New Delhi: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a rally in central India on 4 November 2023, announced the continuation of a food aid scheme that feeds nearly 60% of the country’s 1.4 billion people.
Ensuring food security in the world’s most populous nation and the fifth-largest economy is paramount for the political survival of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is because India is still among the world’s poorest countries by average income despite the relatively large size of its economy.
India’s nominal gross domestic product is estimated at $3.7tn. But per-capita income, or the average income each person earns, is about $2,600. For comparison, Bangladesh’s average income per person was slightly higher, and Saudi Arabia’s was about 13 times that of India in 2022.
The poverty problem becomes even more acute when glaring wealth inequalities are considered. Non-profit organisation Oxfam, in a report in 2023, highlighted it in stark terms. The top 1% in India owned more than 40.5% of total wealth in 2021, while the share of the bottom 50% of the population was around 3% of total wealth.
The number of billionaires in the country increased from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022, noted the Oxfam India report titled Survival of the Richest: The India Story. It highlighted “multiple crises” like hunger, unemployment, inflation and health calamities and the fact that the poor are unable to afford even basic necessities to survive.
Such a situation can be socially and politically explosive, and the Indian ruling party understands that serious discontent among the poor can threaten its long-term ambitions of dominating the country’s politics.
For Modi and the BJP, the next big challenge is the 2024 national elections, and with that in mind, the announcement to continue the food aid scheme known as Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY), or the Prime Minister’s Food Grain Welfare Scheme for the Poor, is being viewed as a political move.
“I have decided that the BJP government will extend the scheme to provide free food grains to 800 million poor for the next five years,” Modi said, speaking at a regional election rally in the state of Chhattisgarh.
“This is not a political promise, this is Modi’s guarantee,” he added, making it more personal.