Pandemic, lockdowns, and hunger

World Food Day is observed on October 16 with an aim to eradicate hunger across the world. While, by God’s grace, we always had enough food on our plates, even during the pandemic, and most of us were in a position to help others with meals and ration during the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough since the beginning of the pandemic. Most of these families rely on daily wages or unsteady incomes and the lockdowns dealt a major blow to them. While men were out of work, it was the women who had to bear the brunt as they had to manage with less ration or the parents had to cut down on their intake, so that their children could eat enough. I spoke to five such families.   

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Family 1: Rachana Singh and her family

Four-year-old Archit hesitated and looked at his mother when I offered him an apple which was in my bag. His mother, Rachana Singh, 27, hesitated too. I kept it on the charpoy on which I was sitting. Archit took it and ran into the room while his mother went back to chopping onions and tomatoes. “It’s been months we have bought any fruits,” said Singh and apologized to me for not offering me tea or biscuits. I told her she was very kind to allow me into her house and wait for my journalist friend who was roaming around the village taking quotes for a story that he was working on. It was October 2020, and we were in Jata Barauli village, which is in the Barabanki district, about 30 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. Singh and I got talking.

There are eight members in Singh’s family – two senior citizens, four adults and two children; out of these only two are earning members. The men worked as master craftsmen before the 2020 lockdown. They did not get a regular income, but it was steady and enough. They could buy a regular supply of milk fruits and vegetables, and sometimes indulged by buying fish, chicken, and eggs. The children would occasionally get their treats of cream biscuits and chocolates. The men could not earn between March and June 2020 when the nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country. The family had to bank on their minimal savings to keep the kitchen running and later had to borrow from a relative when the savings got exhausted. The men stepped out in July 2020 to find work but in the next four months, until October, they could collectively earn only Rs 8,000. The Singh family still had to clear the dues of the local grocery store owner who let them buy groceries on credit during the lockdown.

“These days we mostly eat a curry made of onions and tomatoes and drink tea once a day, in the morning. The adults have cut down on their tea intake so that the two children could be given milk. It’s been months since we bought fruits, eggs, chicken, or fish. We buy two-three vegetables a week. That’s all we can afford presently,” said Singh.

What about their ration cards? In Uttar Pradesh, there are 3.5 crore ration cardholders who receive a monthly quota of 3 kg wheat and 2 kg of rice at subsidized rates of Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg respectively, through 80,000 ration shops.

“Only the earning members in the family have ration cards. Our names are not mentioned in those ration cards. We have tried so many times, but because of some technical glitch, our names got omitted and the authorities have not been able to fix the error. Besides, that ration is not enough as there are eight members in the house. We still have to buy surplus wheat and rice,” said Singh.

Rachana Singh in her kitchen

Family 2: Ritu Gautam and her family

“Our diet has reduced to half. If the situation does not improve, we will have to eat less than this,” said Ritu Gautam, 25, who dropped by along with her toddler while I was talking to Singh. Gautams and Singhs are neighbours. There are twelve members in her family — eight adults and four children. Her husband is also a daily wage earner who had to sit at home during the entire lockdown. “It will take us a couple of months to recover from the lockdown. The men get angry at us and tell us to spend less. What they don’t understand is that vegetables, oil, spices, salt, pulses, wheat, rice, and milk are essential food items. When we were financially stable, it never pinched them, but now that money is an issue, they think we are splurging. Besides, if children demand extra milk, chocolates, and biscuits, we can’t say no to them every time,” said Gautam.

During the lockdown, all the state governments had pitched in to help daily wage earners and migrant labourers. In April 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government announced that it will provide an additional 5 kg of ration (rice/wheat) free along with the 5 kg of food grains to be distributed under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) – a government scheme — to each beneficiary in May and June 2020. As many as 14.5 million people in the state were expected to benefit from the scheme. However, both Singh and Gautam families slipped through the cracks did not receive this additional ration.

When I left the village that day, both the ladies were hopeful that the situation would improve soon so that they could eat two proper meals a day. Just a month later, in November, onion prices touched a record Rs 100/kg, and a few months later, in March 2021, came the second wave of coronavirus, more ferocious than the first one. In a short span of time, it claimed many lives and dealt a severe blow to the economy. Both the waves of the coronavirus led to severe job losses and those who took the maximum hit were the daily wage earners who suffered not just during the lockdown, but also after that.

Ritu Gautam with her son

Covid, job losses and hunger  

As per the latest report by Center for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE), during the first wave of Covid, India lost 6.3 million jobs. As per the same agency, when the devastating second wave halted the Indian economy, we lost an additional 13.3 million jobs. The impact of these job losses was also felt by the women who had to curtail their food budgets as a result of which most families were not eating enough.

In order to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, every year, World Food Day is celebrated across the globe on October 16. This day aims at tackling global hunger and striving to eradicate hunger across the world. In a research report published in June 2020, Oxfam had mentioned that COVID-19 was deepening the hunger crisis in the world’s hunger hotspots and creating new epicenters of hunger across the globe, and had predicted that by the end of 2020, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself. Unfortunately, India made to its list of countries and regions where the food crisis had worsened because of the pandemic. 

While we belong to the privileged class that always had enough food on our plates, pandemic, or no pandemic, and by God’s grace, most of us were in a position to help others during both the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough food since the beginning of the pandemic.  

Family 3: Rachana Devi and her family

It’s October 2021 and people are shelling out Rs 80 to buy one kg tomatoes. “I bought basics like onions, potatoes tomatoes and a few vegetables two days back and paid Rs 350. There are four members in the family, including two children aged 11 and 14. They are not kids anymore and corresponding to their ages, their diet has also increased. While we have not curtailed our food budget, myself and my husband have cut down on our diet so that our children could eat how much ever they want to,” said Rachana Devi who lives in Lucknow’s Gwari village.

Her husband does two jobs – he works on a contract basis with a local real estate contractor and his job is to arrange for labourers, he is also a priest who visits the homes of people and performs religious ceremonies. Both the jobs took a hit during the first and the second lockdowns. In fact, the family was still coming to terms with the losses incurred during the first lockdown, when the second wave struck. “During the second wave, people were talking about the third wave in October-November. Is that true? I don’t think we are in a position to deal with more financial losses as we are rebuilding for scratch,” said Singh.

Rachana Devi outside her one-room house

Covid leads to India’s fall in hunger index

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) report 2020 released on October 14, 2021, mentions that India has slipped to the 101st position among 116 countries in the GHI ranking from its 2020 ranking (94), to be placed behind Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The report also mentions that “people have been severely hit by covid and by pandemic related restrictions in India, the country with highest child wasting rate worldwide.” The government, however, was quick to react and claimed that the methodology used to calculate India’s ranking was unscientific. Both the lockdowns undoubtedly worsened the food crisis, and the below case study is the perfect example of this.

Rakesh Singh along with his mother and children. Read their story below

Family 4: “Manoj ki mata ji” (Manoj’s mother) and her family

“Sab Manoj ki mata ji hi bulate hai,” (everyone calls me Manoj’s mother) said this woman in her sixties, when I asked her name. Brothers Manoj and Rakesh Singh, along with their families, lived in Gwari village in Lucknow until October 2020. Eight family members – the two brothers, their wives, their mother and two children – lived in a one-room house. Both brothers worked as rickshaw pullers and earned daily wages. During the first lockdown, the family had to depend on food packets that were distributed daily in the locality as in the absence of daily wages, it was difficult to buy groceries, milk, and vegetables. In the wake of a severe financial crunch, Manoj and his wife moved to their village in Sandila, a town two hours from Lucknow, where they have a small farm.  

Rakesh started earning again in August 2020, however, a few months later, the second wave struck. This time, however, there were no food packets to bank on.  

“We went hungry on some days, but thankfully, after a few weeks, we could go to our village home. We have a small farm there and we sow potatoes in it. Every month, my brother and his wife send a sack full of potatoes. In case of a third covid wave, this time we will at least have potatoes. That was our learning from the last two lockdowns. It was tough to go hungry on some days,” said Rakesh.

Putli Devi does not have money to refill her cylinder. She cooks on the chulha. Read her story below

Family 5: Putli Devi and her family   

In September 2020, just after the first lockdown, the price of one LPG cylinder was hovering around Rs 632. Presently, in October 2021, one LPG cylinder is priced at Rs 922.50. The constantly rising prices of LPG cylinders has burnt a hole in the pockets of even middle-class families, poor families don’t even have the means to refill these cylinders. A few families I met at Mehmudpur village in Barabanki district in September 2021 have gone back to cooking on chulha (wood stove). When I met Putli Devi at her house, the first thing I noticed that the ceiling of the house was covered with black soot. I wondered what cooking on the stove must be doing to her lungs. “Do we have an option? Everything is so expensive. But one must eat basic meals. We can’t cut down on the meals, we have to buy vegetables, oil, spices, wheat, rice and pulses. That can’t be done away with, so we have to cut down on other expenses. Why would I get the cylinder refilled when it costs Rs 800-900?” she asked. Her husband is a farm labourer, who was out of work during both the lockdowns, and she has two children aged 6 and 8.  

“Is there going to be a third covid wave?” asked Putli Devi, while I was leaving her house.  

“I had to deal with the grief of losing my wife during the 2020 lockdown. I felt very lonely”

Sunil Kumar, a social worker and an artist based in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, lost his wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, just a day before the March 22, 2020 Junta Curfew – a day-long lockdown that was announced ahead of the complete lockdown last year to stop the spread of coronavirus. While the whole country was anxious, Kumar was fighting a different battle at a hospital in Muzaffarpur caring for his wife, a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions. This inspirational story is about how he dealt with the grief of losing her

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The date was March 21. The country was gearing up for the Junta Curfew — a day-long nationwide lockdown that was scheduled for the next day to stop the spread of coronavirus in the country. Not much was known about the pandemic then and people were very anxious. However, I was more anxious than the rest of the country because I was at the Sri Krishna Medical College in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, looking after my wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, who was admitted there. She was suffering from Meningitis and Kidney stones and had been battling for her life at the hospital for 50 days. For a week after she was admitted on January 31, 2020 after she complained of high fever and headache, her condition was improving, but after that she was gradually slipping away with every passing day.

The doctors were never optimistic, but I was hopeful. I had waited for Sarla for years before she had agreed to marry me on July 10, 2019. Now, nearly eight months later, I was at the hospital holding her hand and full of hope as she was swinging between the states of semi-conscious and unconsciousness. I was mentally prepared that day. The pain was unbearable for her. Finally, at 9 pm, my wife left me forever. 

Sarla used puppeteering as a medium to spread awareness. Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day

The next day was her funeral and also the Junta Curfew. The situation was tricky. Apart from the immediate family members, very few people who knew my wife well and had worked with her managed to come down to Sikandarpur (in Bihar) for the funeral. My heart sank when I touched Sarla for the last time. Sarla was a social worker, a puppeteer and an artist, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country and working for the betterment of underprivileged Adivasi women and children. Many friends and acquaintances spread across the country who knew Sarla well wanted to attend her funeral, but couldn’t because of the situation. But over the next few days, I was inundated with messages on social media and WhatsApp, which helped me come to terms with the fact that she was no more.

It didn’t help that the country went into a complete lockdown on March 25, just four days after her death. There was a void inside me, my house … and there was a strange stillness outside. However, the initial few days gave me the time to think about how to deal with the grief of losing her. And I thought the best way to do that would be to celebrate her life and work.

Sarla was a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country

While she was alive, Sarla had worked non-stop every single day of her life for years and one of the reasons behind her untimely demise was the fact that she dedicated her life to make the lives of others better but never bothered about her own health. For instance, she would cook meals for hundreds of volunteers at social events but would forget to eat her meal.

Born on August 14, 1986 into a family of modest means in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, Sarla had to face many adversities while she was young … like the passing away of her elder sister when she was a child and not getting to spend time with her mother as she was mostly bedridden and away. Her father would repair flat tyres to make a living, but he was also a folk artiste. Sarla inherited many of the creative aspects from him. Participating in cultural events in school like singing, dancing and drama helped her escape from the harsh realities of her life. She also learnt the art of puppeteering, a talent that came in handy later in life when she travelled across some of the most remote and backward Adivasi regions to spread awareness using art as a medium.

Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and continued her social work activities along with her husband

From 2013 until she passed away, she was associated with various organizations in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Jharkhand. She used the mediums of song, dance, skits and puppets to spread awareness among people living in backward Adivasi villages. She was also a part of many peace marches and cycle yatras that were organized to appeal for peace in regions that were affected due to Naxal violence. While her journey had been incredible and she did some commendable work, but she kept neglecting her health. In fact, she was so immersed in her work that though I had known her for long, I had to wait for many years before she could find time to marry me. 

Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and though she was new to the city, she started working soon after we got married. In a brief period of time, she befriended many people and touched many lives. I am also a social worker and an artist, and I was thrilled that I was getting to spend a lot of time with my wife as we would often travel together for work.

All those who had met her still feel the void of her passing away. For me, personally, it would be impossible to feel that void … ever. I still feel the pain of losing my life partner just eight months after getting married … a partner whom I had very patiently waited for, for years.

She was admitted in the hospital for 50 days. Her husband did all that he could to make her feel better

I thought the best way to try to get over the grief would be to continue the work she had dedicated her life to. We took small steps. For instance, during the lockdown, we collected funds from those who were willing to contribute and helped the underprivileged with food and ration. With the help of journalists and NGOs, we worked on a project that helped those who had lost their jobs during the lockdown to find some form of employment. We distributed food packets and used art as a medium to stop people from falling into the trap of depression and anxiety.  

On Sarla’s 34th birthday in August 2020, her first after her demise, I invited all those from across India who had worked with Sarla over the years and together we pledged to keep her work alive. In the last year, I took over the projects she was involved in and I am trying to complete them. While the pain of losing her will never subside and the void will never get filled, the least I can do to keep her alive in my memories is to continue her work.

Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day.

(Image credit: Sarla Siriwas’ Facebook page)

Sunil Kumar’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Eshwari Shukla’s story here. She lost her father when she was only 13.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case, it being Sunil Kumar and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)