from Whitefield Rising spotted them and distributed ration kits. The kit would suffice for two weeks.
As the ration depletes, Gauramma is “trying to stretch out our rations by having two meals a day. We don’t know when we will get rations next.”
The nearly 30 families in this colony are recent migrants and do not have ration cards.
Simran, who migrated from Hyderabad with her husband, a mechanic, is also close to exhausting her rations. “We were told that officials had come for a survey. They drove by and didn’t come into our colony. There are still some 15-20 people who have not got rations here. We rely on a (local) businessman who brings hot food to the area,” she says.
For thousands of poor like Gauramma and Simran, who earn their living through daily labour, the lockdown has cut off livelihoods, forced them to depend on charity and brought their families to near starvation.
Hunger, which is a socio-economic concept to policy makers, is a reality for Gauramma and Simran’s families, every day. The constant ringing of helplines, both of the NGOs who have taken up a chunk of the relief work, and BBMP, are testimony to their pangs.
Losing Count of the Hungry
Requests for food and rations are so many that supply chains are unable to keep pace. Many have gone hungry without rations or food all through the lockdown as large pockets of the city have not been serviced either by NGOs or the BBMP.
“I am sure there are a huge number that have not been fed,” says Nalini Shekhar of Hasiru Dala, an organisation that distributed 11,000 ration kits to waste pickers (and 23,000 kits in all, in association with WithBengaluru). “In the last week of April, we found many in the Rajagopalnagar area, comprising workers in and around Peenya and Yeshwantpur industrial areas, who had not been given ration. They were going hungry,” says she.
Zibi Jamal, a volunteer with Whitefield Rising, said they started with providing rations to 300 families. “Then, we got information about a camp of 500 families, then another 1000, then 3000. Our volunteers would keep finding people who were going hungry.”
The question “How many?” is a slippery one.
According to social enterprise Reap Benefit, which analysed distribution of food relief by nine NGOs, 1.65 lakh kits had been distributed across the city by the end of April. Based on the calls received by four large NGOs, Reap Benefit estimates the demand to be in the order of 3.5 lakh ration kits.
The kits, which comprise of rice, dal, soap etc, are of varying sizes depending on whether they are being given to individuals or to families. A family ration kit is ideally meant for four members.
Meanwhile, the BBMP claimed before the High Court that it had distributed 68,000 ration kits, something the court dismissed as a “tall claim” .
In the absence of an announcement to universalise the Public Distribution System, at least through the lockdown — which could have reached food to most of the vulnerable population — the PDS catered to (at least) 7.83 lakh households out of 9.99 lakh National Food Security Act (NFSA) ration card holders in Bengaluru city.
Still, one does not get a picture of the extent of food insecurity.
Failure of ground intelligence
The 2011 census places the city’s slum population at 7.12 lakh, or at 8.43% of the total population of Bengaluru. The numbers of migrant labour remain fluid and uncertain. The 2011 Census shows that 8.9% of the city’s population had migrated here for work.
The population of Bengaluru urban was enumerated as 87.5 lakh in 2011. Projections show that it could be at over 1.2 crore presently. This translates to over 10 lakh migrant workers presently.
Not surprisingly, there is no official data on this. The BBMP informed the high court that it went by the labour department’s data (while reaching food relief), which pointed to just 61,000 migrant workers.
This, while NGOs catering to the city’s hungry came across at least six times the BBMP and labour department’s figures. Worse, these volunteers are sure that there are many more outside their relief net. In three localities, Maraa found that 1,000 workers had not been given rations.
In Whitefield, citizen groups that had initially assumed they would play a supplementary role during the crisis, soon found themselves playing the primary role in supplying rations. Weeks into the lockdown, when thousands of ration kits had been distributed, the BBMP came out with only a three-page migrant dossier for the region. In the end, an overwhelming number of families were being provided rations by non-government groups.
Hasiru Dala’s Nalini calls this search for Bengaluru’s hungry a “failure of ground intelligence” from local authorities. “Ration cards have not been distributed due to the many elections last year, while the labour department’s enumeration underwent a series of process changes that required multiple efforts at enrollment. The state just didn’t have a system capable of handling hunger,” she says.
|It’s Callousness, dammit.|
Vinay Sreenivasa from The Alternate Law Forum calls it “callousness” on the part of the state. “The state has a list of slums. Its officials were involved in verification of voter cards for all citizens here. Local officials in wards must know about the vulnerable pockets in their jurisdiction. But this is what happens when there is no proper plan. There is not a single person or department to take care of hunger in the city. The Food and Civil Supplies is only concerned about PDS, the labour department sticks to only identified migrants,” he says.
Aditi Surie from the Indian Institute of Human Settlements and one of the authors of the `Hungry Cities: Urban Food systems (2017)’ report says the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the implementation failure of every scheme to feed the hungry in the city. “In a crisis like this, and with migrants being particularly vulnerable, there should have been an effort to universalise PDS, removal of the income criteria and mandatory ration card, much like Delhi has done,” she says.
A 2019 survey covering 1,700 respondents – a small, albeit representative sample – found that 13% of the city was “severely food insecure”.
“People whose incomes are just above the poverty line may have been pushed below it…”
“Migrants, many of whom are young bachelors, are largely excluded from social schemes. We found that even female-headed households are food insecure,” says Shriya Anand, a senior consultant at the IIHS and one of the authors of the report. “But what this crisis may have done is that the layer of people whose incomes are just above the poverty line may have been pushed below it due to lack of pay and escalating prices of food. In these extraordinary times, inequalities in society have been brought to the fore,” says she.
While there is significant attention on feeding the vulnerable, the important thing would be to ensure that the focus remains and processes are geared towards the hungry population in the post-pandemic recovery phase, she points out.