The Modi government’s indifference to the plight of the poor is now pathological. The Indian government’s rhetoric about ‘Amrit Kaal,’ an era of plenty, masks a consistent denial of the fact that the country is caught in a spiralling hunger and livelihoods crisis, the worst in its independent history, and one largely created by official policies. The 2022-2023 Union Budget made it clear that the government plans to do little to fix the problem; instead, it is now poised to cut the very lifeline of the poor – free additional rations – now that it has served its purpose as a political tool that wins elections.
In a letter written to the Prime Minister earlier this month, the Right to Food (RTF) Campaign has warned that India’s acute post-lockdown hunger crisis will worsen considerably if the government stops providing additional food supplies under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) after March 2022. The letter draws from a survey conducted by the Campaign in association with the Centre for Equity Studies and a number of other networks and organisations in December 2021 and January 2022 across 14 states, which made some startling findings:
- 66% people stated that their income had decreased compared to the pre-pandemic period
- 80% reported some form of food insecurity while 25% reported severe food insecurity in terms of having to skip meals, eating less than usual, running out of food, not being able to eat for a whole day and going to bed hungry due to lack of money or other resources.
- 41% said that nutritional quality of their diet deteriorated compared to the pre-pandemic period.
- 67% could not afford cooking gas in the month preceding the survey.
- 45% of households had outstanding debt.
The survey also found that the public distribution system (PDS) and the additional grains supplied under the PMGKAY “became a lifeline and often the sole source of food” for most of those surveyed. The Right to Food Campaign letter further warns, “With the additional grains under PMGKAY also set to stop after March 2022, the hunger crisis is likely to exacerbate in the country. While the latest COVID wave is now subsiding and restrictions/ lockdowns have been lifted, the economy and peoples’ incomes and consumption are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.”
A rhetorical elixir
It was only two months ago that Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s Finance Minister, announced during her presentation of the Union Budget for 2022-2023 that the country is entering ‘Amrit Kaal,’ or what will be a period of unprecedented prosperity of 25 years leading up to 100 years of its independence.
The term ‘Amrit Kaal,’ which was first used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the country’s 75th Independence Day celebrations in 2021, when he unveiled what he claimed was a new roadmap for the country for the next 25 years. Modi described Amrit Kaal as a vision to improve the lives of the citizens of India, lessen the divide in development between villages and cities, reduce the government’s interference in people’s lives, and welcome the latest technology. “While India has made rapid strides, there should be a ‘saturation’ of development and 100 per cent accomplishments with every village having roads, every family having a bank account, every eligible person having health insurance, card and gas connection,” he had said.
Critics had at the time derided ‘Amrit Kaal’ as nothing but an updated version of Modi’s much-mocked ‘Acche Din’ promise. Given this, the Union budget for 2022-2023, presented nearly six months after the Prime Minister’s speech, would have been the ideal vehicle to demonstrate the government’s commitment to this vision. At the very least, it could bring some much needed relief to the poor, whose numbers have swelled by crores in the post-lockdown period.
The hunger pandemic
The RTF Campaign survey is only the latest among many estimates that have revealed the intensity and spread of the crisis. A Longitudinal Ageing Study in India (LASI) found that nearly 6 percent of older individuals in India aged 45 years and above studied consumed smaller portions or skipped meals; 5.3 per cent did not eat even when they were hungry; and 3.8 per cent went a full day without eating because food was unavailable.
According to the global charity Oxfam’s 2022 report on inequality and poverty worldwide, more than 4.6 crore Indians were estimated to have been pushed into extreme poverty in 2020 alone. This number was nearly half of the newly poor globally, according to the United Nations. Incidentally, the report, titled “Inequality Kills”, also shows that while the income of 84% Indian households fell in 2021, the number of billionaires in the country grew from 102 to 142 in the same period, with the collective wealth of India’s 100 richest people hitting a record high of Rs 57.3 lakh crore.
The ICE360 Survey 2021, conducted by Mumbai-based think-tank People’s Research on India’s Consumer Economy (PRICE), corroborates these trends. It found that the bottom 20% of India’s population saw its annual household income plunge by 53%, while the income of the top 20% of the population grew by 39% in the pandemic year. The study describes the trend as ‘unprecedented’, since the poorest 20% of Indian households, hit hardest by the present crisis, had been seeing their annual income rise steadily since 1995, the period of India’s economic liberalisation. The survey further found that the urban poor were harder hit by the crisis than the rural poor, because the harsh lockdown measures imposed in early 2020 had a disproportionate effect on urban economic activity.
These latest findings confirm a steady stream of warnings and alerts from international agencies about the world’s steadily worsening livelihoods and hunger crisis since the beginning of the pandemic. International surveys by the likes of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Pew Research Centre and the Brookings Institution, reports such as Global Hunger Index and Global Nutrition Report, as well as official national-level surveys such as the National Sample Survey Office’s periodic labour force survey (PLFS), the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), the Niti Aayog’s sustainable development goals (SDG) index, apart from surveys by the likes of Azim Premji University, all point in the same grim direction – the steady downward slide of India’s key socio-economic indicators, be it hunger or malnutrition, employment or consumer expenditure in recent years, which has accelerated in the post-lockdown period. (For a summary of key findings from these reports, see here).
In short, India is going through the worst livelihoods and hunger crisis in its independent history. The need for urgent, large scale, welfare-oriented government intervention has never been greater. And yet, till date, the government has consistently refused to acknowledge that such a crisis even exists, and the Union Budget proved no different.
As the RTF Campaign had pointed out in their review of the Budget, despite the growing food insecurity in the country, the Union government has actually reduced the food subsidy allocation by over Rs 80,000 crores. Their statement further read, “The Rs 2.06 lakh crore allocated is barely enough to meet the requirements of the regular entitlements under the National Food Security Act.”
In fact, the 2022 Budget allocations indicate the government may have further undermined food security and economic security for India’s poor. The allocation for MGNREGS, aimed to provide relief to the poorest, has been reduced from Rs 98,000 crores to Rs 73,000 crores (This, despite over Rs 21,000 crores in unpaid wages, while in 2020-21 the spending under the scheme exceeded Rs. 1.1 lakh crore.). The overall budget estimate for agriculture and allied activities have been slashed from 4.26% previous year to 3.84%, and for rural development from 5.59 percent to 5.23 percent. Allocations for crop procurement, crop insurance, food and fertiliser subsidy, have all been similarly reduced.
Many analysts who reviewed the Union Budget this year have been alarmed by the government’s priorities. Calling the silences in the budget “ominous,” the economist Prabhat Patnaik wrote, “No budget in recent memory has been presented at a time when the economy is in such dire straits: unemployment is so bad that there are job riots in Bihar and UP; wealth and income inequalities are among the worst in the world; millions more have been pushed into poverty because of the pandemic and the lockdown; and inflation is accelerating even amid massive unemployment. There is an urgent need for a strategy that promotes economic revival while providing relief to the poor and contributing to an abatement of inflation. The 2022-23 Union Budget should have spelt out such a strategy, but, far from doing so, it does not even show a cognisance of the problem.”
To understand what happens when a government ignores basic economics, we only need to look at neighbouring Sri Lanka – where inflation and high fuel prices have led to a sharp rise in prices of food and medicine, creating a national emergency and a first trickle of refugees. It should come as a warning for India, where official policy has been no less venal and incompetent. One commentator summarized it thus: “Low oil prices since 2014 were a big blessing for India’s economy, though much of the windfall was recklessly squandered away by the Modi government… [although] the government collected fuel taxes to the tune of Rs 1 lakh from every Indian family over the last seven years.”
As a result, the situation couldn’t be bleaker for India’s poor. Mid-day meals in schools, an important source of nutrition for the children of the poor, are yet to be started despite schools reopening, and the Opposition expressly demanding it. Add to this the recent hikes in petrol, diesel and LPG prices – unlikely to stop here, given the volatile international situation – which is already having a ripple effect on the economy, putting essentials further out of the reach of the common man.
Cutting the lifeline
Far from remedying the situation, the Indian government now seems set to cut the very lifeline of India’s poorest in the midst of this ballooning crisis. The additional food supplies provided under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) starting from early 2020, is likely to be stopped this month, although a parliamentary panel has asked the government to consider extending it.
From the ruling dispensation’s point of view, the PMGKAY has served its purpose in helping the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party win major state elections, and is now an economic liability. But for India’s growing number of poor and hungry, many of whom – an estimated 100 million people, no less – are not eligible for rations under the public distribution system due to flaws in the official policy, an end to the PMGKAY could mean outright starvation.
Future historians will find it hard to stomach the sheer perversity of the Modi government declaring to be a time of plenty (‘Amrit Kaal”) what is actually the worst crisis of livelihoods and hunger in the country’s independent history, with the prospect of famine (‘Akaal’ in Hindi) no more an impossibility (See earlier articles by this writer on this).
Some obvious questions spring to mind, though: Who are the real beneficiaries of ‘Amrit Kaal’? How does a government whose policies hurt the poor most continue to gain electorally? Why is there no public outrage to these brutal policy kicks delivered squarely on a starving nation’s belly?
Valid as these questions may be, one suspects that in the coming months, most Indians will be preoccupied with a much more pressing concern – that of surviving Amrit Kaal, perhaps the cruellest political hoax to be perpetrated on the Indian public by the Modi government till date.
Sajai Jose is a researcher and journalist based in Kerala