Calamities, Epidemics, Pandemics, Natural or Economic Catastrophes hit the world’s poor the most and the hardest. Cyclones, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, floods, droughts, economic recession and bad policy decisions are hazards, but they only become deadly disasters when they happen in vulnerable areas where people have few defences to protect their life and livelihood or face a stark choice between the two. The poor people pay the heaviest price.
In the emerging economies like India, the choice had to be made to save lives over economy by imposing world’s largest lockdown followed by an extension to face the Corona crisis. Such hard decisions were to be made despite the fact we have around 365 million people who are multidimensionally poor. India ranks 145 among 195 countries in access to healthcare and 102 out of 117 countries in Global Hunger Index. About 190 million Indians are estimated to be undernourished, including 40% of its children. The predictions post corona are scary, multiplying the number of people starving thrice. 300 million people in India live on subsistence income, i.e. a few steps away from hunger. About 14 crore people are internal migrants, who live in inhospitable conditions in cities, having escaped the hunger and poverty in their villages. The corona lockdown has already pushed them to edge.
Hundreds of thousands of desperate daily-wage earners, scattered across the country have been trying to flee the cities for their communities in rural areas after losing their livelihoods to the lockdown. They are the worst sufferers. At least 22 migrant workers and their kin have died trying to return home from exhaustion. Traveling on foot, balancing children in their arms and their meagre possessions on their heads, their exodus has been sad. Mass hunger looms for vulnerable groups who live from hand to mouth. State governments are helping them by providing them meals and shelter, but they have to do a lot of follow-ups and demand. They feel they will die of hunger and not Corona. For them Corona is just another fever, hunger and poverty is the real fear.
Multitudes of poor who have the luxury of staying in their own natives or some slum of an urban city, don’t have the luxury of sprawling houses. One definitely can not practise social distancing in such densely populated slums. Forget the pain of being in a lockdown inside a shanty in scorching heat. There are an estimated 1.8 million homeless people in India, with 52% based in urban areas. For them staying at home to stay safe is just another slogan. Unemployment is rampant and the problems have doubled during these trying times. Many employers have trimmed the labour force. The plight of security guards, cleaners, rickshaw pullers, streets vendors, garbage collectors and domestic helps is indescribable. Most do not have access to pensions, sick leave, paid leave or any kind of insurance. Many do not have bank accounts, relying on cash to meet their daily needs. There are subsidies and welfare programmes to help them tide over the crisis time, but the aftermath is going to be more severe.
Most of the programmes are just lip service and the actual adversary may even escape just welfare schemes. Their spine is broken due to the pandemic, they will take years to bounce back, if not perished. It’s a mess of epic proportions and complex nature—a maze of contradictions.There are indications of a bumper crop this season. However, Farmers will be unable to sell their produce. And central warehouses have become islands of isolation. Since they will be unable to sell their crops, or even opt for distress selling, their incomes will dwindle. That means they will be unable to repay their current debts, and will need to borrow even more for the next season. Suicides, extreme poverty and subsistence living—or, if they are fortunate, loan waivers at least for those within the formal system will help. There are many marginal farmers outside that. Also, armies of migrant workers who return home to earn money during the cutting season will find themselves high and dry. They will depend heavily on welfare schemes, like MNREGA, which need to be escalated for which government spending has to increase. We are staring at extreme rural distress. Urban areas have another horde of problems haunting them- strained by bankruptcies and more possible failures in the organised sector, they may soon see companies slashing costs. Salaries may be cut too. Middle-class consumption will consequently come down drastically. It is a vicious cycle of poverty.
Poverty and Hunger is the biggest problem. It is saddening that these two perils have not been wiped out yet. Poverty and Hunger is the most deadly disease. The potent vaccine for hunger is not free supply of grains and pulses, but sustainable employment. Instead of just managing poverty, we must offer… people a pathway out of poverty. Poverty is the greatest killer. Hunger follows. “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” said Roosevelt and I add that enough can be provided through Quality Education, Sustainable Employment and Access to Health Care.