Kolkata: At least one in every five households in West Bengal faced some food crisis during the lockdown period in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the situation could have been worse had the state government not come up with free distribution of food grains through an augmented PDS mechanism, according to a report released by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen-led Pratichi (India) Trust.
The study, “Staying Alive COVID 19 and Public services in West Bengal”, said that the reporting of food crisis by households belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) community of the state was higher as compared to other social groups.
“According to the findings of this study, one out of five households faced some food crisis. The duration of the crisis varied between 4 and 240 days. A majority of these households suffered for about 60 days,” the report said.
It appeared that reporting of such cases from rural areas was marginally higher than that in urban localities.
This was largely due to the fact that sources of income in urban areas were more stable. A higher proportion of urban households had income from salary and pensions, the report said.
While reflecting on the social groups that bore the brunt of the lockdown, the survey claimed that the reporting of food crisis by households belonging to the ST community was “higher”.
“When social groups are taken into account, reporting of food crisis by Scheduled Tribes was higher than that by any other social group. Association with underdeveloped agriculture, petty non-agricultural activities and migration seemed to have played a role in this regard. In the so-called normal times, poor income from cultivation could have been supplemented by non-agricultural activities and seasonal migration; but both these avenues got restricted during the lockdown period,” the report claimed.
Of the households that reported some food shortages, the most (29 per cent) were those whose primary source of income was hiring out labour for agricultural activities, followed by those who eked out a living from non-agricultural works (25 per cent), the report said.
The primary data for the study was collected over the phone during the period between July and December in 2020, and with some pauses, in the first few months of 2021. Over 2,000 households have participated in the survey, the report mentioned.
The suffering from the food crisis was not uniform across the districts as per the survey.
“The highest impact was reported from Purulia (47.5 per cent) followed by Bankura (35 per cent), whereas Cooch Behar district in North Bengal reported the lowest number of such cases. It may be noted here that Cooch Behar was the best performer in terms of the creation of employment days and their allotment among the people under the NREGA programme,” it said.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MGNREGA) is aimed at enhancing the livelihood security of households in rural areas of the country by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year.
While lauding the state government for its role in distributing free food grains, the report stated that the proportion of food-starved households would have been higher in the absence of the intervention of the administration.
“To mitigate such conditions, free food grains were distributed by ICDS centres, schools, philanthropic organisations and individuals but an augmented PDS (public distribution system) was the most important intervention in this respect that provided a larger quantity of food grains, with almost universal coverage.
“Households with AAY (Antyodaya Anna Yojana) cards, eligible for highest amounts of benefits from the PDS, were more food secured and hence made no complaints about it,” it said.
Households without valid ration cards were most vocal about the emerging food crisis, the report said.
“The initiative of the West Bengal government to cover the rest of its population under the PDS through another set of cards proved crucial. Provision of the ad-hoc benefit of free food grains was also made through a coupon system for those who were yet to get ration cards or needed it in any case,” it said.
The survey also reported that coverage of the state’s population by the scheme sponsored by the central government was noticeably lower at 57 per cent as against its target of 67 per cent.
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