Rising hunger stares rural India in the face as the second wave of COVID invades villages

The second wave of COVID19 hits rural India and the lockdown makes a comeback once again causing loss of livelihoods. People in villages are eating less, and many cannot afford vegetables and pulses. Plain rice and salt, or roti-chutney is what families are eating. But for how long?

Gaon Connection
| Updated: Last updated on May 17th, 2021,

Sitting on the front steps of his home floor in Satna district’s Kitha village, 12-year-old Ravi Yadav holds a big thali on his lap. It is lunch time, a baby is crying in the background, probably wanting to eat too. Ravi has a small mound of boiled white rice which he gathers into small portions. Before conveying it to his mouth, he dips the rice into the accompaniment — plain white salt. 

Boiled rice and salt is all there is in the young boy’s plate. Not a speck of colour by way of a yellow dal or a green vegetable or any hint of a masala. 

About 300 kilometres from Ravi’s village in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, Soni Devi looks at the sparse selection of vegetables she has at her home in Jagarkhera village of Unnao in Uttar Pradesh (UP). She has to cook a meal for five out of this. As she peels the handful of potatoes kept on a plate by her side, and a solitary tomato, the 27-year-old Soni pointed towards a cold drink bottle with a little mustard oil in it and said: “Today, this is all that I have to cook and feed my family of five with”. 

12-year-old Ravi Yadav eating boiled rice and salt.

Also Read: For Mumbai’s migrant workers, it’s a second wave of job losses and hunger

Both Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are under a lockdown to control the spread of COVID19. And so are several other states in the country which are struggling to respond to the second wave of the pandemic. A year of the pandemic and the return of lockdown has snatched away livelihoods in rural India, pushed rural citizens deeper into debt, and wiped off vegetables and lentils from their diets. Many are surviving on boiled rice and salt, or dry roti-chutney (Indian flat bread and condiment/sauce). 

For instance, Soni Devi’s husband Sajan Kumar, a daily wager, has found no work for several days and hence there is no money at home. “I can’t even remember eating fruits. Those are the prerogative of the bade log (the rich people),” she said sadly.

Mohammad Gufran, from Belhara village in Barabanki (UP), cannot even remember when his family ate dal (lentil) last. “Our life was completely derailed in the first lockdown and just when I thought things were getting better, the second lockdown has happened. It has wrung us out,” Gufran, who used to sell sundry items on a pushcart,  lamented to Gaon Connection. With no work, a family of eight to feed, Gurfan said he could not afford to buy oil and dal that were selling at nearly Rs 200 a kilo each. 

Children are the most vulnerable section of the population in terms of food insecurity in the rural areas.

Also Read: Amid rising COVID19 cases, migrant workers in rural UP anxious about another lockdown

The wheels of livelihood, have just stopped turning, Nirmala Rani, Dalit activist and director of the Saharanpur-based Aanchal Gram Vikas Seva Samiti, a social organisation, told Gaon Connection. “With no jobs and no money, I know of so many rural families that just eat rotis with salt to survive,” she said. They eat just once a day, she said. “I have never before seen such misery and hunger like this before,” she said.

No wages, no food

Money has run out for most of the daily wage earners. They sometimes take oil, rice, dal, etc on loan from the village shops. At other times, they bring a few kilos of grain they have cultivated on their small patch of land to barter. Migrant workers, who have once again returned to their villages from the cities, have neither any work, nor wages to feed their families.

“Before the pandemic broke out last year, we could look forward to having three to four things on our plates,” Shiv Kumar, who worked in Mumbai as a labourer and has recently returned to his village Rampur Reksha in Madihan tehsil in Mirzapur district told Gaon Connection.  

Money has run out for most of the daily wage earners. They sometimes take oil, rice, dal, etc on loan from the village shops.

Also Read: Post lockdown, this family is staring at hunger and illness. And, they are not alone

Shiv Kumar is struggling to put any food on the plate. There are no daily wages to be had, and if he was lucky, he earned up to Rs 150 a day doing odd jobs. “I have a brother, mother, sister, wife and six children. How do I feed them? It is a hand to mouth existence,” the 34-year-old said. 

“Prices have shot up, work has dried up and now we have to choose. If we have a vegetable, then we can’t afford the dal. If we eat dal, then, no vegetables. We can’t afford both,” the 34-year-old told Gaon Connection.

Fourteen kilometres from where Shiv Kumar was worrying about his family’s next meal, 28-year-old Bablu wondered if he had done the right thing in coming back home. He had worked at brick kilns near Mumbai, and earned Rs 350 a day, but had returned home when the first lockdown happened last year. 

“No matter how long and hard I work in the village, I cannot earn more than two hundred rupees a day, and that too only when I get work,” the daily wage labourer from Deori Hridwa village in the upper reaches of Marihan tehsil, Mirzapur, told Gaon Connection.

Also Read: A humanitarian crisis begins to unfold as India goes under a ‘complete lockdown’

“We are surviving on the government ration of three kilos of wheat and two kilos of rice  a month,” Bablu said. 

To buy a kilo of dal, Bablu has to spend a day’s wage, which is hard to come by in the pandemic.

75-year-old Bitaniya Yadav from Kitha village in Satna, Madhya Pradesh

Chotu, from Urdauli village in Sitapur district of UP, earned a living chiselling grooves on grinding stones. “Earlier I would go from village to village restoring old grinding stones, and sometimes in return for my services, people would pay me in wheat, dal, flour, etc. Not anymore.” 

He is finding it very difficult to feed his family in the last one year of the pandemic. “I have two daughters aged seven and five years, and there are days when all I can afford to feed them is chutney and rotis for dinner,” he told Gaon Connection, overcome with emotion.

Also Read: For anganwadis, Corona shutdown could mean safety from disease, not from hunger

Dipping sales

Thirty-eight-year-old Rajkumar sells provisions from the front room of his house in Jagat Khera village in Unnao. “The same people who once bought a kilo of oil and sugar now ask to buy only ten rupees worth of it,” he said. “When they cannot afford to buy provisions, even my livelihood takes a hit,” he added. 

Mustard oil costs Rs 160 a kilo, while potatoes sell for Rs 20 a kilo. Even the humble turai (gourd) sells for nearly Rs 30. Dals, which people hardly buy, are priced at Rs 120 a kilo, said Rajkumar. 

A grocery shop in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur.

“There is no money to buy food items so many people from tribal communities bring a kilo or two of rice, wheat or mustard and exchange that for provisions they need,” said Vijay Kumar, a shopkeeper in Marihan tehsil of Mirzapur (UP). “Most of them do not have more than fifty to sixty rupees to spend, ” he said. Pointing to the neatly arranged bottles of oil, he said: “Usually they come asking for oil for ten or twenty rupeees, a few green chillies, some salt and may be a one rupee packet of the subzi masala.” 

Hunger and debt, both rising 

Women, who have to cook and feed their families, are under tremendous physical and mental stress. Toothless, with sunken eyes and cheeks, it does not look like 75-year-old Bitaniya Yadav from Kitha village in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, has eaten anything nourishing for days. “My son is a labourer, but since the lockdown he has no work. So what do I cook,” she asked Gaon Connection while sitting in her mud plastered house. 

Also Read: Union Budget 2021: 27% drop in funds for nutrition of children and women. Every third child, under the age of 5, is malnourished in India

“We are on the verge of begging in order to survive,” Lakshmi Devi of Belhara village in Barabanki (UP), told Gaon Connection. “My husband sold pani puri for a living and he brought home about five hundred rupees each day and we managed to survive on that,” the 35-year-old, a mother of four daughters and a son, told Gaon Connection. But the lockdown has put a stop to the sale of pani puris and Lakshmi and her husband have exhausted whatever money they had. 

“We are on the verge of begging in order to survive,” Lakshmi Devi of Belhara village in Barabanki (UP).

“We have no money at all. What do I feed my children? We are surviving on the generosity of others who give us something to eat,” Lakshmi said. She and her husband belong to Lahar in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh, and are stuck in Barabanki, UP due to the lockdown. “We do not even have a ration card, and if this continues, we may well die of hunger,” she told Gaon Connection

Meanwhile, in Rambaksha Khera village, Unnao district, over 90 kilometres east of Barabanki, Siddhi Nath lay on his ramshackle cot. “Everything is coming to an end,” he told Gaon Connection, resignation writ large on his face. Barely had he recovered from the first lockdown, the second lockdown had come down heavily on him “It looks like we will die of starvation this time,” the 58-year-old daily wage labourer said.  

Also Read: Excluded by marriage: ‘Over a million women in Odisha left out of PDS’

Siddhi Nath’s daughter married in December last year, and he has still not repaid the loan of Rs 40,000 he took from a moneylender for her wedding, he said. And now he has no source of income. He has three sons but in the lockdown the family is struggling to survive on what it gets as rations. 

Rationed existence

Last month, the Indian government announced free food grains (rice or wheat) to the poor under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. Around 800 million beneficiaries will receive five kgs grain a month for the two months of May and June. This allocation is over and above the five kgs of food grains per month each beneficiary is entitled to under the National Food Security Act, 2013.

Beneficiaries availing their ration at a ration shop in Barabanki, UP. Pic: Virendra Singh

Also Read: Centre announces 5 kg free grains a month to the poor for May-June; experts seek extension

Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh government has announced additional free foodgrains to 14.5 million poor beneficiaries for May and June. But, is that enough for the rural poor to tide over the second year of the pandemic and repeated loss of livelihoods? 

“The rations help, but where is the money for the oil, fuel, vegetables, medicines, etc.,” Rekha Devi, sitting in the doorway to her thatched hut in Sauranga in Barabanki, said. She complained she had to cook with next to nothing for a family of 10. Somehow, she said, she was managing to stretch the rations — wheat or rice from the local ration shop — to feed the family. 

Rekha Devi’s husband sold chana/moongphali (chickpeas and roasted peanuts) for a living and used to bring home at least Rs 400 a day. Just when they thought things were coming back to normal after the first lockdown, the second one was announced and, ever since, they have not earned a paisa.  

Wheat or rice supplied through the PDS (public distribution system) is what is keeping a large chunk of rural population from sleeping on an empty stomach.

Right To Food activists have been demanding that rations should be made available to all the needy without the need for ration cards or Aadhaar verification.

Also Read: Braving the odds, front-line health workers are home delivering dry ration to millions of anganwadi kids and beneficiary mothers

Rameshwar Prasad, the district supply officer for Unnao, told Gaon Connection that every month rations were supplied without fail to the ration card holders, and, “we are working on priority to get ration cards issued to those who do not have it,” he said. He went on to inform that Unnao had 1,261 ration shops, of which 1,087 were in the rural areas.  

However, Right To Food activists have been demanding that rations should be made available to all the needy without the need for ration cards or Aadhaar verification. A number of rural families do not have a ration card and are without food in the pandemic. 

Last summer, a nationwide survey by Gaon Connection, covering 25,300 rural respondents in 179 districts across 20 states and three union territories, had found that three-fourth poor households without ration card didn’t receive government ration in the lockdown. Moreover, seven in 10 economically weak households with no ration cards reportedly faced ‘very high’ or ‘high’ difficulty in accessing food during the lockdown (Read the full survey report).

Also Read: Three-fourth poor households without ration card didn’t receive government ration in lockdown

In the second wave of COVID19, the virus has spread far and wide in rural India. But more than the virus, the people in the villages are worried about their next meal. “It is the second year of the pandemic and I have no regular source of income… If we survive this pandemic, that is a big thing,” said Dharmendra, a potter from Bhatpurva village in the Maholi block of Sitapur (UP).

Reported by Virendra Singh in Barabanki, Mohit Shukla in Sitapur, Sumit Yadav in Unnao, Brijendra Dubey in Mirzapur, and Sachin Tulsa Tripathi in Satna, Madhya Pradesh. Written and edited by Pankaja Srinivasan.