THE VIRUS OF HUNGER: Contextualizing Food Security in Times of COVID-19: PART-II

by Milind Malhar Sharma
This is the second part of a two part series. The first part can be found here.

International Perspectives


It is also important to expand the scope of the debate by talking about responses to food crises in other countries.  Scott Y. Lin has discussed the role of state capitalism in managing food security. China, as most would agree, operates under a system of state capitalism which is termed ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ Since the 2007-08 crisis, the role of the Chinese state has shown greater market intervention-based initiatives. State Capitalism has enabled improvements in food availability in China but has also weakened accessibility.

Lin has also shown that the nationalistic investments in infrastructure that state capitalism emphasizes have greatly improved China’s food stability in terms of availability and accessibility, but with few incentives to deal with future climate change threats. This further strengthens the argument in favour of state intervention although the case may vary from country to country. China has a chequered past regarding food availability and famines, but the current situation implies that the days of the great leap forward (1958-61) and the famine caused under it during Mao’s regime seem to have been long buried in memory.


Some of the countries in Africa are likely to be amongst the worst affected according to the global food report, 2020. Sub-Saharan Africa is not only vulnerable to pandemics but also to natural disasters and droughts. Ajay Chhibber and Rachid Laajaj have shown that ‘floods and droughts are the most frequent types of disasters in Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by wind storms but droughts tend to affect a much higher number of people’. Food security is a pressing concern and one of the ways to deal with both development and crisis averment is to not think of them separately. This was shown in Niger, where one programme tried targeting an area with chronic food deficits. The aim was to reduce drought vulnerability by intensifying off-season crop production through the widespread use of existing, simple, low-cost technologies. This helped improve the situation for over 35,000 farmers and could not have been possible without the two objectives of poverty reduction and food security being kept separate because they are highly linked to the livelihood of the rural population.

In South Africa, the viability of cash-transfers was explored as a way to tackle food insecurity. One study concluded that Child Support Grant (CSG) has been effective as a cash transfer in improving household consumption on food but is ineffective in helping the most vulnerable households.

The lessons we can gather from all these countries give us a mixed picture but also provide insights into different strategies that have worked. Understanding the emergence of the Indian state’s role in dealing with crises is incomplete without understanding its relationship with famines which emerged in colonial times. Let us now further analyse some of the recommendations which can and have been made to handle the present ongoing crisis.

Re-Thinking State Action For Dealing With The Food Crisis

For the present crisis, several policies have been implemented and suggested. Chief among the responses by the Indian government has been to supply free gas cylinders, increasing wages under MNREGA and making it easier to seek loans. But are they adequate in dealing with food accessibility? As we have observed from the South African case, cash transfers might help but only in a limited away. Food access in India should be improved using a more holistic approach given the excess stocks kept in government godowns. Economist Abhijit Banerjee has argued for cash transfers to the poorest 60% Indians in order to stimulate demand, in itself.

Another suggestion made by him, Amartya Sen and Raghuram Rajan are to provide food to everyone without worrying about PDS leakages. The food grain currently in stock is way beyond normally recommended capacity (at over 70 million metric tonnes) and is not going to suffer a massive hit. The government needs to recognise this measure as something doable and cannot be content with the Rs. 20,000-crore stimulus package which they announced. Sen’s argument has found greater resurgence as job losses are leading to the collapse of entitlements.

Neo-liberal policies of the 1990s and early 2000s are in part responsible for the present crisis.  Utsa Patnaik traces the fall in rural purchasing power to this stating that the government justified massive food exports during an ongoing drought and food shortages back then based on incorrect and fallacious assumptions of deepening hunger as ‘voluntary choice’.[1] A return to ‘normalcy’ is the last thing that the government should have on their mind and notions of voluntary choice should be abandoned for the sake of promoting real development and food security. The government also needs to recognise the deep structural inequities perpetuating these food crises and needs to stop applauding itself for the measures being brought out during such times. India’s past has a lesson here. The colonial state by the 1920s claimed that its policies had succeeded in arresting mass starvation deaths and went on to create narcissistic rhetoric claiming that India had become free from the scourge of famine.[2] But the Bengal famine of 1943 shattered this rhetoric and claim to a great extent. The current ruling regime should move away from potentially repeating the same mistakes and move towards looking for other creative solutions beyond the existing model. The 21st-century state has useful lessons to learn from the past and other countries as discussed above.


This paper has tried to explore the measures used by countries across the world to ensure food security. Each has had mixed results that have proved beneficial in their limited capacity. The food crisis in India and the world is not likely to end after the current pandemic is over and most countries need to stress upon long-term planning and goals.

While state capitalism in China has helped it enormously in tackling food insecurity, there are future threats regarding sustainability and climate change. The case studies from Africa show us the importance of multi-pronged efforts which can simultaneously enable the state to solve the long term food crisis. Cash transfers and food distribution might be the necessary short-term solutions but are simply not enough. What is needed is an abandonment of existing dogma about Neo-liberal policies, inadequate state intervention and ‘voluntary starvation’. As stated by Patnaik, the arguments for a universal, not targeted NREGA as well as for a universal Public Distribution System (PDS) are far stronger than most people realize.[3] The historical experience in India has shown that crises in the past have served as sites for the transformation of the role of the colonial state. The present crisis should motivate the Indian government to transform into a modern state fit for dealing with the problems before its citizens. As argued by Jean Tirole, the modern state must have the financial means to sustain the social welfare system to which its citizens have become attached.[4] In Tirole’s understanding, experience has shown that broad state reforms are possible and must be planned for the long haul.[5] And almost all major economies which are doing well because of state reforms are doing so because they undertook those reforms in times of high economic distress.[6] So the question of deferring this act because of  COVID-19 does not hold up fully. The time is ripe to carry out major reforms which can enable India to come out as a robust nation in the post-COVID 19 world and one which can proudly declare itself as free from chronic hunger.

Views are personal.

Image credits: Stanford University


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


[1]Utsa Patnaik, The Republic of Hunger & Other Essays, 131 (1ST ed. 2007).

[2]Sanjay Sharma, Famine, relief, and rhetoric of welfare in colonial North India, in An Economic History of Famine Resilience 176(Jessica Dijkman and Bas van Leeuwen ed. 2020).

[3]Patnaik, supra, at 199.

[4]Jean Tirole, Economics for the Common Good 170, (2017)

[5]Id. at 172.

[6] Id.

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