The Union government was emphatic in informing the Supreme Court that no one has died due to hunger in India. With utmost confidence, the government informed the court that ” …there have been no starvation deaths in the country during recent times, even during adverse situations like the pandemic”. To supplement this argument, the government produced a health survey report of 2015 and an article from a newspaper. This shows how daring the Centre has become to drive home its views. Out of genuine curiosity, the court had asked the government about the availability of “any survey report indicating whether starvation deaths are happening or not”. The bench urged the government to provide “some data” in this regard. The government is likely to submit the data within the stipulated time limit. But that data would likely repeat the same story — no starvation deaths! You can go to any number of medical reports. In none of them will you read starvation as the cause of death. Most will probably say cardiac arrest was the cause. True, after all, death occurs when the heart ceases to function.
The pandemic revealed the bitter reality of hunger and poverty in India. Even before the pandemic, malnutrition and child deaths were haunting the country. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, between 2014 and 2019, food insecurity increased by 3.8 per cent in India. By 2019, 6.2 crore more people were living with food insecurity than in 2014. The number of food-insecure people galloped from 42.65 crore in 2014-16 to 48.86 crore in 2017-19. Also, India accounted for 22 per cent of the global burden of food insecurity, the highest for any country in 2017-19. As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) report (2015-16), 50.4 per cent of pregnant women were anaemic. About 8.8 lakh children under five years died in 2018 in our country (The State of the World’s Children report-2019, UNICEF). This report pointed out that malnutrition is the cause of 69 per cent of under-five deaths. The Global Hunger Index 2021 showed that India slipped to 101 among 116 countries, from the 94th position in 2020. We were placed lower than Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
The pandemic has only worsened the situation. It made the lives of the underprivileged more miserable. Workers in the unorganised sector, which constitute more than 90 per cent of the workforce, were badly affected. The country cannot forget the scenes of the large-scale exodus of migrant labourers who were walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their native villages to save themselves from poverty and death. Dead bodies of the poor were seen floating on the Ganges. The government has not kept exact data of those who died during Covid, whether due to lack of food or shortage of oxygen cylinders. While the shock waves of the pandemic undermined the living standard of the working masses, statistics say that the super-rich could register 35 per cent growth in their profits.
In his address to the World Economic Forum, the malfunctioning teleprompter might have blocked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s usual rhetorical flow, but his attempt was to present a robust picture of India’s growth trajectory before the world. Hence, the PM and the ruling elite cannot be happy with the findings of the Oxfam report, which was published on the eve of the Davos event. According to it, 84 per cent of Indians were hit badly by the “new normal” of the pandemic. But that normal helped the billionaires of India double their profits. The total wealth of the top 10 billionaires will be sufficient enough for providing education (both school and college) for all children for 25 years. If 10 per cent of the super-rich was levied one per cent of tax, 17.7 lakh oxygen cylinders could have been purchased.
The period between March 2020 and November 2021 was said to be the severest part of the pandemic. The Oxfam report says that in 2020, more than 4.6 crore Indians fell into extreme poverty. According to UN studies, this amounts to around half the global poor. During the same period, the wealth of billionaires went from Rs 23.14 lakh crore to Rs 53.16 lakh crore. One may be astonished to note that the 2020-21 budget share for the women and child development ministry was less than half the wealth of the bottom 10 billionaires.
All these findings point to an ever-deepening crisis that provides fertile ground for starvation and poverty. But they will not find any place in the records of the state-sponsored data structure. Hence, the government can easily return to the Supreme Court with its affidavit. But the starvation and deaths caused by it would continue to stare at India’s face.
The writer is secretary, Communist Party of India, National Council and leader of the party in Parliament