The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening the long-cherished food security of India (FSI). It has impacted all four aspects, namely 'availability, access, stability, and utilization' of food.
For a durable FSI, the requirements of these four pillars should be fully met. The pandemic has however had perilous implications for food security, particularly of the poor and most vulnerable. This was demonstrated in more than one way by the singular phenomena of the fragile living of over 100 million migrant workers, who had to walk miles and miles but empty stomachs. Even the national managers of the pandemic could not foresee such a situation.
The availability of food grains does not seem to have been adversely impacted so far. As of March 1, 2020, the country had sufficient buffers of food grains: 58.4 million tons and pulses 3 million tons. However, it is not so for other commodities such as fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat, milk, and sugar that constitutes 78 percent of the total food consumption. Disruption in supply chains and a decline in demand had caused a huge loss of production and income to the farmers, traders, and consumers.
As against other sectors of the economy, agriculture has surely shown more resilience. The country's farmers have successfully harvested winter crops. Even sowing of summer crops has progressed well, despite constraints in timely supplies of inputs at reasonable prices. Since agriculture directly impinged on FSI, most of its operations were exempt from restrictions imposed due to the pandemic.
Access to food was not fully assured as a result of the decline in incomes and loss of livelihood after the Pandemic COVID-19. It was further impaired by socio-economic inequities. The food supply chain (FSC) was stressed. There were widespread disruptions owing to restricted movements, the ban on transportation, and border sealing. FSCs were exempt from lockdown, but only 6 percent of the total supply chain was organized. Moreover, private players who are averse to the risk of the virus largely control it; therefore, the role of PDS was critical in ensuring equitable access to food. The regional disparities in the availability of food grains and pulses were also responsible for skewed access to food.
The stability of availability and access to food turned out to be fragile due to global economic slowdown; uncertain incomes and reduced purchasing power; unavailability of labor/manpower and restrictions on movements- local, imports and exports. The pandemic has revived food nationalism. It has made wholesale supplies of food cheaper whereas retail consumers faced a rise in prices because of the disruptions of food supply chains (FSCs). Even for future productions, uncertain supplies and shortage of inputs have raised the cost of production.
The stability of food availability and access will depend on how soon the contagion is controlled to allow free movement of goods and persons to restore food supply chains. As of now, 67 percent of the population is getting free and subsidized ration under the NFSA. Recently the number has been increased to 800 million people.
The utilization of food is impacted by the absorptive capacity of people, which is constrained by incomes and health standards that are adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The capacity of the common man to purchase and absorb nutritious food declined due to rising health issues as a result of novel coronavirus; comorbid ailments and seasonal diseases-such as dengue fever, common flu. Unaffordable retail prices of non-grain food items and a decline in purchasing power compelled the common man to focus more on calories than wholesome energy. The people were constrained in their choice of preferred food as per local habits/traditions.
To remedy the situation emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic and to prevent any major devastation by way of loss of human lives and livelihood, the country has unitedly taken unimaginable quick decisions. The care for the poor and most vulnerable populations was perhaps the most arduous task. The government had to enhance social safety programs including direct benefit transfers such as cash transfers under PM Kissan, more liberal financing under MGNREGA; advance disbursement Social Security Pensions; direct cash grants to construction workers; and release of free and subsidized food grains under PMGKY to about 800 million people to ensure food for all. Rapid up-gradation of health infrastructure and manpower; and swift readjustment of policies and programs with active association and participation of all stakeholders, be that politicians, governments, NGOs, and private sectors, were other daunting tasks performed very well by the governments.
The battle against the Pandemic COVID-19 however continues unabated. We need new rules of business and make structural, administrative, and legal reforms to live with a new normal enforced by the pandemic, which requires a complete change in social behavior and approach to living. The government has recently promulgated three ordinances to deregulate agricultural marketing; encourage contract and corporate farming; and allow bulk storage of essential commodities by private warehouses without any limit. However, no legislation for the social safety of migrant workers has yet been enacted.
These new ordinances are viewed by the farmers as instruments of protection and incentives to the private trading companies at the altar of assured procurement of agriculture produce at the minimum support price. Their apprehensions of subjugation and exploitation of the market, which is skewed in favor of private trade and against the peasant farmers, are not totally unfounded. In peasant farming as in India, the agriculture produce market is not perfect to be completely unregulated and farming units are too small for any gainful negotiations with the private traders. Deregulation also goes against the underlying need of effective control and management of food stocks in a crisis of the kind the pandemic COVID-19 has unfolded before the country.
Disclaimer: The author is Suresh Kumar, Chief Principal Secretary to Chief Minister of Punjab, Government of Punjab. Views are personal.