India: Government move to cut relief funds hits rural poor with food insecurity

Ritwika Mitra

October 23, 2023

Curtailing funds to states and non-payment of wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) – India’s flagship scheme to employ rural households for 100 days in a financial year has left the rural population struggling for essentials.

Recently, the Central government said in the Indian Parliament that it owed states 765  million dollars for wages under the MGNREGS. Experts and activists pointed out this will have a ripple effect on the rural population, including severely hitting women’s nutrition. Of the money owed to states, the Central government owes 333 million dollars to West Bengal alone. Meanwhile, demand for work under the scheme hit an all-time high in June, with 33.72 million households seeking jobs, according to a media report.

Multiple existing vulnerabilities

In the national Budget for 2023-2024, the government slashed the funds for the MGNREGS, and experts said such a move would further affect the rural population. Social activist Nikhil Dey said this was a ‘repetition of events only getting worse.’ “There are multiple existing vulnerabilities which have heightened dramatically due to non-payment of wages. It is not a new story. It only got worse,” Dey said.

Between  2018 and 2022, the women’s participation rate varied between 53.18 percent and 54.78 percent. Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), it is mandated that “at least one-third of the beneficiaries shall be women who have registered and requested for work. Efforts to increase participation of single women and the disabled shall be made.”

 ‘Non-compliance of directives’

“There is a definite connection between lack of work under the scheme and curtailing food and nutrition. There are ample case studies at the ground that point to this,” said Anuradha Talwar, state committee member of the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS) – an independent trade union in West Bengal that promotes the rights of agricultural workers to decent wages, work, and food. Workers in West Bengal have been protesting over the pending arrears after the central government stopped disbursing money to the state, claiming ‘non-compliance of directives.’

Suchitra Halder, a senior activist with the PBKMS in West Bengal, observed that women are extremely disappointed with the lack of work and wages over such a prolonged duration. “Now people are migrating out of villages to work in the cities. They have no hope left.”

The Indian government’s latest National Family Health Survey -5 (NFHS-5) data collected between 2019 and 2021 shows that the body mass index of 13.2 percent of women in urban India and 21.2 percent in rural parts are below normal. They were between the ages of 15 and 49 years. According to the data, over 58 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 years and 60 percent of adolescent girls between 15 and 19 years were anemic in rural India. Country-wide, over 54 percent of pregnant women aged 15 to 49 years were anemic.

Consumption of nutrient-rich food was poor

Economist Utsa Patnaik recently wrote that India’s five-yearly National Sample Survey (NSS) reports on nutritional intake have shown a ‘decline in per capita calorie intake as well as protein intake.’

‘Left Out and Left Behind: Ignoring Women Will Prevent Us From Solving the Hunger Crisis,’ a CARE policy report showed that women often lack ‘the access, information, and inputs’ required to fight food insecurity and malnutrition around the globe. It noted that rising hunger and food shortage put an additional burden on women, pointing out that food security is a gendered issue.

A survey conducted in 14 Indian states between December 2021 and January 2022 showed that the consumption of nutrient-rich food was poor. In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, the hunger situation was ‘grave,’ it said.

“A large proportion of households reported that they had eaten nutritious foods fewer than two or three times a month: 28 percent of households reported having eaten pulses fewer than three times a month. The corresponding figures for other foods are as follows: 28 percent for dark green leafy vegetables, 50 percent for milk or eggs, 55 percent for flesh foods, and 58 percent for fruits,” the survey stated.

Domino effect on health and food security

Compared to the pre-pandemic level, 41 percent of the respondents said that the nutritional quality and quantity of food had deteriorated across households. The report recommended adequate allocation of funds under the MGNREGS and 200 days of work to scale down the distress in those areas and for better food security.

Rajendran Narayan, a Cornell University-educated assistant professor at Azim Premji University, said: “Women avail the MGNREGS. This means they bring additional household income, usually used to buy food for the rest of the family. But when employment rationing happens, women can access fewer household items.”

“In poorer households, food consumption patterns change. Consumption of meat, fruits, and green leafy vegetables is immediately curtailed. What remains is potatoes and rice. This has a direct bearing on the nutritional intake of the women. We are staring at a domino effect on health and food security due to lack of access to work and payment under MGNREGS,” he added.


Ritwika Mitra is an independent Indian journalist writing on the intersection of climate crisis, gender, caste, and human rights. Her bylines have appeared in The Fuller Project, Foreign  Policy, Waging Nonviolence, Open Democracy, The Polis Project, The Wire, Fifty Two, Article 14, and BehanBox.