When people are hungry and feeble, they are not well placed to revolt: Jean Drèze

Jean Drèze, an economist, during a conference in Delhi in August 2019. According to him, to deal with the COVID-19 lockdown, “We need an emergency facility in every state where people can go and get some food on the spot, without having to show ration cards or any documents.” Anushree Fadnavis / REUTERS
30 March, 2020

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and scores of poor people were left in the lurch on the night of 24 March, when the prime minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown to combat COVID-19. The lockdown, which began within four hours, forced migrant workers to leave urban dwellings and make their way back home, without any state assistance. It led to an almost-complete destruction of economic activity across the country, with trillions of rupees wiped out in a market crash.

On the second day of the lockdown, the union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a relief package of Rs 1.70 lakh crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to provide the poor with food and funds in their bank accounts. Several experts have criticised the government for it. In a letter to the central and state governments, 635 people—including prominent academics, civil society activists, and policy analysts—appealed for a minimal set of emergency measures to deal with the crisis. According to them, the relief package of Rs 1.70 lakh crore is less than half the amount required to fulfil the minimal emergency-measures.

Among the people who endorsed the letter was Jean Drèze, an economist and activist who works as a visiting professor at Ranchi University. In a conversation with Kaushal Shroff, a staff writer at The Caravan, Drèze spoke about how in the coming days, access to food and earnings for poor people would rely on the functioning of our public-distribution system, which is under tremendous stress.

We do not know when the COVID-19 crisis will subside. It may last for months, even one year. Its economic impact will depend on how long the threat of the virus will last. In the best-case scenario, even if the health crisis subsides in a few weeks, the human costs will still be enormous but the economy may recover fairly quickly after that. If the crisis lasts much longer, with periodic lockdowns of varying intensity, the economy is likely to go downhill because there are going to be ripple effects. Businesses will go bankrupt. Then, banks will suffer because they will not be able to recover their loans and we may see a financial crisis. Meanwhile, health services will be overwhelmed, and perhaps other essential services too. It is a pretty frightening situation, both economically and in terms of the humanitarian impact. 

Socially, all kinds of pathologies may develop if the crisis lasts. For instance, as people get scared, residential colonies will barricade themselves, expel persons suspected of infection, or there may be food riots—all kinds of things. Let’s hope that it does not go on for too long.

In the short term, a lot depends on whether the public-distribution system continues to function. The PDS can prevent hunger to a large extent, but it is under tremendous stress. The system does not function in a vacuum, it depends on the rest of the economy to keep the food moving. If the food is to move, you need transport, communications, spare parts, oversight, a working administration and so on. It is going to be difficult to ensure that the system delivers adequately in this situation. 

In a worst-case scenario, where the PDS breaks down in some areas, there may be food riots. Except that India, for some reason, is a country where people do not do that sort of thing easily. Even the migrant workers you have seen on the television screens for the last few days—you sometimes wonder why they are not raiding the godowns or the local shops. Poor people are used to taking a lot of things lying down—when people are hungry and feeble, they are not necessarily well placed to revolt. But food riots could happen, who knows.

The lockdown is already turning into a humanitarian disaster. Transferring money through Pradhan Mantri Kisan Yojana, pensions, et cetera will take time. Even if the transfers are made quickly, people are unable to go to the bank right now. When they are allowed to go, banks may be overwhelmed, as they were after demonetisation.

The government should immediately release food stocks. It has huge food stocks. What is preventing it from releasing those stocks? There are nearly sixty million tonnes of wheat and rice in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India—that’s just before the wheat harvest, when the stocks normally rise further, sometimes up to eighty million tonnes or so. That’s more than three times the buffer-stock norms, [the level of stock that is sufficient to meet the operational requirement of foodgrains and exigencies at any point of time]. Releasing this could ensure that there are food-distribution centres all over the place. 

There are always people, starting with migrant workers, who fall through the cracks of the established social-security schemes. We need an emergency facility in every state where people can go and get some food on the spot, without having to show ration cards or any documents. It is sad to return to the nineteenth-century methods of famine relief that were later replaced with more dignified public works, and then with the public-distribution system. But I don’t see any other way of preventing starvation for now. 

As told to Kaushal Shroff.