April 10 2020

Food Security in Times of Crisis: Our Experts Speak Out

As of April 10, the Indian government has reported a total of 6,412 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 199 deaths related to the virus.

In a country of 1.3 billion people, the actions taken by the government have been described by The World Health Organization (WHO) as “impressive,” but its director admitted that the general lockdown will have “unintended consequences for the poorest.” It is in developing countries such as India that the global pandemic is wreaking the greatest health, economic and social havoc.  While Karuna-Shechen has had to temporarily suspend activities, our programs are more relevant than ever to foster the self-sufficiency and resilience of our beneficiaries.

In India, a precarious situation exacerbated by the confinement

As a result of numerous job losses in the sales, tourism, hotel and construction sectors, millions of Indian workers are now unemployed, many of them with families to feed. This social and economic situation is shaking the country, which is already fragile in both respects because it is still developing. Food security in India is more than ever a source of concern!  

The significant drop in purchasing power is causing difficulties in terms of food security, which is already problematic in India, despite the country’s efforts since the green revolution of the 1970’s. According to the latest census conducted in 2011, 40% of the Indian population suffers from malnutrition, 53% of Indian women of reproductive age are anaemic, and 36% of children under five are underweight (according to WHO and the World Bank). With diminished purchasing power, these figures are likely to rise sharply, especially among the poorest.  

In recent days, the central government has announced various relief measures to help the poorest, including financial aid of 1,000 rupees per month (€12, or 10% of the average Indian salary of €127 per month) that will be put in place for 3.5 million day labourers. Another major aid package will be the distribution of free food to 800 million people, or 60% of India’s population. Karuna-Shechen welcomes the announcement of these measures and hopes that they will be implemented quickly, transparently and with the expected positive effects.

The impact on “the poorest of the poor,” our beneficiaries 

Despite the fact that India has been at a standstill for 16 days, and despite the suspension of our activities to stop the spread of the virus, Karuna-Shechen’s staff on the ground maintains a link with the beneficiary rural villages in order to follow the evolution of the situation in our intervention zones and to spread prevention messages.

In the countryside, most people work as farmers on land that does not belong to them. The economic impact is still small, as the activity is maintained, but is felt a little more each day. As the dry season approaches, marking the end of most harvests, if the confinement continues as planned, the poorest will be badly affected, and soon many will be unable to feed themselves.

T.P. Singh, co-ordinator of our programmes in Bihar, explains that basic food stores are still open and access is allowed, subject to strict adherence to safe distances. “Small local supermarkets are open. However, the supply of vegetables is lacking, as they have to make do with what is available locally.” Fresh fruit and vegetable markets are at a standstill and access to these provisions is limited for those who do not grow them themselves.For the time being, the inhabitants live on their reserves and local shops.

Kalmi Lohar, Village Motivator, Jharkhand

In Jharkhand, agricultural production is more abundant, according to Kalmi Lohar, Village Motivator for Karuna-Shechen: “There is always food in the area like rice or wheat, grown by the villagers. These products are used for personal consumption most of the time, and not to be sold on the markets”The quantity of available products therefore remains limited, although the system is not completely at a standstill.

Food self-sufficiency, in both states and particularly in rural areas, remains a challenge, accentuated by limited access to water and poorly functioning irrigation systems. We are on the brink of a large-scale humanitarian disaster! The impact will depend on the time of containment.

The importance of our empowerment programs

In villages in both Bihar or Jharkhand where we work with our Kitchen Garden, the situation seems to be better. In 2019, Karuna-Shechen financed the planting of more than 18,000 vegetable gardens, benefiting almost 100,000 people. Our local stakeholders are unanimous: the project is working very well, families are more self-sufficient and happy with their production.

“The situation, for the moment, is under control. There is no unnecessary panic or chaos due to the confinement and the villagers are living with a normal daily food intake,”, says Kalmi.

Nawal Kumar, Village motivator, Bihar

For the most part, the inhabitants use the Organic Vegetable Gardens for their personal food. It is also a source of occupation in this context where the country is at a standstill. Despite the strict safety distances set up to avoid the spread of the virus, taking care of one’s vegetable garden is still possible.

According to Nawal Kumar, Village Motivator in Bihar, “movements are decreasing, but villagers are allowed to cultivate their land, with mandatory social distances being maintained.” 

In Jharkhand, where the markets are still functioning, the beneficiaries are all the more satisfied because they can sell what they do not consume. As Kalmi Lohar explains, “surplus vegetables after consumption are sold in local markets. The money obtained is used to buy essential commodities.” 

The situation is worrisome, but our actions have enabled certain populations to preserve themselves in this difficult situation. It is with this goal in mind that we work every day and it is feedback like this that drives us to surpass ourselves every year to improve the quality and impact of our programs.