Hunger, COVID-19 and The Indian Administrative State

Hunger, COVID-19 and The Indian Administrative State

8 October 2020

COVID-19 produced an acute and widespread crisis of hunger across India, which was felt most acutely by migrant workers and those who were outside the reach of India’s highly organised but rigid Public Distribution System (PDS). The hunger was incidental to the actual disease itself, but severe enough to be considered a crisis of governance on its own as it brought the Indian state face-t0-face with one of its oldest and most enduring challenges: how to ensure that essential supplies of food reach those in need of it?

Could the Indian government simply have ‘universalised’ the PDS, and made it accessible to all? It was pointed out that the Indian state had adequate buffer stocks of food grain to make this feasible. However, for reasons that were never articulated, this option was never seriously considered by the government of India. Instead, governments tried to extend the reach of the PDS delivery mechanism, and to devise ways to deliver relief outside of the PDS framework.

These strategies were however quite challenging for the risk-averse, (nominally) rule-bound Indian state that is disinclined to allow for discretion in  spending of government funds, making purchases and allocation of largesse. Typically, the Indian state is all the more reluctant to delegate power to exercise discretion to lower levels of government. For this reason, the Indian state governments (who were at the frontline of this response) seemed to need to devise a framework of rules for the identification of beneficiaries, even in the middle of a humanitarian crisis.

As a related problem, the states also did not necessarily have the organisational wherewithal to take up rapid, decentralised and locally grounded interventions. The organisational wherewithal, so to speak, could come in various forms. Some examples of this, which we saw at play, were decentralised government, the capacity to make non-state collaborations and institutionalised systems for the ‘continuous updating’ of beneficiary lists. More fundamentally, however, what is needed is the capacity for high levels of government to be able to formulate responsive policy and to be able to trust in the ability of their subordinate ranks to carry out new interventions, often in case-specific and individualised ways.

Arkaja Singh’s working paper explores these issues in the context of state response to the COVID hunger crisis in the states of Delhi, Kerala, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana,