New Delhi, Oct 20: Only 60 per cent of pregnant women respondents could eat three main meals daily in October-November last year, reflecting the pressures on food availability among the vulnerable populace during pandemic, according to a new study.
Around 6,000 families had participated in the study conducted by UNICEF India in partnership with the Indian Institute of Human Development (IHD). The data was collected in four rounds between May and December 2020, covering 12 districts in seven states — Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh.
The study titled ‘Assessing Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Socioeconomic Situation of Vulnerable Populations – through Community Based Monitoring’ found that access to adequate food was a daunting challenge for the respondents during the pandemic.
“Only around three-fifths (60 per cent) of the pregnant women respondents could eat three main meals daily, reflecting the pressures on food availability among the vulnerable populace. The unavailability of food also has adverse implications for the nutrition of unborn children.
The sample districts of Jalaun, Lalitpur and Agra fared the worst in this respect,” the study said. One-third of the respondents spent relatively less on essential food items such as vegetables, milk, fruits and eggs in December as compared to the pre-lockdown levels, according to the study.
“This decline, which likely led to curtailed consumption of these protein-rich food items, is expected to have adversely impacted children’s development in particular,” it added.
The study noted that rural communities fared better than their urban counterparts in this respect. “The situation improved after June-July, but many people continued to grapple with hunger right up to December, with 28 per cent of the urban respondents reporting food shortage,” it said.
According to the study, home returnees (people who returned to their native places after the lockdown) and female-headed families were more vulnerable than the average households as far as the share of jobless persons and food availability were concerned.
“Moreover, in families with small children, a higher percentage of home returnees reported food scarcity vis-à-vis resident families. This indicated a higher adverse impact on children’s growth in the families of home returnees,” it said. Noting that food scarcity has adversely affected the children in the families of home returnees, the study said there is a stark difference in food availability between the returnee households and residents’ households for families having less than one-year-old children, those having two to five-year-old children, and those with six to 19-year-old children.
The study found that during the first wave of the pandemic, the impact of the lockdown was more severe in urban than in rural areas. It pointed out that urban infrastructure for delivery of social services needs strengthening.
The vulnerability of the sample families deepened in the Covid lockdown in March 2020, which increased the share of jobless persons, according to the study.
“The percentage of the unemployed subsequently declined and by December, it had fallen below the pre-lockdown levels. But the situation was exacerbated by increased casualisation of work and a decline in access to regular salaried work, resulting in poorer quality of the jobs available post-lockdown.
As a result, most families experienced a decline in wages and persistence of lower incomes till December,” it said. “In June-July, joblessness among the families in the cohort was 26 per cent in urban and 20 per cent in rural areas. However, it declined to pre-pandemic levels of eight-nine per cent by December 2020.
In December, 62 per cent of those working under MGNREGS got timely wage payment, an improvement from 41 per cent in October-November 2020,” the study said.
The study said the daily wages in December were less than wages during pre-lockdown levels, as reported by 75 per cent of the urban and 60 per cent of the rural respondents.
“In December, nearly two-thirds of the respondents regarded their self-assessed incomes as being less than those at the pre-lockdown levels,” the study said. The study also said that the access to treatment for COVID-19 in August-September improved in urban areas vis-à-vis that in rural areas. Noting that child immunisation was adversely impacted more in urban than in rural areas, the study said in August-September last year, the child immunisation situation improved.
“In December 2020, 81 per cent of rural mothers and 71 per cent urban mothers of less than one-year old children reported that they have immunized their children,” the study said.
Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, representative, UNICEF India said the pandemic exposed the precarious situation that many marginalised groups, including the urban poor, face during humanitarian crises such as the Covid pandemic. Rural districts were selected based on the presence of a large number of home returnees and vulnerable population. Selection of urban districts were based on the existence of large slum habitations and COVID infection level.