India must feed its toiling millions: Jean Drèze and Teesta Setalvad

In an illuminating chat conducted online, eminent activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad spoke to noted Belgian born economist and social worker Jean Drèze about the food crisis that millions in India are facing due to the COVID 19 lockdown. He begins by saying that greater importance and attention needs to be given to poor people in public policy since the burden of the lockdown is unequally shared by the poor and those who are well off. He makes a case for strengthening and universalisation of PDS, especially in rural areas and urban slums. Among the other reasons he lists is the fact that only 2/3rd of Indians that too according to the 2011 population is eligible for rations. Counting the number of poor people who either do not have a ration card or are simply not eligible , hundreds of millions of Indians are stuck in this lockdown without food. This alone, he argues makes an universal PDS indispensable. 

As for migrants leaving the cities he says that while it is possible that the government lets them go back in a staggered and organised manner, there is a possibility of influential people stonewalling this move, fearing loss of readily available labour once the lockdown is lifted. He also remarks that the central government is being stingy about opening up the FCI when grain stocks are at a historic high (77 million tons as of March which is growing because of the harvest season) and it would make perfect economic sense, simply to allow excess grain-stock to be given to the needy rather than allowing it to be destroyed. 

Finally he also stresses the need for cash transfers for the poor especially for essentials like medicines, calling it the second line of defence (after PDS). But he points out that while the Central Government discontinued biometric identification in its offices as far back as March due to concerns about health and spreading of the virus, banks still require the poor to use them. He says that to add technical barriers in these times is to force poor people to spend inordinate time at the banks just to find out if they have received any money or not. 

Watch the video to find out an entire collection of well thought out probable policy responses to the lockdown vis-a-vis hunger from an eminent economist who actually lives amongst the people he talks about. The need for the hour perhaps is a concerted public campaign that forces the government to take note of a tragedy that is rapidly unfolding in India. 

First published in Sabrang India.