The hopes raised by the recommendations of the National Advisory Council (NAC) on a law on food security take the larger issue of revamping agriculture to centre stage. Union Food Minister Sharad Pawar, speaking at the Economic Editors' Conference, made the point that going by the recommendations 62.1 million tonnes of food grains would be required for an estimated 9.70 crore priority beneficiaries and 8.90 crore general beneficiaries. “This is apart from the other welfare schemes such as OMSS (Open Market Sale Scheme), strategic reserves, buffer stocks and so on.” The government, he noted, was currently providing food grains at subsidised prices to 6.52 crore Below Poverty Line (BPL) families and allocated varying quantities of grains to 11.5 crore Above Poverty Line (APL) families.

Government procurement of food grains this year amounted to 57.4 million tonnes against the needed 62.1 million tonnes. Where to find the extra 4.7 million tonnes to meet the additional requirements is the question before the Food Ministry. By producing more or procuring more? “I'll have to see,” was Mr. Pawar's non-committal reply.

With a steady fall in per capita food output over the years, the prevalence of large-scale unemployment in rural areas, and the increasing migration of lakhs of people from villages, the revamping of agriculture appears an uphill task. But it is an imperative and time is of the essence.

That there is a massive crisis of agriculture and this is related to wrong policies followed over two decades is incontestable. Rural development expenditure was brought down from 14.5 per cent of GDP in the pre-reforms period to 8 per cent of GDP in the early 1990s. The adoption of deflationary policies favoured by the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, proved disastrous. From 1998, rural development expenditures have been reduced further, averaging less than 6 per cent of GDP and in some years falling to less than 5 per cent. In real terms, the expenditure fell at the rate of Rs. 30,000 crore per year. (“Rural India in ruins,” Frontline, March 12, 2004.)

The 1990s witnessed a continuous degeneration of agriculture across the country. The period saw an alarming increase in the number of starvation deaths and suicides by small peasants, agricultural workers and other vulnerable sections in the villages. Indebtedness, and the inability to stay on in employment or in small business drove many to commit suicide.

A Frontline team that visited Guntur and Prakasam districts in Andhra Pradesh towards the end of 1991 to investigate the plight of weavers tracked a large number of policy-related starvation deaths in the face of official denial. The case studies suggested that Central and State government economic measures, especially those adopted in the Central government's 1991-92 Budget, tipped a large number of weavers, whose livelihood was already under pressure, over the edge. The sharp increase in yarn prices that followed the Budget precipitated the crisis more than any other single factor.

A frequently made complaint by social activists is that the mainstream media have failed to give adequate coverage to the creeping agrarian crisis until it was too late and a big price had been paid in terms of human lives and welfare. Before one arrives at any sweeping assessment, positive or negative, there is a need for careful research into this subject.

What we do know is that very few English language newspapers give sustained attention to the crisis of agriculture and rural livelihood. The Hindu, which has an extremely active and productive Rural Affairs Editor and also some correspondents who cover this subject on a fairly regular basis, stands out among them. The Indian language press has had a tradition of giving space to stories relating to agriculture, panchayats, and rural development works. A fine example was A.N. Sivaraman, who was a long-serving Editor of one of the oldest Tamil newspapers, Dinamani. In the 1950s and 1960s, he used to write in simple Tamil on a variety of subjects relating to agriculture. The educational value of such journalism can never be underestimated. The print media can also learn from All India Radio, which has had regular informative programmes for farmers and played a stellar role in taking the Green Revolution to the masses across the land. The news media, whose reach and influence in society have grown phenomenally since the days of the Green Revolution, can rise to the challenge and make a big difference to how decision-makers respond to the plight of agriculture and the rural economy.