Let them Eat Cake: Narrative Around Food Amidst the Pandemic Among Backward Communities in India

In this well researched essay, two Indian scholars, Malvya Chintakindi and Prapti Adhikari, using informed literature review, data synthesis, field work reflections and experiences from ongoing field work in parts of Northern and Southern India since summer of 2021, discuss the workings of existing institutional and societal structures surrounding food systems prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and as India battles the pandemic across the first, second and the impending third waves. As development practitioners and scholars, their research aims to target food systems in all its complexity.


In a pandemic stricken world where food poverty is an ever-growing reality, backward social classes in India bear the brunt of it. With most of these communities affiliated to informal labor markets with weak job security and poorer socioeconomic and health safety nets, they are “left to eat cake”.

Food plays multiple roles, with it being a source of sustenance or a source of income. Beyond its nutritional composition, its role in the socio-economic and cultural lives of communities reliant on food and food systems for livelihoods is immense. This essay’s focus is on social and cultural dimensions of food, food systems and food security, discussing the transitioning role of food for different backward communities. It adopts a 360-degree approach in examining informed literature review, data synthesis, field work reflections and experiences from ongoing field work in parts of North and South of India. As development practitioners and scholars, we aim to position our research on food systems in all its complexity. We discuss the workings of existing institutional and societal structures surrounding food systems prior to the pandemic and as India battles the pandemic across the first, second and the impending third waves.

Key words: COVID-19 food distribution, food and livelihoods, food economy, food systems, food policy, food security, social dimensions, food inequality, hunger, poverty, food culture, backward communities, developing countries, India

Background and relevant literature

Food poverty is India’s reality and is not only limited to affordability, but also to other forms of poverty created by systemic denial, like ethnicity, gender, rural and urban divide and other inequalities. With the unfolding of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the government resorted to stringent measures of mitigating the virus outbreak. Nationwide lockdown and border restrictions impacted the local food markets the most, widening the gap between those who can afford to market as well as consume food, and the rest on the other side.

Discussions around food have traditionally focused on the visible outcomes like production and consumption, with much less attention to other intertwined aspects of social and demographic importance. Food is multidimensional – it interacts with several elements of the social structure – class, economy, networks, culture and so on, before ending up on a plate. Past few decades have witnessed a change, true. In-depth food ethnographies have taken up space and those discourses have transformed or are shaped with an understanding of social realities. Ensuring food (and nutrition) for all is gradually becoming a collective concern, as the world has started to realize that something is not right with how hunger – the malice, has been addressed historically.

Data suggests that one in nine people in the world are undernourished while one in three are overweight or obese1. Skewed distribution of resources is a grim reality. Several grassroot studies have shown that women and children are particularly vulnerable. India contributes to the crisis significantly. The country was ranked 94th among the 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index in 2020, falling under the ‘severe’ hunger category2. Childhood stunting remained as high as 34.7 percent and wasting at 17.3 percent till 20163 which has continued to rise in 13 and 12 states till 2020. There has only been a gradual decline; data for 22 states and union territories (UTs) show that children who were born after 2014 are much more vulnerable. These data, however, only reflect the measurables. Monitoring anthropometric outcomes is important, but in India, the underlying causes of food related conundrum are manifold – primarily poverty and socio-cultural inequalities, access and availability of food, underregulated policies and public distribution system (PDS), etc. These causes are largely interconnected.

Government’s stance on food security

In a country as diverse and populated as India, local food systems are fragile. Vulnerable and marginalized populations of the country are positioned to face the worst of challenges during any disaster, let alone an unprecedented pandemic such as the COVID-19. A whopping 91%4 of the total workforce in India belongs to the informal sector or the shadow economy involved in a wide range of occupations spread across agriculture, migrant labor, domestic help and other jobs that are dependent on daily wages. They are not only hardest hit due to lack of optimal social protection and safety nets such as robust insurance coverage or job security but also face a long uphill battle to recover and recuperate amidst the pandemic. Their daily sustenance is in question and primarily, it boils down to the uncertainty of a morsel of food on their plates. Data suggests that 74 percent of the Scheduled Tribes (ST) community in rural and 12 percent in urban India are involved in agriculture and the remaining in construction, manufacturing, and other service sectors5. The contribution of Scheduled Castes (SC) in agriculture is less than ST but was higher for other non-farm activities, indicating that the community is more susceptible to market fluctuations. SC communities mostly possess marginal land holdings or are landless and are compelled to migrate to city areas for work. The contribution of Other Backward Class (OBC) in the agriculture and allied sectors is 58 percent in the rural and eight percent in the urban areas.

Generally, the central government’s main response to food security has been through the Public Distribution System (PDS). The National Food Security Act (NSFA) passed in 2013 entails several schemes. Through the PDS, NSFA provides 5 kilograms of food grains per head to 75% of the rural population and to 50% of the urban population at subsidized prices6. With COVID-19 declared a global pandemic in 2020, the Indian government announced a $22.6 billion economic package7 to support the poorer sections of the society. The government promised to provide food rations and cash transfers for the initial few months in 2020 to those families in need of ‘immediate help’. This economic package has provisions to distribute grains such as rice or wheat and lentils to two-thirds of the country. It also includes provision of cooking gas cylinders to 83 million poor families and direct cash transfers to 200 million women and the elderly. However, the realization of these benefits is scattered and varied. With many informal workers holding no permanent addresses, identity cards or ration cards, availing these benefits has been challenging. While some of them were able to access these benefits in their hometowns, upon their return to cities or urban spaces in pursuit of newer job opportunities, they happen to lose this coverage. With

 inflated prices of food rations due to panic purchasing, the low-income sections of the society are rendered hungry and poorer.

As India grapples with the devastating COVID-19 second wave in 2021, the central government continues to announce food and grain compensation such as provision of 5 kg food grains free of cost to 80 crore beneficiaries under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana8. Another such scheme includes the Open Market Sales Scheme9 which supplies food grains to non-profit organizations engaged in relief operations for migrant and vulnerable groups. While on ground realities of marginalized populations are dire, the government’s intention to support such communities are not sufficiently realized. This can be attributed to a plethora of factors and logistic reasons such as inefficient public distribution of goods and poor outreach to remote rural regions in the country. The state governments of India have announced packages such as subsistence allowance, free delivery of cooked food and so on in aid of those working in the unorganized sector. State governments have also been liaising with the central government advocating to avail benefits to meet the respective needs of their populations10.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to emphasize that availability of hard data and evaluation of these schemes and benefits is a far-off reality in India given the pandemic times, in an already impoverished data collection and upkeep scenario. Scholars, officials and researchers with field work experiences are definitely better informed of the complex situations surrounding availing benefits of government schemes and its outcomes. As development practitioners and scholars, we aim to position our research on food systems in all its complexity. This essay is an outcome of informed literature review, data synthesis, field work reflections and experiences from ongoing field work in parts of North and South of India. We discuss the workings of existing institutional and societal structures surrounding food systems prior to the pandemic and as India battles the pandemic across the first, second and the impending third waves.

Food and food systems pre and during the pandemic

It is important to dissect the social milieu to actually understand what food stands for in India. Food is not only a source of good health but also a source of income, with food forming the basis for diverse livelihoods. Food production, i.e. agriculture dominates the discussion for cultivators, agricultural laborers and consumers at a whole.

Fifty-five percent of the people in India are involved in agriculture, of which, 70 percent are rural11. Above 80 percent of the total are small and marginal farmers. Owing to low productivity in the sector due to poor infrastructure and irrigation facilities, climate change and market fluctuation, the share of cultivators have been decreasing since 1951. People from rural areas, particularly men, are moving to urban areas for faster income generation opportunities, resorting to non-farming sectors like construction and manufacturing. This is mostly in the case of the backward or economically weaker sections from rural and semi-urban areas12. An interesting social trend witnessed due to this is the feminization of agriculture. The Economic Survey (2017-18) showed that most men are migrating to cities for additional income, giving rise to women-headed households back home. This has increased the role of women in agriculture, including labor-intensive tasks of harvesting, packaging and marketing products. But despite performing significant tasks on field, their performance is treated as a mere extension of their household work, adding a dual burden of farm and non-farm activities.

Multi-site reflections explain that the workload of a woman belonging to agrarian or informal labor communities is at least three or four times higher in comparison to a man. She is involved in multiple forms of care-taking at home with most responsibilities catering to elderly and younger family members falling on her shoulders. The added burden of the man of the house either being away for long periods for contractual labor or generally distanced from household chores is to be navigated by the wife, who faces the physical and mental toil of serving everyone but herself.

Gender is an important dynamic to consider to understand where food stands for women and men living in the same household. Several large and small-scale studies have concluded that most Indian communities consider cooking and food distribution primarily as a woman’s responsibility. While women contribute largely in the integrated management and use of natural resources, decision making in the food production and other farm activities, their outcomes are not reflected well in the fulfillment of their dietary needs. In India, food distribution at the household level is still guided by cultural norms where women serve themselves at the end despite being the ones who cook and manage the pantries. This is largely practiced in the rural and semi-urban areas and/or poor communities where they are left with a meagre amount or leftover food. Young girls from their early childhood are discriminated against for food, with boys getting preferred for full-plates of food and better nutrition. Although this does not reflect in the nutritional status of boys and girls according to national data, a quarter of women of reproductive age in India are undernourished, with a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 kg/m13. Half of the country’s women are anemic. Undernourished girls eventually become mothers giving birth to undernourished children, continuing the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition.

Field work across remote rural regions in North India show that food is indeed gendered. Young girls are expected to learn how to cook in order to serve their future husbands and in-laws. It is almost considered less of a man if he partakes in cooking as social norms label him to be subservient for helping his wife. Women face physical and verbal violence if the cooked food isn’t satisfactory enough. The household politics around cooking and food are further affirmed by the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) which was formulated in 2016 with the aim to safeguard the health of women and children by providing clean cooking fuel to below poverty line families so they don’t have to cook in smoky kitchens or collect firewood. The fuel connections are issued in the name of the women of the households. Ongoing field work in Haryana shows that women feel a sense of stress as the upkeep of the cylinders and cooking delicious food falls on them. It also gives the household members an opportunity to reprimand these women for food not cooked to their liking. Though this is not a critique of the PMUY, it certainly highlights how the gendered role of food and cooking plays into family dynamics. Irrespective of owning gas cylinders, most rural households maintain a firewood cooking space to use outside their homes as a general practice.

There is also a surge in marriages during the pandemic as loss of savings has forced families to reduce their financial burden by getting their daughters married. This is more prevalent among families with more daughters than sons. Additionally, underage marriages have increased14 amidst the pandemic.

Factors causing it boil down to the lack of food since loss of income and jobs mean more mouths to feed and less affordability. Therefore, getting the daughters married away is an immediate solution. With most of the families losing their contractual or informal employment and children out of school, women not only struggle for resources and money but the pandemic induced workload includes taking care of all needs and requirements of the household as well as their husbands, in-laws, children and any others.

The interplay of food, in aspects of livelihoods and good health of backward communities is another important aspect of investigation. Transitioning livelihoods is therefore a reality for several communities in India, with resource scarcity for backwards communities along with many tribal communities sacrificing their traditional ways of life. Drawing from our field experiences in tribal districts of Maharashtra, we have reaffirmed our understanding that tribal communities have traditionally depended on forest and green resources, cohabiting with the wildlife. They have had nomadic lifestyles with not much in the name of ancestral land or properties. Causes like infrastructural development, expansion of human habitats and restricted use of forest, eventually losing access to a range of nutritious items they foraged onto. Use of modern spices and condiments are not only impacting their dietary patterns and outcomes, but adding to their food expenditures. Hence this larger reliance on agriculture which has not been stable and gainful throughout the year, and changing lifestyles have pushed people to uptake other economic activities to sustain somehow. Beginning in 2020, amidst the pandemic, India saw a massive agitation from farmers against the government’s attempt to reshape agriculture and farming, which aims at liberalizing agriculture trade and managing the agrarian distress in the country. The new agriculture laws allow farmers to sell their products directly to the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) regulated markets or mandis which are controlled by the government, creating more choices of buyers. Additionally, these laws set up frameworks for contract farming and allow inter and intra state trade of products, beyond the physical premises of APMC markets. The sector dominated by smallholder farmers in India are worried that this attempt will increase the role of the private sector in an environment where they feel the state governments are already less involved.

Over the past two decades, India has seen an increase in per capita food grains and pulses availability. Total food grain production has increased from 198 million tons to 269 million tons, with an annual growth rate for food grains of 1.6 per cent15. But the availability of food has not increased at the same rate for people, and poverty is one of the primary reasons. The rural population allocates a huge chunk of their monthly expenditure, with about 49 percent to cover food expenses. Evidence shows that food expenditure is highest among the most deficient 30 per cent who spend more than half of their annual income on food. The unfolding of the pandemic has brought about tremendous food wastage and loss. Farmers are seen destroying their harvest due to poor pricing in their local markets whereas urban dwellers have been spending twice or thrice the amount to purchase food produce. The dichotomies of how class and geographical location operate in food procurement during COVID-19 has resulted in inflation, debt crisis, higher demand and yet lower supply.

National response and challenges to ensuring food security and livelihoods

India’s response to malnutrition is interconnected with ensuring livelihoods and food for people at different levels. One of the most significant schemes The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) ensures people’s ‘right to work’. It aims to enhance livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. The act also targeted deprivation and food

insecurity in the rural households, with suggested positive effects on nutrition and wellbeing of children. As of 2020-2021, there are 13.28 crore active workers under the act, benefitting 5.54 crore households through MGNREGA.

There are numerous studies which draw a positive correlation between MGNREGA and food security of households, especially by improving the purchasing power parity of people to buy food at the household level. A sample study done in 2013 demonstrated that MGNREGA is associated with improved nutritional outcomes among children between 5-6 years of age however particular effects are not known16. It showed that these households were less likely to have wasted infants and less likely to have underweight infants than the non-participating households. Another study done by IASET in 2017, showed that the income from MGNREGA made a very significant contribution to the wellbeing of children by reducing hunger and improving health and education17. Through National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), the government focuses on promoting self-employment and organization of rural poor by mobilizing them into self-help groups (SHGs) in a time-bound manner. NRLM is India’s flagship program to reduce poverty by mobilizing poor rural women into self-help groups involving integrated farm and allied activities directed towards food and nutrition security, and building community institutions for the poor. Through the concept of ‘Dashasutri’, NRLM includes improvement in health and nutrition of women as one of its ten focus areas. SHGs have been a vital part of the Supplementary Nutrition Program (SNP) for the ICDS, supporting the Anganwadi or rural child care teams, advocating for agri-nutri linkages and sensitizing women and communities in creating awareness around nutrition. During the pandemic, in over 90 districts across India, rural women SHGs produced facemasks, ran community kitchens, delivered essential food supplies, sensitized people about health and hygiene18.

Programs like the Public Distribution System (PDS) have existed since the 1950s, ensuring food security to the poor households. Commodities like wheat, rice, sugar and kerosene, among others are distributed at subsidized rates to families below poverty line and with minimal incomes. PDS has most importantly helped in ensuring food and nutritional security, and also helped in stabilizing the food crisis, making it widely available to the poor at affordable prices. Some common controversies surrounding this scheme are the scarce resource availability at ration shops and those with abundance being of inferior quality, and is largely criticized for its urban bias. PDS has so far achieved 75% coverage of the rural population, and around half of the urban population. It is true that the scheme is efficient in ensuring food for the needy but the correlation with malnutrition has not been vetted by primary research instances. A study conducted by NITI Aayog in 2016 showed that there was little to no correlation between PDS and improvements in any undernutrition indicators. The data between NFHS and Annual Health Survey and District Level Health Surveys were juxtaposed to see any correlation, however nothing substantial could be detected. The data points were taken for Chhattisgarh where the PDS is extremely efficient, a decline of only 7% underweight children was seen as compared to Jharkhand, where the decline was 11% in spite of the prevalence of a relatively less efficient PDS. In addition, Tamil Nadu showed a negligible decline in undernutrition in spite of the availability of a rice subsidy.

The government’s efforts in helping informal laborers during COVID-19 has been met with varied outcomes. Government information campaigns have not reached most locations and government

compensation in the form of rice grain or money has not been very efficiently provided. While some laborers who returned to their hometowns not far away from cities, they have not been well informed about COVID-19 in their hometown and not well supported with monetary or in-kind compensation after their return to Hyderabad in search of employment. A 35-year-old household help whose husband now works as a watchman after being unemployed since the lockdown said, ‘We went to my hometown during the lockdown since my husband lost his daily wage job. We did not hear of COVID-19 at all. We have not heard of COVID-19 or about its spread from government sources but received Rs.1500 from our local government department along with rice grain’. Ever since her family returned to the city in search of jobs in May, they have not received any monetary or food grain benefit from their local government. She mentions that she has learnt about COVID-19 from her employers at her apartment complex. Another 36- year-old household help, said, ‘We heard of huge crowds forming near our neighborhood in the city for government provided grain but we did not go since we were scared of going to crowded places’ She has not heard of any other government support or information about COVID-19 but her employers have been educating her about safety measures.

There are other major large-scale programs like the Integrated Child Development Services launched in 1975, the National Nutrition Policy 1993, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme for school children 1995, and the National Food Security Act 2013, but the burden of child growth failures remains high. These initiatives specifically target the reduction of childhood malnutrition and undernutrition during the first 1000 days of birth for mothers and children, ensuring food and nutrition for all, but mostly working on beneficiary basis and not securing food and livelihood opportunities for families. Most recently, Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition (POSHAN) Abhiyaan was launched in 2018 with an aim to make India malnutrition free with several programs embedded within which addresses niche aspects around nutrition fulfillment for women and children, however, not food for the family.

Frontline workers or Anganwadis are charged with the task of providing door to door information on COVID-19 and collecting data on the disease’s spread. While they are also responsible for distributing government provided grain, the women who run the Anganwadis face a different set of problems in appealing to their local residents. Field discussion with an Anganwadi worker in Haryana revealed that COVID-19 has exacerbated the stresses of her job. She manages 135 households out of which there are 20 pregnant women and 165 children under the age of 5. However, during ration distribution days, households not under coverage demand ration too. ‘If I deny giving them ration, they feel bad and accuse me of corruption. They blame that I am exploiting the government’s ration by denying them and using it for my own family’, she said. Most families underplay the availability of food grain in their households in order to stock up and receive more compensation than what is stipulated. It is also undeniable that the scattered spread of government’s food benefits has made the rural population vulnerable, forcing them to look out for themselves by all means.

Recommendations for improved policy making

  • A multi-layer convergence or partnership between the government, private sector and the civil society is required to strengthen the system and service delivery – both. Such partnerships also worked during the pandemic where the government relied on the latter for their expertise in community outreach, managing complex on ground realities in some of the most remote locations of the country. Despite logistical and coordination criticisms19, many civil society collectives amped up their community mobilization and awareness efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19

by addressing challenges around vaccine hesitation or leniency with social distancing, and more importantly, targeting behavior change to ensure COVID-19 is not viewed as an ‘urban disease’.

This model can thus be strengthened further in facilitating the transition from being food secure to nutrition secure communities by creating a demand for nutrition at community level. With the government’s capacity of investments at scale and the community outreach efforts of NGOs and civil society, an enabling environment to establish community ownership of issues such as food sufficiency, strengthening local food systems and creating sustainable ways to tackle malnutrition can be brought into effect. Contextual solutions to food and livelihood crises at the community level should be promoted to resist or fight any disaster, shock or in case, the pandemic.

  • There is a huge scope of leveraging the structural relationships and cognitive aspects such as connectedness, feeling of bonding and kinship of social capital, not only to address the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to improve livelihoods and food security situations in Indian communities. Irrespective of the government’s call, social capital values proliferated widely in rural as well as the urban areas during the second wave of pandemic. Community kitchens, faith-based associations, volunteer and philanthropic organizations stepped up to maintain law-order situations and managed medical and other non-medical services in several metropolitan cities and remote rural regions of the country.

Pandemic or no pandemic, bridging or investing in such demonstrated social capital can bring a sustainable asset to rural communities in India. This would also inculcate a sense of belongingness, unity and shared moral values. This could include capacitating the influencers in the communities, formally organized groups in the communities or the SHGs who can access large groups of people. For example, alliances between the frontline workers and SHGs will be contributory to achieve better public health and nutrition related communications, at the family or household level.

  • NRLM, India’s largest government program working with rural women, has been recognized as a network to be leveraged to bolster efforts of COVID-19 prevention and containment. Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy’s (IWWAGE) report20 on the subject discussed good practices, strategies and innovations led by SHGs during the pandemic. The need for heightened customized response due to restrictions on mobility has enabled SHGs across the country adopt strategies such as changing livelihoods, distribution of essential commodities, adapting skills and repurposing resources, thereby transforming women into barefoot on ground responders. SHG women ably supported the front-line workers in addressing gender-based violence and facilitating healthy child deliveries. SHG or collectives of women showcased their strength and agility in an unprecedented crisis, making a strong case for institutional and government stimulus for livelihoods recovery.

The pandemic also brought to fore that gender responsive programming is required in any large- scale intervention, let alone the government led livelihoods programmes. Including SHGs’ recovery as the central objective of post COVID-19 gender empowerment mandate would help in not losing the momentum towards gender equality and socioeconomic improvement of rural

downtrodden communities. Gender responsive framework across phases of program design, budgeting, implementation, monitoring and evaluation would address the vicious cycle of multidimensional poverty from a gendered lens.

  • The agri-chain has been hard hit disproportionately with distress sale of the Rabi crop and disturbed preparation of the Kharif crop. Sales of products such as eggs, meat and non-timber forest produce have been low and medium and small-scale enterprises face grim paths to recovery. Migrant labor can play a strong role in regenerating this economy, aiding in strengthening farmer producer groups and building sustainable direct supply chains from farms to markets. Displaced migrant labor can be directed to be engaged in rural industries.

Decentralization of economic zones by tapping into otherwise migrant labor employed by rural industries would bring down manufacturing costs and stimulate economic recovery whilst encouraging local food production and local employment. This would also mean better food security and distribution.


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Authors’ Bio:

Malvya Chintakindi
Malvya is an international development professional and a practising anthropologist with a background in Monitoring-Evaluation-Learning (MEL), participatory research, advocacy and programme development. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Oregon with a research focus on gender inequality, gender based violence, notions of development and community based interventions.  Prior to embarking on her doctoral studies, Malvya worked in the international development and research space for five years. Her most recent engagements are with projects focusing on agricultural innovations, women’s social and economic inclusion and empowerment, and local governance. She possess diverse field research experience in remote and rural regions across India.

Prapti Adhikari
Prapti has been working as a development professional to support public health and nutrition initiatives across Nepal and India in the past eight years.  She has worked with national and international organizations, multilateral organizations, CSR, and government organizations for opportunities at scale, creating inclusive policies and service delivery system for those in the cycle of social inequalities. She takes a keen interest in debates surrounding gender-related issues and is passionate about studying and assessing sub-optimal health practices in the development contexts.