“noting to eat nothing to wear
boundless is the anguish
who indeed can bear to see such misery
among the world’s creature
let my soul be condemned to hell
but the Universe be redeemed”
The above translated stanza from the writings of world famous saint- poet Bhim Bhoi (1850-95) reflects his expression of anguish over the ravages of famine in 1966.
One million people died in the year 1966. In the next two years, another 4 to 5 million perished due to starvation in Odisha following thenatural disasters.
Famine during British Rule is a very well researched topic.
Historians estimate that about 60 million people must have died during British time due to recurrent famines on account of natural disasters and they blame the foreigners for their misrule and insensitivities.
They allowed 10 million people to die in the Bengal famine of 1770, which was about one third of the population of the region.
Drought, cyclones, policy failures and an economy predominantly characterised by rain-fed agriculture caused mass deaths.
Undemocratic political, economic and social structure, inequalities in food distribution, inadequate transportation, and lack of deployment of resources to combat famines allowed such misfortunes to hit the poor Indians very frequently.
Way back in 70s, after my village in the coastal Odisha was ravaged by a cyclone, I saw as a child how the stock of rice vanished from the local market and price doubled.
The relief was meagre and came many days after, by way of distribution of few kilograms of rice which was old, broken, brittle, emittingfoul smell and not so suitable for human consumption.
The same rice also was found in the open market indicating widespread leakages.
Most of the people went hungry for several days.Cyclones and floods had led to loss of crops and caused devastation in the local economy.
People would mortgage their land, ornaments, animals, utensils to the money lenders for few bags of rice.
Often it led to transfer of land from the poor farmers making them wage earners or bonded labourers.
Migration became more visible after a calamity. Drop outs from schools and many other manifestations of the adverse effects of a natural disaster went on for several years unmitigated.
In contrast, the situation now has changed much for better.
Huge investment in agriculture, research on resilient and short duration varieties, expansion of opportunities for additional income through dairy, animal husbandry, poultry, fishery have increased the production and productivity in the agrarian sector.
Vast expansion of road/ rail network, communication, transportation, export and import, storage and warehousing, market infrastructure makes the disaster management easier.Great systemic improvement has been made over the years.
In our state, great attention is given to mitigate hunger issues in the aftermath of a disaster.
Before the onset of calamity season, vulnerable areas are identified for pre-stocking of commodities.
Distribution of PDS commodities is done for few months in advance to avoid any possible hardship.
As soon as the situation improves in case of a disaster like cyclone or flood or it is possible, distribution of dry food, cooked meal, rice, money, ration to the beneficiaries under various schemes, payment of pensions, several other reliefs as announced by the government are done in very meticulous way.
The local Sarpanches, the management of various shelters have been delegated authorities to feed the vulnerable population for as many days as the situation demands.
As has been seen during last cyclones and floods, several NGOs and civil society organisations poured in relief.
After the cyclones, community kitchens were run for several days and not a single case of hunger was reported fromthe distressed people.
Covid-19 pandemic is mother of all disasters and has affected almost all countries and put at risk the highest number of people in the history of mankind.
Most unfortunately, no one knows how soon the normalcy will be restored.
If the sufferings continue for more than a year or two, besides bringing untold miseries to the global economy it will increase the number of hungry people.
One estimate says that 265 million people are at the risk of going hungry during 2020 though there is enough to feed everyone. We witness large scale disruptions in the food supply chain.
The harvests are going waste due to non availability of labour and not reaching the local markets due to shut down.
Because of demand slump, meat processing plants are shut down and dumping of milk is witnessed.
Farmers have difficulties to get seed, fertilizers and other inputs due to transportation problems.
Export and import problems have their cascading effects.
It is expected that 195 million people will have job loss and global economy will shrink by 5%. The people will change their food baskets because of lower income.
The daily wage workers, people living in conflict zones, refugee camps in countries like Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen etc. and the poorest of poor will carry the maximum risk of hunger.
The latest FAO Food Price Index has dropped to a seven month low, showing the effects of Covid- 19.
Due to reduced requirement from feed and bio fuel sector, maize demand has weakened making the maize farmers very vulnerable.
For example, maize price has dropped from Rs.1800 per quintal in February to Rs.1100 per quintal in March this year in the state of Karnataka.
The international vegetable oil price is at 10 months low. Similarly, the indices for dairy, meat prices are also down showing the problems of global export and import. As a result, the farmers are going to suffer immensely.
The great worry is how long the crisis will prevail and how will it impact the economy.
The most important matter is about ourfood security.
As the export and import continue to be impacted in uncertain manner, there is a great challenge to ensure that sufficient food is available and equitably distributed to our countrymen and no one goes hungry.
*The author is Principal Secretary, Department of Revenue and Disaster management , Government of Odisha . The opinions expressed are personal.