THE VIRUS OF HUNGER: Contextualising Food Security In Times of COVID-19: PART-I

by Milind Malhar Sharma


The COVID -19 pandemic has had one of the most devastating impacts on  humankind. Increasing paranoia and an uncertain future mar the current times. However, what also deserves attention is the looming hunger crisis. The current pandemic is likely to extenuate the people going hungry across the world raising questions around survival and morality. According to certain estimates, 265 million people are likely to go hungry post the crisis.  This warrants an enquiry into the hunger crisis and the status of food security in not just India but across the world. Through a historical analysis, primarily with food crises like famines, we can better understand the dynamics of the current one. What is also required is to re-think the idea of the state and its role in handling such crises as they are now at the forefront of fighting pandemics.

Capitalism’s legitimacy has also been challenged warranting reforms which bring in regulated markets to ensure stable supply and demand metrics. It is well known that lack of access to food especially in times of famines and other crises has little causal connection with availability of food. India, since the days of the Green Revolution has in numerous ways tried to win the battle against hunger and ensure food security. We shall now examine the status of global hunger as it exists in contemporary times and seek to find lessons for the Indian case.

Global Food Security In Contemporary Times

The current century is distinct from the previous one in two aspects – the high prevalence of democratic governments and an unprecedented development and application of technology. Yet, the story becomes much bleaker if one looks at the status of hunger. The Global Report on Food Crisis, 2020 gives us a glimpse of the problem. According to the Report, nearly 135 million people are estimated to be in a position of acute food crisis in 2019 across 55 territories and countries.The Report further stated that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis is going to worsen. While the harvest in 2020 has been good, access to food is likely to be affected in the light of rising unemployment and reduced purchasing power, affecting nomadic pastoralists, displaced people, daily-wage earners and service sector employees. As restrictions on movement increase, availability of agricultural labour decreases and this is likely to drive up food prices.

In India, a little less than 200 million people do not have enough to eat.This is despite the fact the food stocks in the central pool hit a record high in April, 2020 at 73.85 metric-tonnes. As more and more people lose their livelihoods and are pushed to the brink of poverty, the numbers are likely to get far worse. New estimates show that the number estimated by the global report on food crisis, could double to nearly 265 million people.  The grave nature of the situation cannot be stressed enough.

Crisis, Famines And State Action

Many have discussed the mismanagement of governments in handling the ongoing crisis. This brings us to a question of why states falter during food crises. There are no clear-cut answers, but a study of famines and consequent state actions could provide us clues which can enable us to find better answers. Famines are situations of wide-spread unavailability or inability to access foodthat have occurred in various parts of the world and have a unique place in Indian history. They have served as sites for states to evolve newer mechanisms of welfare and support to enable survival.

Famines, their causality, effects, and state relief have been subjected to historical and economic analysis by scholars Their arguments can be broadly divided into two groups. One set of arguments are in support of free market policies which they believe provide better food security. In recent years of globalisation, it is claimed that the best panacea for a situation of food shortage is to let the market forces operate freely. The counter argument is provided by those who say that having food and other necessary commodities in the market will still not ensure that people actually have access to them. The state therefore must play a more active role in providing support to people’s incomes and livelihoods.

This resonates with the position of Amartya Sen. In a major work, Poverty and Famine he used the evidence from the Bengal famine of 1943 to enunciate the theory of ‘exchange entitlements. His concept of ‘entitlements’ has transformed the way scholars have studied famines. Entitlements according to Sen are “the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality of rights and opportunities that he or she faces”.[1] It radically shifted the focus of analysis from food supply (Food Availability Decline i.e. FAD) to people’s ability to access them. Sen has argued that people “plunged into starvation” when their entitlement to food collapsed.[2]

The analysis by Sen has been ground-breaking but has also been subjected to criticism. In Stephen Devereux’s understanding, the limitations of the entitlement model are two-fold – first, a failure to recognize individuals as socially embedded members of households, communities and states, and second, a failure to recognize that famines are political crises as much as they are economic shocks or natural disasters.[3]Other studies have pointed out that the role of the state expanded in times of crisis like famines. Sanjay Sharma, for example has argued that the colonial state in India when faced with acute famines in the late nineteenth century was forced to provide relief to its starving subjects.[4] The colonial state as part of its famine relief policies offered work to the famished-on projects like canals, railways, roads etc. The colonial state established famine commissions, formulated famine codes, and started poorhouses to emerge as the principal source of welfare, relief, and institutional philanthropy.[5]Therefore, the role of the state is very crucial in ensuring basic support to its citizens and that has got further highlighted during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the first part of a two part series. The second part will be available soon.

Views are Personal

Image Credits: Stanford University


Milind Malhar Sharma is pursuing law from O.P. Jindal Global University.


[1]Amartya K. Sen,Poverty and Famines: An Essay on entitlement and Deprivation, 497 (1981).

[2]Id. At 47.

[3]Stephen Devereux, Sen’s Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-critiques, 29 Oxf. Dev. Stud.245,259 (2001).

[4] Sanjay Sharma, Poorhouses, and gratuitous famine relief in colonial North India, in A Cultural History of Famine 130-131 (Ayesha Mukherjee ed. 2019).

[5] Sanjay Sharma, Famine, Philanthropy, and the Colonial State: North India in the Early Nineteenth Century, 230 (2001).

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