Nasreen Khatoon is starving. So are the 32-year-old mother’s two children. They live in a slum in India’s capital New Delhi.
“On the days I have milk in my kitchen, I do not have sugar. The days I have sugar, I do not have milk,” Khatoon told VICE World News. “I live one day at a time, not knowing if I will have food tomorrow. I am not sure if I will survive this hunger. When my children cry because of hunger, I feel like I should kill myself.”
There is extreme poverty, sky-rocketing inflation, and a widespread hunger crisis in India. And nearly 800 million Indians are dependent on the government’s chronically underfunded food security programme. Researchers estimate an additional 100 million Indians need food subsidy to survive, but aren’t included in the programme. Khatoon is one of them. The Indian government recently announced they will add 10 million more Indians, Khatoon hopes she’ll be one of the lucky ones to receive a ration card. But until then, she is effectively excluded from the programme.
The World Hunger Index released a few weeks ago labelled India as one of the hungriest countries in the world, ranking it 107th out of 121 countries in the 2022 index, with the 121st having the most alarming hunger situation. The Indian government labelled the index erroneous and called it a plot to defame India.
“Whatever the view of the Indian government may be, the moot point remains that government’s official data on malnutrition, wasting and stunting, was used for this ranking,” Biraj Patnaik, former Principal Adviser to India’s Supreme Court in the landmark Right to Food case that secured the fundamental right to food in India, told VICE World News.
“A third of India’s children are malnourished and close to a third are stunted, which is irreversible. Similarly, a fifth of India's children are wasted, according to the government’s own data.” Wasting is an extreme malnourishment classification - it means a child’s weight is too low for their height. It is life-threatening.
A little over a month before the index was released, Gautam Adani, an Indian businessman, became the second richest man in the world. He is currently 3rd on the Forbes Real Time Billionaires list, and he is the richest man in Asia. Mukesh Ambani, another Indian businessman, is the 8th richest man in the world. According to Oxfam, the top 10 percent of rich Indians hold 77 percent of wealth in India. In fact, between 2018 to 2022, India is estimated to produce 70 new millionaires every day.
Anjali Bhardwaj, a human rights activist associated with the Right to Food campaign, told VICE World News, “Today there are two Indias – one for the rich who are getting richer, and the other comprising millions of families struggling to afford two square meals a day.”
While the rich are getting richer in India, the poor are dying of hunger. Despite large-scale suppression and denial by the Indian government, starvation deaths are still reported in the country. In August this year, 30-year-old Sanjay Sardar from West Bengal died of hunger as he and his wife skipped meals to feed their children. While the government denied the hunger death and alleged he died from Tuberculosis, a civil rights body on the ground found that Sardar was starved for days before his death.
India’s former finance minister wrote in 2020, “We will never know how many people died of starvation because no state government will admit to starvation deaths.” In January, the Indian government told the country’s Supreme Court that there were no starvation deaths in India, despite numerous news reports saying otherwise.
In 2020, 5-year-old Sonia Kumari from the Agra district of Uttar Pradesh died after she had nothing to eat for 15 days. On the day of her death, her entire family, which had also been starving for a fortnight, got some glucose biscuits from their neighbours. In the same year, 4-month-old Aaris died while sobbing and howling. His mother Nafisa, from the neighbouring Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, couldn't produce enough milk to feed him because she often had nothing to eat for days. Another child from Jharkhand state, Nimani, 5, also died the same year, after hunger drove her unconscious.
The depth of the divide between rich and poor can be understood from the fact that it would take a minimum wage worker in rural India 941 years to earn what a top-paid executive at a leading Indian garment company earns in a year, according to Oxfam.
While explaining inequality in numbers, the Oxfam report says, “73 percent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1 percent, while 670 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1 percent increase in their wealth.” In fact, the rich are so rich in India that their total wealth is higher than the entire federal budget of India for the fiscal year 2018–19, which is more than $ 296 billion.
Himanshu, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who only goes by his first name, said both hunger and inequality are a result of the policy blindness of the Indian government.
Although the Indian government is running the world’s biggest public food distribution system, it has many gaps and flaws. It is also chronically underfunded. “Despite the efforts of the government, the scale of the problem is so huge that it requires much more effort and interventions,” Himanshu told VICE World News.
“Data shows that budget allocation for major social sector schemes in food security or health has been significantly reduced over the years. That is why the hunger index reflects an alarming state in India,” Pravas Ranjan Mishra, the research lead at Oxfam, told VICE World News.
In the case of Sonia, Namani and Aaris, who all died of hunger, their families were not issued mandatory documentation, called a ration card, to get subsidised food grains. Although access to food is a fundamental right in India, only a limited number of people can be issued a ration card according to the law. It also grossly underestimates the actual need as the number is based on census data from 2011.
Mishra added that India’s taxation policy is partly to blame. “Taxation policy is a major reason for inequality in India. It is harsher on the poor than the rich.”
India used to have a wealth tax, but it was abolished by the government in 2015. This is despite the country having more than 142 billionaires. The Indian government also slashed its corporate tax in 2019 which led to a financial loss of nearly $ 22 million in two years.
Indirect taxes in the country however, have gone up. They may seem small and incremental, but are paid by every citizen whatever their income status. A daily wager and a millionaire pay the same tax when they buy a pack of butter – nearly 12 percent.
“Rising fuel prices and indirect taxes have pushed up prices of essential commodities, including food, Bhardwaj added. “This has resulted in acute food insecurity and malnutrition, especially among children and women.”
“Since the government started amassing indirect taxes, their spending in the social sector has gone down.” Mishra said. “This is mostly because the collection of indirect taxes just cancels the loss of corporate taxes.”
And this contributes to increasing hunger. “Hunger and income inequality go parallel. However, it does not mean that if inequality is reduced, it will also reduce hunger, unless the government is actively trying,” Himanshu said. “Taxing the rich will generate additional resources for the government, but unless those resources are directed towards social security, it will not lead to any change.” Meanwhile, Khatoon and millions of other vulnerable Indians wait to get food ration cards from their government.