India’s Lockdown: Hunger in the Time of COVID-19

Last Thursday night as every Thursday night, I went to the weekly fruit and vegetables market in my neighbourhood. It’s usually a vibrant, well-lit lane, a hive of activity, with fierce competition for market pitches and a good opportunity to chat about life and politics with the small-scale farmers and small traders.

All of that was gone yesterday. Instead of a market, there was just a dark lane. The government had ordered all weekly markets to shut down without providing any alternative, while uptown malls were still abuzz under glittering lights.

There were far fewer vendors, selling much less produce. It was almost completely dark, with the only light coming from customers’ mobile phones or the occasional car headlights.

Both the vendors and buyers were in a hurry, although for different reasons. Vendors, fearing the police would come and destroy their produce, and buyers, trying to get the most of what was available. The prices were high — very high.

There was both distress selling and panic buying. Amidst all of that, there were even people who drove to the market in luxury SUVs and haggled hard for few cents. Irony died right there.

Resilience for survival

Not all of our regular vendors were there. But we were happy to meet at least some of them and exchange a few words in the chaos.

One of them was apologetic that he did not have all the leafy veggies that we usually get from him. I fumbled for words to respond to him. What to say to somebody so reliant on trading every day, as the country starts to shut down? How will he survive if he can’t sell?

The elderly lady who is hard of hearing was there too and I was relieved to see her­ — the only woman vendor every week, and evidently one of the poorest She was there with whatever she could sell.

What resilience in such cruel times! Phew.

I sat with her for few minutes and there was no exchange of words except speaking with our eyes. She was likely wondering why I was sitting there as she lit a country-made cigarette (bidi).

And there I was, wondering what keeps her going. And what will happen to her now with the pandemic situation!

‘No one is talking about us’

In that panic selling and buying, there was no space to think about health risks that everyone was exposed to in that dark lane. Was anyone really bothered?

Produce stalls, CR Park market, Delhi. Credit: Siddharth Sreenivas/Oxfam
Produce stalls, CR Park market, Delhi. Credit: Siddharth Sreenivas/Oxfam

Yes — many of the buyers showed up with masks on. But those who were selling? For them, to empty their carts at the earliest was the only option to ensure some income to last them a few days.

As for masks? Forget it.

The orange-seller was clear in his views.

‘No one is talking about us as we are poor and it does not matter if we are alive or dead. Yes, they all come rushing to stock up the kitchen but will never stand with us in these difficult times.’

A few of them said that they might go back to their villages, although there’s no economic opportunity there to ensure their survival.

It will be a burden on the families and scarce resources. But what choice do they have?

As we were returning home, it was time for our Prime Minister to to give an emergency address to the nation on the pandemic. And, in his 30-minute address , there was no mention of these poor people.

Take care of the poor and the hungry

As is inevitable in coming days, all businesses will be shut. So will be the lives of the poor who survive on their labour on a daily basis who can’t dream of stocking up their kitchens for even a couple of days.

Working from home is not an option for the market vendors, taxi drivers, domestic workers and all other informal workers. Without the markets, how can small-scale farmers sell their produce, which they rely on to survive?

The response to the pandemic in India and anywhere in the world must address the vulnerability of farm workers and informal workers.

It is not the virus so much that the poor and the hungry see staring on their face; it is the darkness that ominously looms over their very existence!

This entry posted 24 March 2020, by Mamata Dash, Southern Campaign Lead for Oxfam.

Please donate to Oxfam’s COVID-19 Appeal

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Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.

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Oxfam International

Oxfam International

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.

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