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Conversations on COVID-19 and India’s North-East

The world is currently hit hard by the outbreak of the coronavirus, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Taking this crisis into consideration, the Government of India declared a nation-wide lockdown which started on 25 March 2020, urging people to stay at home and maintain social distancing.

The lockdown caused a sudden suspension of economic activity, including complete shutdown of factories, markets, construction sites, food delivery systems, etc. all over India and excluded only essential services. The sudden announcement of the lockdown, without any time given for people to prepare themselves, led to untold hardships for the marginalised, most of whom are daily-wage earners. Deferral of work, loss of wages, lack of access to food, anxiety about the pandemic, the inability to access health services and being stranded in urban centres are some of the key issues faced by the poor already. These harsh realities of the lockdown have posed a greater threat for the vulnerable people, even more than the threat of the virus in many cases.

The spread of COVID-19 in India’s North-Eastern region has disproportionately affected the marginalised communities comprising tea garden workers, migrant labourers, tribes living in mountain states, street vendors, rickshaw pullers, unregistered construction workers, domestic workers, bus/auto rickshaw drivers, waste recyclers, etc. They have dwindling food supplies and little money, and panic amongst the people is constantly growing.

Although the Food Corporation of India (FCI) claims to have supplied about 3.51 lakh tonnes of food grains for distribution to the poor via ration shops in the region under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana and the National Food Security (NFSA), accessing food remains a concern for the low income groups living in the region without a ration card and with no other source of income.

The announcement of the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman on 14 May 2020, on the national rollout of ‘One Nation, One Ration card’ system in all states and union territories raises questions regarding its implementation in the North East. Enrolment for the Aadhaar Card is not mandatory in this region and the One Nation, One Ration card mandates the linking of the Aadhaar card, which could potentially leave millions out of the ambit of the Public Distribution System.

Additionally, the mainstream COVID-19 coverage on media as well as on other platforms minimises the North-East narrative.

To build a conversation around the issues people in this region face, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) in partnership with Human Rights Alert (HRA) curated a webinar to encourage the expression of ideas and opinions to initiate collective action to secure the lives and livelihood of the vulnerable populations in the region. Key concerns the webinar sought to address included the following:

  • What are some of the common challenges faced by the low-income groups (in the region) to access food security from the Public Distribution System?
  • What are some local ways in which people are taking initiatives to ensure food security in their areas?
  • What initiatives have the states in the North-East taken to respond to food insecurity and the issue of migration?
  • Are governance structures (in different North-Eastern states) able to take decisions and effectively implement relief? How does the COVID-19 spread intersect with concerns of citizenship?

The webinar also included the sharing of some examples taken up by states in the region (example: Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland) or efforts of civil society organisations (CSOs) or other local actors to address such concerns.

The webinar opened with the welcome remarks by Mehzebin Rahman from YUVA who also moderated the session, followed by the panel discussion. Each speaker made opening remarks on the topic, after which the floor was thrown open for a discussion.

Highlights of the Panel Discussion

What are some of the common challenges faced by the low-income groups to access food security from the Public Distribution System, mainly in Assam?

Addressing this question, Plabon Phukan (The Open Window Forum, Assam) shared his experience of relief distribution in Assam during the period following the announcement of the lockdown. The biggest challenge that the low-income groups faced was that of hunger and insufficient food supplies. He spoke of many people who are extending their support and reaching out to provide relief like the small-scale vendors who have mobilised more than 200 grocery kits at a time when big departmental stores have refused to provide any kind of aid. However, the distribution drives are not sufficient to support everyone.

Under the 73rd Amendment Act, the Gram Panchayat has a major role to play in ensuring food security. However, this institution has become the most corrupt, resulting in the Public Distribution System (PDS) failing to provide sufficient food to people. While, on the one hand, the godowns of the Krishi Vigyan Kendras are overflowing, on the other hand, there is starvation of the people.

There is tremendous lack of awareness among people on the functioning of the PDS, entitlements within the PDS etc. Following the lockdown, a village named Ganapati in Rani Block of Kamrup in rural Assam was without any food supplies for 11 days. The residents were not aware of whom they should contact, they were rendered helpless and left to starve. Local level sensitisation on the rights of each citizen vis-à-vis the PDS needs to be undertaken by academic institutions and the media.

In a time like this, what is keeping the people going is hope and the willingness to share whatever small amount of food they have with others. This spirit of collective kinship is what makes a community. In the same village Ganapati, when there was a shortage of supplies for eight families, the remaining families came forward to share their food. This is the kind of unique resilience that the people are showing at the time of this pandemic.

The Case of Upper Assam

The panelists Soneswar Narah and Pranab Doley from Jeepal, Assam, spoke about how the lack of food security was hitting the poorest of the poor the hardest. Malnutrition is a long-term impact being faced because of lack of food.

They spoke about how the dearth of food supplies was a manufactured one — though farmers are producing grains, it is not reaching people in need in the area. For instance, in the Golaghat district of Upper Assam area, people are living under acute poverty and struggling to make both ends meet, and in almost all the cooperative society areas here people have not received rice supplies. Meanwhile, reports of over 800 quintals of rice going missing in Kaziranga Cooperative Godown of Golaghat district of Assam have surfaced. This ‘rice scandal’ is the result of political and bureaucratic corruption, as a result of which the poor are suffering.

Though the Central Government claims that there are enough rations, people are starving. When they asked questions such as where the food is going and how the ration is being distributed, both the speakers were brutally assaulted and subsequently jailed. There is no transparency or accountability on the part of the government and the lockdown has only exacerbated the situation (when it comes to food security). The speakers also called for more transparency in other schemes, such as cash transfers.

What are some of the ways in which the local people are taking the initiative to ensure food security in the region with a special focus on women and children?

Balarisha Lyndoh (Keeping Our Nature’s Gift, Meghalaya) spoke about how the gender divide is undeniable and present everywhere, including in the North-Eastern region. During a calamity like the pandemic, women and children are the worst affected.

Women farmers and producers have faced the challenge of taking their local produce to the market. Only those women who could secure a pass and take their produce to the market were able to sell their produce. The shortage of cold storage has resulted in the wastage of the surplus produce. The issue is not of food availability but of logistics and distribution. For e.g., some villages grow only rice, others grow only vegetables. Not being able to buy and sell through the market was causing food scarcity.

Her one takeaway from the experience of the lockdown is the need to collectively work to build the local economy, promote local produce and sustain the local market. The lockdown has made women more vulnerable vis-à-vis their health too. They are also facing more life-threatening domestic violence. In spite of the high level of discrimination they face and the fear of the lockdown, women have taken the responsibility to secure the local communities in every possible way.

She spoke about the smooth functioning of the ‘Dorbars’ in East Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills with respect to the logistics for food supply. They have been identifying the marginalised and distributing rations door to door, as well as spreading awareness about the coronavirus and the precautionary measures to be taken at home.

What are some of the initiatives the states of North East have taken to respond to food security and the issue of migration in Manipur?

Babloo Loitongbam (Human Rights Alert, Manipur) in his opening remarks said that while the numbers of those affected by the Coronavirus (327 positive cases, MoHFW) is relatively low, the repressive dimension of the lockdown has been strongly felt in the region.

The ‘Right to Food’ enshrined in Article 47 of the Indian Constitution, calls upon the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health. The question is not just about the availability of food but also about affordability and accessibility. While schemes like the Gramin Kalyan Yojana have brought food stocks to the State, rampant corruption has ensured that it is not reaching the people in need of food supplies.

To intervene, Human Rights Alert (HRA), a non-profit in Manipur, gathered data from the field and filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the High Court of Manipur demanding accountability on the distribution of food supplies. As a result, the High Court passed an Interim order on 24 April 2020 to ensure mechanisms for accountability and transparency on the food that was being distributed. Following this, the distribution became much more effective with the Deputy Commissioners making commendable efforts to reach out to the vulnerable sections of society.

However, gaps persist. In the current situation, where the region is fully locked down, how do we ensure that the most vulnerable have access to food, when often they may not be aware of the functioning of the PDS and their entitlements within it? The politicians are also using distribution as a tool for their election campaign and this is further increasing exploitation.

The second point he raised was the issue of racism which people from the North East face while residing outside the states, rather than in this region. Taking note of students from the North East who are stranded outside the state facing racial discrimination, the HRA team has approached the Supreme Court to broaden the definition of ‘stranded’ to also include students as well as people working in the informal sector.

Babloo Loitongbam concluded his talk by highlighting five recommendations to deal with the current situation of the pandemic and lockdown:

1. The need to move from food security to food sovereignty, without an endless dependence on the PDS. It is critical that food security be ensured through the promotion of local production and control. Food needs to be produced, marketed and shared locally. While there has been a traditional divide between the hills and the valleys in the region, the pandemic and the lockdown have brought forth a symbiotic relationship too, and clearly contributed to peace-building work. This needs to be further strengthened.

2. The need for criminalising racial discrimination and building solidarity to demand a law that criminalises a person from discriminating on the basis of appearance.

3. The demand for more investment in the health sector. A recent report highlights the gradual reduction of the budget in the regional health sector of the North East. The pandemic has shown how ill-prepared we are in terms of health management. In the North-East region, only Meghalaya and Manipur have Central hospitals. We need to demand a smooth, functioning, well-equipped system.

4. The need to initiate local peace-building and community building efforts. The pandemic has made everyone realise how all our lives are linked. Building a culture of collectivism is critical.

5. The importance of building solidarity to address the erosion of democratic spaces in the name of lockdown and security measures.

How does the COVID-19 spread intersect with concerns of citizenship?

Xonjoi Borbora (Dean of School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati) addressing this question, remarked that we have the harshest lockdown in the world that has paid no heed to the grievances and lives of migrant workers, labourers and the poor. The government is doing little to ensure the rights of the people and does not seem to trust people anymore. Citizens have become the most docile ever.

He questioned the legal framework for the implementation of the lockdown, the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, stating that the pandemic is not a disaster that it has to be policed. In addition, we continue to follow the colonial Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 which has many loopholes.

The language of the lockdown is very similar to the 90s era and the way the State dealt with counter insurgency. The Government has employed a very militaristic way of looking at the pandemic. The effort seems to be to put people against one another. Every institution is being hollowed out, a citizen no longer feels like a full human being, and experiences no sense of solidarity. It is very important to move beyond the communal hate and erosion of the democratic space, which will do more harm than the pandemic, if it continues.

Food sovereignty and livelihood security has to be the number one political agenda in order to save lives. We are waiting for trains to bring in food even while we grow food ourselves. Farmers are not able to sell their food and this requires urgent attention from the government.

What are some of the local ways in which people are taking initiatives to ensure food security?


Amba Jamir (Sustainable Development Forum, Nagaland) opened his speech by stating that the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has presented a great opportunity to support local self-governance. Village councils started organising themselves and along with small community-based organisations, women’s groups, self-help groups (SHGs) have been assessing what is needed and designing mechanisms to provide the same to the people.

Some villagers in Mokokchung, for instance, came out with the idea of towns having markets on different days to which neighbouring villages could bring their produce. Collective marketing mechanisms are being explored. The community also appealed to the people coming home to engage with the farmers in producing food which also provided an opportunity for them to reconnect with their roots.

People are realising that it is more profitable to grow food for consumption rather than food for market. Shifting cultivators who have always been accused of being non-productive and destructive are the ones who are now bringing food to the community, not just for sale but also distributing it for free.

Supporting the local economy is emerging as crucial to self-sustenance. What the pandemic and the lockdown has brought to the fore is that the dependence on large supply chains to the detriment of local produce is just not sustainable.

Policies need to be made at the Gram Panchayat level, and not be something handed down from the top. The Gram Panchayat at the village level should be given autonomy so that they can take up active initiatives at the local level. The State encourages the market but rarely people or community-led initiatives; this needs to change.

Nagaland is setting some great examples on how to maintain proper social distancing and work together as a community to help each other and people in need. In many villages in Nagaland, communities started discussing about the pandemic even before the lockdown. As a result, many villagers asked their children who were living outside Nagaland not to come home for the safety of the village. Even if they came back, they were urged to stay in Kohima or Dimapur where better medical facilities are available so as to avoid any kind of risk and emergency at the village level.

There has also been a lot of coordination between urban and rural areas through social media.

The North East is showing how if we come together as communities, we can ensure security of life and livelihood for everyone.

Arunachal Pradesh

Ranju Dodum (Journalist, Arunachal Pradesh) noted that the scenario in Arunachal Pradesh is slightly different, with the narrative being positive and inspiring. The state Government has been proactive in ensuring food security, not just to the local residents but also to migrant workers.

In the rural areas of Arunachal Pradesh, where people grow their own food and have poultry farms, food has not been an issue at all. The one thing that the lockdown has taught everyone is that people need to grow food not just for the market but also for consumption (subsistence agriculture).

Access to food has become more difficult in the urban areas, where people depend on the market to purchase their food. Rice still comes to urban areas from Punjab or Assam, but not from villages like Namsia and Pasighat which produce rice but whose distribution is confined to a 100km radius.

The government needs to look at policies that would encourage local farmers to grow more as well as set up better distribution channels within the state. Government policies are largely focused on growing cash crops, horticulture etc. but there is no incentive for agriculturalists who grow grains, pulses, vegetables. We need to focus on this.

Open Discussion

The panelists brought forth narratives on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown on people in the North East. These narratives have been missing from mainstream reporting. Narratives ranged from people not having access to food and medical supplies to shrinking spaces for dissent, resilience, agility and responsiveness of local communities and self-governance mechanisms. A suggestion was made that a Charter of Demands arising out of the discussion, be framed and put forward to local and State governments.

The floor was then thrown open to questions from the participants.

Bablu Loitongbam pointed out that a study stated that 80 per cent of essential commodities for Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya are coming from outside these states. He found Ranju Dodum’s point that the rural areas in Arunachal were not facing food scarcity a contradiction to this study. Ranju Dodum clarified that he was referring to essential commodities such as rice which are grown in the villages and which could easily feed a cluster of villages. In the rural areas, people were not going hungry, though they may not have access to all the commodities defined as essential.

Anshuman Sarma (research scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University) raised the issue of food sovereignty being the central point of discussion. He spoke about the structural changes in land ownership and land use. In the North East, till the 1950s, when land ownership was communal and farming was geared for subsistence, food sovereignty was present. Top-down policies ensured structural changes that transformed large tracts from food crop to cash crop and horticultural production. These policies, which did not take into account local realities, replaced the diversity of agriculture and marked the move away from self-sufficiency. He suggested regaining village level food sovereignty as the best defence against any future crisis.

Amba Jamir opined that we need to take the issue of agriculture very seriously, for which we need to build a body of evidence. Many serious issues such as the loss of heritage seeds, changing land use patterns, inter-generational gaps, loss of self-worth of farmers and their traditional knowledge, their increasing vulnerability to market forces, need to be raised.

The movement for ‘Food for food’ as opposed to ‘Food for market’ needs to be strengthened. Subsistence farming, growing food for oneself and distributing excess to those that need it within the community, like the elderly, is the most sustainable approach and will help in achieving food security. But traditional farmers and shifting cultivators are being demonised. Farmers are made to believe that, through multi cropping, they do not grow enough quantity for the market and therefore they need to focus on one crop. While this may make economic sense, from the lens of food sovereignty, it is disastrous.

Traditional systems were linked to social capital of communities. People have survived not because of money but because of social capital.

Snehashish Mitra (research scholar, National Institute of Advanced Studies) raised the issue of addressing the changes in the labour market which will take place once those who have migrated out of the North East, come back. Linked to this was the question of ensuring survival and protection of migrants from other states residing in regularised slums and railway land in cities like Guwahati.

In response to this, Amba Jamir spoke about how the only way forward is to strengthen local community-based institutions. The pandemic and the lockdown have shown how local community-based organisations and local self-governance structures such as the Village Council or the Ward Committees, that have a pulse on the people and their lives, are so much more responsive than a distant government.

He cited examples of Mokokchung, where ward authorities came up with a list of vulnerable people including migrants, widows etc. soon after the lockdown was announced. While initially support was extended to migrant daily labourers, they saw that these were people who were earning and were also getting essentials from philanthropic groups. The thrust of the relief efforts then shifted to other more vulnerable populations. This agility in responsiveness was possible because of the local connect.

Efforts were carried out to ensure the provision of gas cylinder outlets, PDS shops, vegetable shops, etc. are located at the community level to prevent people from venturing too far away from their homes. Women’s groups, SHGs, church-based organisations, colleges were all roped in to support the relief operations by making and distributing masks and sanitisers, medical supplies etc. It is this kind of community initiative that needs to be strengthened.

Pooja Nirala (consultant, YUVA) raised the question of how stranded migrants from other states will find their way home. There seems to be no information available on possible options for transport and no government agency seems to be taking any responsibility. In slums where homes are small and density is higher, how will people stay safe from the disease? People are facing the pressure of food, wanting to go home and staying safe from the illness.

Babloo Loitongbam responded saying that in Manipur all residents have been deemed eligible for relief, irrespective of whether they have the legal documents or not. Similarly, non-profits in Guwahati could get together and seek the High Court direction that all residents be entitled to relief supplies. Advocating the use of the MLA Local Area Development Funds as well as using the Niti Aayog circular that allows non-profits with FCRA to buy and distribute food, can be used by non-profits.

By Minakhi Tamuli, Mehzebin Rahman, Brishti Banerjee, Kavitha Krishnamoorthy

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