By Vikas Kumar
The Global Hunger Index 2022, released on October 13, shows that India’s rank in the world has slipped further – from 101 last year to 107 this year – in terms of this important indicator of conditions of hunger and malnutrition. India’s rank is far below that of its neighbours, and levels of hunger and malnutrition are much better in many countries with significantly lower levels of economic development than India. Afghanistan, a war-torn country, is the only country in South Asia below India in terms of its GHI rank.
India is home to the largest number of hungry and food insecure people in the world. As per the estimates from FAO, in India, over 22 crore persons faced chronic hunger and 62 crore persons faced moderate to severe food insecurity in 2020. In the global context, India alone accounts for about a third of people suffering from chronic hunger and a quarter of people struggling with food insecurity.
The rise in prevalence of hunger and food insecurity in India over the last few years is a result of the Modi led BJP government’s catastrophic policies. From demonetisation in 2016 to the Covid lockdown of 2020, the Modi government would be remembered forever for the relentless assaults on the livelihoods of people.
It is a hallmark of this government that, whenever there is a report pointing at the distress of people, it goes on an overdrive claiming that the report is false and only produced to malign India’s image. This is also how the government has reacted to the latest estimates of GHI. Instead of recognising the worsening of food insecurity in India, and committing to take measures to deal with it, the Modi government has refused to accept the GHI and claimed that it is an “erroneous measure of hunger”.
The Modi led BJP government would like the world to believe that poverty and hunger do not exist in India. Since the Modi government has come to power, it has given up the practice of defining an official poverty line and estimation of poverty. Data on material conditions of people are either not collected or are not allowed to be released.
Official data collection systems have been manipulated by the Modi government in such a way that they do not reflect the true picture. When WHO estimated that 4.7 million people died in India due to Covid-19, the government of India called the methodology flawed. Instead, the government insisted that much lower estimates of excess mortality recorded in the official civil registration system, which is well known for being incomplete and a poor measure of births and deaths, should be used. More recently, the government has released the Sample Registration System data to claim that there were almost no excess deaths in India due to the Covid pandemic.
The official Periodic Labour Force Surveys have been made to show that there was no increase in unemployment despite the Covid lockdown and economic crisis. Instead of producing estimates of poverty, a new index, Multidimensional Poverty Index, has been devised which has nothing to do with poverty and in which various diverse items of fudged data are fed to show that poverty has declined to insignificant levels in India. In other words, the statistical system of the country has been turned into a propaganda machine for the government and only those data are allowed to be released which support the official narrative that Achhe Din and Amrit Kaal have arrived.
In India, the most important data for estimation of poverty and hunger come from the national consumption expenditure surveys conducted by the National Sample Survey Office. In an unprecedented move, the Modi government withheld the release of the results of the 2017-18 survey. No survey on consumption expenditure has been conducted since then.
It is pertinent to remember that, despite the huge exacerbation of unemployment in recent years, and an economic crisis that has pushed millions into poverty and food insecurity, the Modi government has not thought it important to expand the coverage of the public distribution system.
As per the National Food Security Act (NFSA), the government has a constitutional mandate to provide subsidised food grain to at least 75 per cent of rural population and 50 per cent of urban population as per the last population census. Given that the last population census is already 11 year old, and the population census scheduled to have been conducted in 2021 has not even taken off, the coverage of NFSA has fallen short of the constitutionally mandated level by about 12 crore persons. In other words, about 12 crore persons have been kept out of NFSA because the official population census has not been conducted on schedule.
To make the matters worse, over 4.4 crore ration cards have been cancelled since 2014 in the name of Aadhaar seeding and digitisation. This has been most vigorously done in BJP-ruled states. It is useful to remember that the beneficiaries of the NFSA were selected on the basis of a set of specified criteria and information collected through a nation-wide Socio-Economic Caste Census (2011). However, large-scale cancellation of cards of poor households, and selection of new NFSA beneficiaries in their place, has been done purely out of political considerations, and without any specified criteria or survey.
Even during the Covid crisis, when the government had over 10 crore tonnes of foodgrain stocks, it only increased the foodgrain distribution to existing beneficiaries of the NFSA. There was no attempt to provide subsidized foodgrain to millions of additional people who lost their livelihoods because of the economic crisis and were pushed into poverty. CPI(M) has repeatedly demanded that the public distribution system be made universal. This became particularly critical during the Covid crisis when means of livelihoods were suddenly snatched from millions of migrant workers. Instead of opening the doors of the government’s overflowing granaries and simply making the public distribution system universal, the government kept promising flawed and complicated solutions such as the One Nation One Card scheme, which have not seen the light of the day.
In recent years, food insecurity and hunger have also been exacerbated because of high inflation in prices of food. In most months of 2022, prices of food have been 7-9 per cent higher than the prices prevailing in the corresponding months in 2021. For much of the period it has been in power, the Modi government has used heavy taxation on fuel to finance government expenditure. It is obvious that high prices of fuel, caused primarily by heavy taxation, has a cascading effect on prices of other commodities including food.
Central government has also used the new GST regime to impose a heavy tax burden on common people and petty producers, and has been pocketing a lion’s share of the GST collections rather than passing on a legitimate share of these revenues to the states. While the big corporations were given tax concessions and their loans were written off, common people were taxed on their purchases. Increased import dependence for fertilisers, edible oils and pulses – a result of decades of economic liberalisation – has also contributed to importing high global inflation in prices of these commodities in recent years.
Working people of this country cannot be fooled by fudging statistics. The hardships they have faced because of catastrophic economic policies of this government will never be forgotten. Unemployment, poverty and food insecurity are the burning issues of the day. The CPI(M) is committed to rally people on these issues of livelihoods, and would join hands with all Left and democratic forces in the country to ensure that this government is held accountable for hardships faced by the people. (IPA Service)