India on the brink of hunger crisis during corona, warns International Commission of Jurists

People using tiffins to mark their position in a queue outside relief canteen in Mustafabad Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

The Indian government has fallen short of its obligations to guarantee the right to food during the Covid-19, the International Commission of Jurists said in a briefing paper released on Monday.

The International Commission of Jurists is an international human rights non-governmental organization. It is a standing group of 60 eminent jurists—including senior judges, attorneys, and academics—who work to develop national and international human rights standards through the law.

India went into voluntary quarantine on 22 March and then a nationwide lockdown from 24 March. The Indian authorities have indicated that the lockdown will continue until at least 3 May. Informal sector workers, and others, who ordinarily survive on meager and unreliable daily wages, have lost access to regular income since 22 March and have, at best, limited access to government support.

The Global Hunger Index 2019 ranks India as suffering from a “level of hunger that is serious”. As a result of Covid-19, an estimated 400 million informal sector workers in India “are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis” according to the International Labour Organization. 

Covid-19 has resulted in the loss of livelihood for millions of people in India. Its impact has been particularly acute for informal sector workers, many of whom are internal migrant workers.

Existing vulnerabilities to food insecurity in India are compounded by long-standing social and structural discrimination based on caste, religion, and gender. Several million persons, including informal sector workers living in deprived urban and rural areas, lack access to adequate food, as well as information about the availability of community kitchens.

“The Government has failed to provide a plan capable of meeting the food requirements of all people in India when it announced the lockdown. The first lockdown on 24 March was announced with four only hours’ notice, and the second lockdown on 14 April was announced with one day’s notice. In addition to not providing a relief measure plan following the lockdown, the inadequate notice period did not give people adequate opportunity to make plans to ensure that they would have access to adequate food. Moreover, people who try to access food from community kitchens that have sprung up are harassed and beaten by the police. The failure to plan adequately for the food needs of the Indian population has contributed to rights violations associated with the right to food for those living in poverty,” the paper observes.

ICJ also said that the government must ensure that laws are enforced in a non-discriminatory manner, and that acts of violence are redressed.

“This includes an obligation to exercise due diligence to ensure that private individuals and businesses do not act to impair the enjoyment of the right to food. Unfortunately, there are regular media reports regarding violence and discrimination. Muslim persons, in particular, have faced severe discrimination. Muslim vegetable and fruit vendors have been prevented access to neighborhoods in Delhi and Rajasthan, and have been beaten up. Gujjar milkmen in Jammu, Himachal Pradesh, and Punjab have faced boycott as well as physical violence while trying to sell milk. The failure to enforce criminal law, including the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, for preventing acts of violence and discrimination, and to ensure the protection of food vendors is incompatible with India’s obligation to protect the right to food,” ICJ demanded.

“The Government must use the maximum of its available resources, including food stocks, to ensure the fulfillment the right to food,” the international body of jurists requested.

“The Government does not appear to be fully utilizing its buffer stock of food grains to prevent hunger and starvation. This is despite reports that nearly half of internal migrant workers may not have food rations to last a full day, and more than 90 percent had not received food rations from the Government. The Government should use its buffer stock to prevent hunger and starvation, as has previously been held by the Indian Supreme Court. In addition, the Government must address structural flaws in the implementation of emergency measures, which prevent access to food for people living in poverty, such as lack of ration cards as well as lack of inter-state portability of ration cards for those who would otherwise qualify under the food public distribution system,” it states.

The ICJ also calls on the Indian authorities to provide regular, accurate, evidence-based information on the spread of Covid-19 to the general public and publicly contradict false information to prevent discrimination and crimes committed against Muslim persons.

The ICJ has previously called on the Indian government to ensure the protection of the rights of internal migrant workers, many of whom are stranded in intolerable conditions.

The briefing paper published by the ICJ sets out in question and answer format some of the human rights concerns that have arisen from the lockdown in the context of right to food for people living in poverty.

Read the full-paper here

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